YIf there is any good that is coming out of the overwhelming press and electronic media coverage of the O.J. Simpson case, it is that the press is beginning to examine itself and the potential harm. Television and radio should do the same.
During the past two months, a series of major reports on potential distortions of the Simpson case and news in general have been printed _ mostly in journalism trade publications. Several, however, have been published by major newspapers, including two of the largest in the nation: The Los Angeles Times examined the effects of the rapid expansion of Information Age technology _ satellites with microprocessors and cable television. This has bred more competition and therefore more coverage, but it also has led to increasing sensationalism and a trend to interpret the news rather than just report it. The New York Times took these problems a step further _ pointing to a growing anti-press public mood and a cynicism about all public figures. This seems to stem from print and electronic journalists milking every tiny aspect of a major story with interpretation and opinion to gain readers or viewers.
"We're now at a point of believing it's all a scam," The New York Times was told by Thomas E. Mann, director of government studies for the Brookings Institution, which recently completed a study of the press coverage of Congress. "Everyone is looking out for his own narrow interest, and the job of a reporter is to reveal the scam."
This indicates a step beyond the longtime criticism that news coverage is "warped" by bias, wrote William Glaberson of The New York Times. The latest notion is that news coverage declares that all public figures and all people who do "newsworthy things" are suspect.
"In this version of journalism," Glaberson said, "all politicians are manipulative, all business people are venal and all proposals have ulterior motives.
"This journalism may be undermining its own credibility."
While I have always defended the role of journalism in providing information to a self-governing society, I also have criticized in this column the trend in recent years toward interpretation. Specifically, I have criticized the use of unnamed sources, which goes directly against my training.
This was against the policy of most respectable newspapers and magazines before the growth of TV news coverage. Now, reporters for the press and media throw all manner of rumors onto the air or into print, even with direct quotes.
It's a weapon that has been used to smear public figures without naming the source, or to distort a case such as Simpson's, or a major issue before the public.
While I was in California recently, Judge Lance A. Ito expressed disgust about an incorrect report by a Los Angeles TV station that used "informed sources." Ito said the report could bias the case. He said some journalists have become so jaded they no longer care whether what they report is true _ as long as it is provocative. Later he banned the media from part of the jury selection. He reversed that decision Friday.
If the public agrees with Ito, I can't blame them after seeing the way networks, newspapers and magazines have resorted to tabloid journalism in searching for any angle to the Simpson case. Some concern about influencing the trial was reflected when Larry King refused to interview the author of the Nicole Simpson book, but Connie Chung of CBS was more concerned about ratings.
In my book, the press and media have a responsibility to allow the facts to come out in a fair trial.
The traditional defense that the "public deserves to know" is used to cover rumors reported in the guise of "facts." As an editor for 17 years, I know the pressure of walking the line between "beating the competition" and holding a story until the facts are known to be true.
"Beating the competition" is directly linked to TV and radio ratings and to newspaper and magazine circulation.
The Los Angeles Times examined the growth of 24-hour news reports with the development of cable TV. Also with cable came the growth of psuedo-news on programs such as "Hard Copy," "A Current Affair" and "Inside Edition." They look and sound like news, but they present "bits of drama without any obligation to chronicle the day's events," said Thomas B. Rosenstiel in The Los Angeles Times.
As the audience of networks dropped from 95 percent in 1980 to 59 percent today, the networks changed news programs with the primary purpose of making a profit. After ABC news chose not to report a late development in a child molestation case involving a celebrity, ABC News executives influenced a change.
They persuaded Peter Jennings and his producer, Paul Friedman, to do more of what Friedman called "R P" stories _ rape and pillage, Rosenstiel reported.
Newspapers also felt the pressure.
At a convention three years ago, an executive of the Knight-Ridder Inc. newspaper chain said publishers should consider their news departments as customer service. He indicated newspapers put too much effort into telling readers what they ought to know instead of appealing to their interests.
That's not new, but newspapers have renewed efforts to build circulation _ seeking to reach people who did not read newspapers. This has been reflected in public investigations of potential wrongdoing in politics and public institutions on local, state and national levels by the press and media.
Investigations have reached all the way up to the private life of President Clinton. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times averaged two stories a day on the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan figure skating scandal. During the last year, newspapers all over the country have trumpeted reports on Michael Jackson, the Mendez brothers and the Bobbits.
Now, Knight-Ridder is experimenting with what it calls "public journalism." Citizens are invited to help shape the coverage of local issues and politics. Some leading journalists are beginning to respond with concern.
Gene Roberts, an editor whose staffs have won more Pulitzer Prizes than any other, told an audience in Washington:
"Many newspapers seem to be in a race to see which can be the most shortsighted and superficial." If the press does not cover issues that matter, he said it will become "less essential."
Evidently, the public also is becoming concerned. The Times Mirror Center for The People and the Press recently found that 71 percent of Americans think the press "gets in the way of society solving its problems."
When I see the court seeking to give Simpson a fair trial amid a flood of innuendos, rumors and half truths, I certainly understand why that concern is growing.
"In a panic to compete for Americans' divided attention," wrote Glaberson in The New York Times, "journalists struggle for drama, which is hard to portray. They often settle for its cheaper cousin, conflict, which is easy to find, even if describing it is not always illuminating."
Journalists have compounded the problem by supplying judgments under the guise of analysis. The implication is that clever reporters have the answers missed by political figures, said Glaberson. I find it also is a way to "beat the competition" by substituting opinion for facts.
Thomas E. Patterson, professor of political science at Syracuse University, has argued that the press nearly always "magnifies the bad and under plays the good" in covering the White House. We have all heard the same opinion about covering state government, county government, city government, school boards, business and football teams.
While I have found that most people in decision-making positions feel they are covered negatively, the more important problem is the growing cynicism of the public. Geneva Overholser, editor of The Des Moines Registers, says that leaves citizens uncertain of whether they are getting the real picture.
"The public is right to question whether newspapers are acting in the public interest," she told The New York Times. "I think what readers are asking is: `Are you really giving us a reflection of what is happening, or are you just discouraging us?
"We are so good at reporting all the negatives and all the infighting that we give people a sense it is all hopeless."
The fact that news leaders are beginning to question this whole problem is a sign of hope. We in the news business have the responsibility to report the wrongdoing we see in public life, but we also have the responsibility to document it, and to report their accomplishments as well.
As I was taught 40 years ago, "responsibility" and "balance" are the key words to good journalism. In the long run, they will "beat the competition."…