Media's Own Mea Culpas Lead to More Self-Scrutiny

Article excerpt

As President Clinton was grilled under oath by a grand jury on Monday, reporters covering the closed-door proceeding found themselves subject to a grilling.

Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, described, "a very difficult, very challenging atmosphere in the Map Room of the White House." That evening, in a report on PBS "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," correspondent Terence Smith took a gentle jab at Mr. Jennings.

"Peter, you must have got that through ESP, because obviously it was a sealed room. There were no reporters there," said an incredulous Mr. Smith.

Smith, the veteran CBS News correspondent, recently began his new job last week as correspondent and senior producer in charge of the "NewsHour's" new media unit. His first story focused on how journalists covered the president's grand jury appearance.

Smith joins a growing industry of media watchers from the recent launch of the Online Journalism Review to the explosive debut last June of Brill's Content magazine, which drew Page 1 headlines when it charged that independent counsel Kenneth Starr improperly leaked information to reporters.

"There's a long overdue, obvious need for the news industry to do more reporting on itself," says Smith, whose efforts are underwritten by a $3 million grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts. "The news business needs a dose of its own medicine."

Media organizations like CNN, National Public Radio, and the Fox News Channel broadcast weekly programs devoted to media criticism. This year Pew has conducted intensive polling on press performance as part of its "Project for Excellence in Journalism" while The Freedom Forum has budgeted $1 million on a study called, "Free Press/Fair Press." Even George magazine recently weighed in with a special "media issue."

What's fueling today's press scrutiny is a collective concern by media and philanthropic organizations that journalistic standards are bottoming out, as news organizations try to hold dwindling audiences and stem declining profits.

Daily newspaper readership has plummeted over the past decade, while the nightly network newscasts have collectively lost more than 20 percent of their audience over the past five years. …