.. steady drumbeat of coverage, pounding on the same few facts amid great speculation, historical reminiscences, and anecdotes. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said that, “In 12 hours of coverage, there were only about 10 minutes’ worth of actual facts.” Stephen Lacy, acting director of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism in East Lansing said through the coverage of the Kennedy tragedy, he saw, “a bigger disconnect between the press and the public. It was a bit of overkill, especially on television.” He went on to say that “The media have not quite realized that overplaying does not help their credibility, but continues to show examples of the news industry exploiting a tragedy in a push to stem a 20-year slide in ratings, readers, and credibility.” Not only is the press hurting the public figures by this kind of reporting, it is also affecting the public. When asked whether or not the Press had too much freedom in the United States today, 53% of those polled said yes.
This percentage is up from 37% in 1997. (Sabjan, 1999) Paul McMasters of the First Amendment Center attributes the shift solely on the deeper dissatisfaction that the public feels towards the media. He believes that the public feels a sense of being overwhelmed in major stories (like the Kennedy crash) by speculation and the pervasiveness of news outlets. (Kennedy, 1999) The clash between the public and the press goes beyond insensitive reporting. The biggest question that faces the Press in the 90s, is the ongoing confusion regarding what the press’ actual motives in reporting the news are. Many believe that is the demand for high ratings on television or newspaper that leads journalists down the wrong path towards tabloid journalism, instead of reporting truthful, accurate and important information.
Walter Cronkite, a broadcast journalist of the 60s and 70s, known for his coverage of the first man to walk on the moon, and the death of President John F. Kennedy said in 1998, “instead of these TV magazine programs offering tough documentaries and background on the issues that affect all of us, they’re making them into television copies of ‘photoplay’ magazine. Cronkite goes on to say that “News executives know better, but are helpless when top management demands an increase in ratings for profit protection. (Levy, 1999, p.61-63) The motives behind newsgathering could be considered by many to be contrary to what their responsibilities are. Changes in the autonomy3 and accountability of journalists in the past few years has resulted in questioning whether journalists are more interested in reporting what is important and necessary for public information, or personal gain in their field. The classic example of this is the story of Janet Cooke. Janet Cooke was a well respected journalist who worked for the Washington Post in the late 70s to 1981.
In 1981, Cooke wrote a gripping story entitled, “Jimmy’s World.” “Jimmy” was an eight year old African American boy, who had become addicted to heroin due to the constant harassment and abuse from his mother’s live-in boyfriend. Her story was so well appreciated that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Shortly afterwards however, “Jimmy” was revealed as a falsity. Never was there a Jimmy, as Cooke later admitted to completely making up the story. Her Pulitzer was taken away, and Janet Cooke was forced to resign from journalism.
Many refer to her as the new model journalist. Now, Not only are there journalists lying about their information and their stories, but top media executive decisions are also affecting whether or not the public receives information that is relevant. With several corporation mergers and consolidations, clamping down on costs and budgets, regardless of the effect on the news coverage, can make a company a more attractive take over target, an advantage to major shareholders in that corporation. Top executives in media operations often own even larger amounts of stock options, resulting in more income than their salary. Because of this, they have a personal interest in their companies’ profit.
The more viewers they have, and the more the can squeeze out of their employees, the richer they will be in the end. (Levy, 1999, p. 70) This results in focusing on getting ratings rather than truthfulness and importance. Television programs such as American Journal and Hard Copy are filled with stories being covered simply for ratings. In the last twenty years, similar to television and magazines that have strayed toward reporting what will get ratings rather than good solid news, journalists have done the same.
The goals of more and more journalists have gone from reporting solid and useful material to whatever will make them the most money. Andrew Kohut, director of the Pen Research Center for People and the Press says, “The public feels that journalists are too aggressive in the way they play their watchdog role, and are doing it not because they are seeking the truth, but to advance their careers.” (Bowes, 1997, p. 124) Whether or not this is the case, the public cannot deny the fact that without the free press, it would be impossible to retain an informed populace. That is why many believe the press should be free to report anything truthful, honest and accurate. Throughout United States history, the Supreme Court has maintained and guaranteed the right to a free press.
One of the most widely known cases in which this right is secured is in the case of New York Times Co. v. United States. The Pentagon Papers were top-secret information. The Papers were a study that detailed government deceptions about United States policy relating to the Vietnam War. The Papers were revealed to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, one of the analysts who helped write and publish the study in 1971.
