Fear and Loathing among Newspaper Editors

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President Clinton came before the nation's newspaper editors in San Francisco last week to explain his Kosovo policy, and took a couple of hits about his "moral authority" to send American pilots into battle.

But the real story at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) was the moral authority - or the current lack thereof - of the American press.

I haven't checked the latest polls, but I suspect that despite all his failings, Mr. Clinton's popularity with the public is still running somewhat higher than that of journalists. San Francisco's colorful and controversial Mayor Willie Brown - whose candidacy was opposed by both daily newspapers in the city - greeted the visiting editors with a tongue-lashing about their profession's deficiencies. Newspapers, he said, put the trivial ahead of the substantive. They care more about beating the competition than making sure stories are fair and correct. He contrasted coverage of Watergate, when he believed reporters went to great lengths to confirm information before publishing, with Clinton-Lewinsky coverage, which he believes was sloppy and often unsourced. Then with a chuckle, he said that today "the public doubts you as much as it doubts me. And that's not a good sign." The editors were in no mood to fight back. They know it's been a bad year for press credibility. Not only were there missteps in the early coverage of the Lewinsky affair. Other journalistic gaffes humbled news organizations from CNN to The Boston Globe to the Cincinatti Enquirer and The New Republic. So there was a great deal of professional breast-beating, and self-examination, and discussion about what journalists should be doing to correct the situation. Debate over journalistic ethics is not new. Back in the 1920s ASNE assigned William Allen White, the sage of Emporia, Kan., to head up a committee to draft ethical standards. It pondered for a year, then reported that it had no report because "it has no idea of what the ethics of this business is." But if ethical points are still debated, newspapers are generally better than they were at the beginning of the century. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of The Christian Science Monitor, launched her newspaper in 1908 largely hoping that it would help elevate journalistic standards. …

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