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A bit of wisdom from the left
By Paul M. Weyrich
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was several months ago. My greatest sin is that I find myself in agreement with two editors of the liberal Washington Post.
Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert Kaiser have written a book called The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril. It was written before September 11th and some critics of the book claim that the media redeemed itself in the aftermath of the attack. While the media did a credible job in that period, it doesn't nullify the major points that Downie and Kaiser have made.
I came to Washington after seven years in the news business. I was City Hall and Local Politics Reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel. I was Political Reporter for the CBS TV affiliate in Milwaukee. I was News Director for two radio stations, one in Southeastern Wisconsin, the other in the Denver Metropolitan area, before I was selected to be Press Secretary for Colorado's Senior Senator, Gordon Allott, who subsequently became Chairman of the GOP Policy Committee and thus part of the Senate leadership.
That was thirty-five years ago. During those years I have been in and out of the news media. For a time I was part of a radio network. Later, for five years, I ran a television network. Now we are about to launch a media active Webpage on the Internet. So the media has always been of great concern to me.
I will grant you that there is a lot more media than there was thirty-five years ago. You have no less than five news/talk television networks. News/talk has saved AM radio. The Internet has become for many a substitute for mainstream media. There are fewer newspapers, but some such as USA Today and the New York Times have become national papers.
What Downie and Kaiser address is the quality of the reporting. And that is where I completely agree with them. Back when I was Press Secretary to Senator Allott, when I would write a press release reporters would grill me about it until I was ready to cry "uncle." Dan Thomasson of Scripps Howard and Barney Nover of the Denver Post were real newsmen. They took nothing at face value. The same can be said of Bill Roberts of Time Life broadcasting or John Chambers of the Westinghouse stations. Chambers, the son of Whitaker Chambers, saw a conspiracy in every news development but did he make you think.
These days I have watched with dismay as the press releases that we write are often picked up word for word without the reporters so much as asking us a single question. Now on the one hand, I suppose I should be glad that our "spin" is being picked up verbatim. But the journalist in me is revolted by this development. We should be able to justify what we say or we shouldn't say it. It is good when we are challenged, not in some nasty adversarial way, but in a way which makes us think about what we have said. There are so few of the old school still around. John Leo of U.S. News and Dave Broder of the Washington Post come to mind. Downie and Kaiser would be mortified at what I have seen some of their own reporters do in recent years.
Journalism was supposed to be dedicated to finding the truth. Granted there were ideologues from whom we conservatives could not get a fair shake. But the average reporter used to try to get both sides of the story. Not any more. The average reporter takes the easy way out.
The good news that Downie and Kaiser point out is that there are still examples of quality journalism in places like Minneapolis and Evansville, Indiana. Even national papers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal continue to turn out a quality product and make lots of money in doing so.
The real aim of Downie and Kaiser is at the broadcast media and rightly so. They are especially critical of CNN, which they accuse of hardly ever breaking an original story. They are so right. If the New York Times and Washington Post were to close down, the television news operations would have to close up about a day later because most of what they produce is inspired by these newspapers. It is a well-known secret that ABC, or rather Disney, really wants out of the news business. Some media analysts have projected that CBS will be out of the news business within the decade. NBC, which owns MSNBC and CNBC, is already transferring some of its news coverage to cable.
As much as I like talk radio and the Internet, a lot of what goes out over both mediums turns out simply not to be true. There are no editors demanding that a second source verify the first. So a lot of what some people think they know to be factual is not. So, as much as I hate to admit it, this is a book worth reading. Sometimes even liberals have wisdom to impart.
Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.
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