These revealed that the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which led to increased U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, had been formulated months before the corresponding incident took place, and that President Lyndon Johnson had been committing infantry to Vietnam while telling the nation that he had no long-range plans for the war. The U.S. government took the New York Times to court on basis publishing material that challenged national security. However, the Supreme Court agreed that stopping the publication violated First Amendment protections. Justice Hugo L. Black commented on the case saying, “I believe that every moment’s continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. In the 1992 case of Food Lion v.
American Broadcasting Channel Co. (ABC), two producers from the ABC news magazine show called “Prime Time Live” went under cover and started working at Food Lion grocery stores. The two ABC reporters used false resumes to get jobs at a Food Lion store in North and South Carolina, then secretly videotaped employees for a story on food-handling practices that accused the grocery chain of selling rat-gnawed cheese and rotting meat. The report alleged that Food Lion employees ground out-of-date beef along with new beef, bleached rank meat to remove its odor and redated products not sold before their expiration date. In 1992, the jury that found ABC guilty of fraud under a state law awarded the supermarket chain $5.5 million in punitive damages, but that was cut to $315,000 by a federal judge.
(Associated Press, 1999) This past year, the charges were reversed, and ABC was found not guilty of the charges brought against them. ABC intended to benefit the consuming public by letting it know about Food Lion’s food handling practices,” said the opinion by Judge M. Blane Michael. “And Moreover, ABC was not competing with Food Lion, as it did not have any actual or potential business relationship with the grocery chain.” The appeals panel affirmed the jury finding that the two ABC employees who worked for Food Lion–Lynne Dale and Susan Barnett — breached their duty of loyalty to Food Lion and committed trespass. It upheld nominal damages of $1 each against them.
(Associated Press, 1999) “This is a victory for the American tradition of investigative journalism. In the end, after Food Lion spent millions of dollars on legal fees and public relations offensives, the court ordered ABC News to pay only $2 in damages,” said David Westin, ABC News president. (Associated Press, 1999) In the argument of the press over emphasizing coverage of public figures, several things must come into consideration. First and foremost, the press has the right to publish personal information about a public figure. As Supreme Court Justice Douglas said, “Such privacy as a person normally has ceases when his life has ceased to be private.” (Leahy, 1991, p.31) The First Amendment was intended for full freedom of expression for the press.
For “a right to engage in rasping, corrosive, and offensive discussion on all topics of public interest.” (Levy, 1999, p.77) Many believe that the blame for the change in journalism from honest to tabloid journalism can be placed squarely on the public. The tabloid television shows have always done well in daytime ratings, as the public most often views television shows that focus on celebrities involving sex, crimes, or daily life. Joe Saltzman, a columnist for USA Today, in an article to the public said: “This is the way you want it. When you stop embracing celebrity journalism, when it is no longer profitable to publish pictures of every facet of a celebrities’ daily life, then all of this will end. And all media will look for something else that you want.
To complain about the way things are, is simply to add more hypocrisy to the stench already surrounding us.” (Hamill, 1998, p.175) In order for the media and the public to coexist on better terms, certain things must occur. Journalists must try to follow codes of ethics that have been implied on them. By personally following the ethics that the American Society of Newspaper Editors have written, the public will once again begin to trust the press as truth seeking and honest. Journalists must also remain focused on the important issues that effect the American people. Issues involving political issues and votes in congress, not just what a political figure did on the weekend.
Journalists should shy away from reporting consensual crimes. Consensual crimes corrupt our free press. Because committing a consensual crime is breaking the law, and since breaking the law is news, reporters are often sent out looking for drug busts, hookers, or stories on who is sleeping with whom and whether or not they’re married to someone else. (McWilliams, 1999) As George Bernard Shaw, winner of the Nobel prize for literature commented, “You’d think America was populated solely by naked women and cinema stars.” (McWilliams, 1999) The press not only cheapens itself by playing tattletale and reporting the consensual exploits of others; it also “eats it’s young” by reporting on the consensual activities of its own. An example of this involves an attractive female “reporter” who invited Larry King up to her hotel room, which happened to have a barrage of hidden cameras. Time went on and on, Mr. King did not make a single improper move.
But, as dull and unimportant as it was, they aired the tape anyway. (McWilliams, 1999) News like this benefits no one, and should have no place in journalism. The public, just like the press, has to adapt and change as well if the press is expected to change the way they report information, and what kind of information they report. The public can no longer maintain such a high appreciation for obtaining information regarding the personal lives of those with very public lives. If this occurs, horrible tragedies like the death of Princess Diana could possibly be avoided in the future. The press will always report events that occur in the lives of public figures, but if the public as a whole loses its insatiable curiosity regarding these public figures, the press will begin to look elsewhere for stories that hold the public’s interest.
Over the course of the 20th century the Supreme Court has breathed life into the text of the First Amendment by upholding the right of the press to pursue its mission, no matter how detestable that might seem to those in power. The courts have imposed some limits on liberty, and some questions remain as to how far this liberty will extend to new media and to some of the more aggressive efforts employed by journalists to obtain the news. Still, as Justice Stewart wrote in the Pentagon Papers case, “without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people.” The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to address many of the important issues raised by surreptitious newsgathering. And the issue at hand may be much larger than the pure legality of journalistic methods and behavior.
The face of journalism itself is changing to accommodate new technology, global events, and the complicated needs and interests of the viewer. In the case of Food Lion, many argue that “the prime time magazines are under enormous pressure to tell clear, simple stories, with victims and villains, preferably illustrated with eye-catching video,” (Gunther, 1998) The challenge facing the courts then, is to ensure that investigative journalism can continue to produce hard-hitting stories that expose wrongdoing, while avoiding the litigation that redirects blame to the journalists. Like most legal issues, the balance is unstable, but the public can only be best served once the question of the media and constitutional protection have been put to rest. The freedom of the press will remain as one of the most important freedoms in our country. So as a country, it should be of utmost importance to hold on to that freedom, with the press and public attempting to work together to maintain liberty.
Andrew Hamilton said it best in a speech he gave on August 4, 1735: Power may justly be compared to a great river; while keeping its bounds, it is both beautiful and useful, but when it overflows its banks, it is then too impetuous to be stemmed; it bears down all before it, and brings destruction and desolation wherever it comes. If, then, this be the nature of power, let us at least do our duty as a country, and like wise men who value freedom, use our utmost care to support liberty, the only bulwark against lawless power, which, in all ages has sacrificed the blood of the best men that ever lived. Bibliography Associated Press. “Federal appeals court reverses fraud verdict against ABC in Food Lion case.” available [online] http://www.gocarolinas.com/news/carolinas/1999/10/ 20/food lion.html, February 18, 2000. This article, and this case in general was extremely helpful, containing valueable information regarding a case that strongly supported the arguement that the press should not be regulated. Bowes, Kay.
Journalism Ethics Columbus Publications. 1997. Encarta Online Delux. “Andrew Hamilton on Free Speech and Press.” available [online] www.Encarta.com. January 8, 2000.
FindLaw Constitution. “Invasion of Privacy.” available [online] http://caselaw.nndraw.com/data/Constitution/amendm ent01/19.html, January 12, 2000. Gunther, Marc. “The Lion’s Share.” American Journalism Review, March 1997. Hamill, Pete. News is a Verb. Ballantine Publishing Group.
1997. Holland, Keating. Poll: Strong majority do not want Clinton removed from office. available http://cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1999/01/11/poll /, January 26, 2000. 20 Infoplease.com.
“Kenneth Starr.” available [online] http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0767291.html. February 16, 2000. Iggers, Jeremy. Good News, Bad News. Westview Press. 1998 This book played a vital part in my researc paper, supplying most of my basis for the codes of ethics journalists must follow.
Isikof, Michael. and Thomas, Evan. “The President and the intern.” Newsweek 2 Feb.1998. Kennedy, Bruce. “JFK Jr.: Reluctant Crown Prince or America’s “Royal Family.” available [online] http://cnn.com/SPECIALS/1999/kennedy/stories/jfk.p rofile/index.html, Februrary 20, 2000. Levy, Beth. Bonilla, Denise M.
The Power of the Press. H.W. Wilson Company. New York, 1999. McWilliams, Walter. “Consensual Crimes Corrupt the Freedom of the Press.” available [online] http://www.mcwilliams.com/books/amt/212.htm. Sabjan, Kathryn.
“Tabloid Journalism.” [online] available http://www.an.psu.edu/cgk4/kls5.html, December 20, 1999. Schwartz, Bernard. Freedom of the Press. Facts on file Publishing. 1992.
This book was also very important to my paper, as it had an incredible amount of facts regarding the history of the Freedom of the Press. 21 Wilson, Mike. “Freedom of the Press: How far does it go?” Cobblestone. January 1999. Proquest.
January 20, 2000.