Season’s Warning: Legatus Non Violatur

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed a growing threat in his “Iron Curtain” speech. President Dwight David Eisenhower ended his term with a warning about the powerful military-industrial complex.

Now it’s my turn.

As 2005 races to a close, the journalistic integrity of the American television news business-shaken by a tumultuous year of unprecedented change-is threatened in a most dangerous way.

This threat begins with the assault from inside. I am referring to pressure from corporations to conform news to their point of view. It is pressure from Wall Street to put profits ahead of serving the public interest. It is mixing news, entertainment and advertising. It is promotional pseudo-news, infomercials disguised as talk shows and deceptive paid product placement.

The threat is also external. It is from a government that is selling a point of view and from competing news organizations that compromise their integrity for short-term gain. It is from millions of bloggers, who are participants in a new world of unbridled democracy, where anyone with an online connection can find a global platform. It is that daily flood of opinions, fantasy, facts and rumors that, for the news business, is both exciting and dangerous, while creating opportunity and challenge.

In a few short years millions of people have become part of the blogosphere. They write and post accounts of their social, political, economic and other views online, sometimes on a daily basis and often including the most intimate details of their lives.

For some in the blogosphere the most reviled group is the MSM, or Mainstream Media. That includes traditionally organized print, online and electronic outlets, from TelevisionWeek to Fox News to CBS to local stations to the daily paper.

A lot of this is a reaction to unprecedented change. Thanks to new distribution platforms-cable, Internet, satellite radio and cellphones-the news monopoly is over. There is seemingly a news source for every taste and language. And technology, such as the personal electronic assistant, the digital video recorder and video-on-demand, allows access to news and much more, when people want it.

To all those who rant and rave about the failings and faults of the MSM, I say, “Legatus non violatur,” which translates roughly from Latin as “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Be careful what you try to destroy, because what replaces it may not be what you expect.

In fact, I believe we need a different kind of movement. We need legal, business and social recognition that journalists play a central role in keeping a democracy healthy. And we need government on all levels that lets the sun shine in, which means opening more meetings to scrutiny by the public and press, and making archives available.

We need an immediate effort to ensure there are strong safeguards within news organizations themselves that separate the functions of the editorial and the advertising departments. The focus of editorial should be news gathering, not satisfying vested interests or promoting the products of affiliated entities.

Tail Feathers in a Twist

This has been a seminal year in the history of the television news business. Cable news has continued to mushroom in importance, while at the same time the Big 3 broadcast network evening news anchors and “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel changed chairs, ending more than two decades of stability. The “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw famously dubbed them-the men and women who have dominated the news industry since the end of World War II-are passing the baton.

They invented modern television news. Most of them came up through the ranks, learning their craft as reporters before becoming anchors. As shown in the critically acclaimed film “Good Night, and Good Luck,” pioneering newsman Edward R. Murrow faced corporate intrigue, ratings battles and advertiser pressures half a century ago. Through it all he stood for the integrity of the product and the process that created it.

It is the editorial integrity of that process which must be kept intact even as the news distribution platforms shift. It involves the way information is collected, the way archives are aggregated, the way facts are checked and the way the end result is presented. It is most of all about individuals and companies that are willing to risk their reputations and fortunes to stand behind what is broadcast.

It is that process that separates the MSM from the growing number of voices on the Internet that parrot what they hear, squawk about what they don’t agree with and get their tail feathers ruffled so easily.

Some think the Internet makes the MSM less important. I think it makes it more important. In a world where there is an overabundance of unsorted information served up 24/7, the process takes on greater urgency than ever before.

The future is going to involve more personalized news, delivered over multiple platforms-at home, in the office or on the go. It will become increasingly easy to tune out unpleasant or disagreeable voices, making it tougher to get large numbers of people to listen to diverse views.

In addition to more open government, we need national, state and local shield laws that make it possible for journalists to question official sources and conduct investigative reporting on business and social issues. That is the strongest defense against faux demigods who use Madison Avenue’s tools of manipulation to blatantly push their business and political agendas.

Only when we create an environment where all points of view can be heard will the truth rise to the top.

Television news-dependent on advertising, under a corporate yoke, facing threats to its government license and challenged by the need for higher ratings-is particularly susceptible to compromise.

At this time of great change, that is a real danger. It is those compromises that may ultimately undermine the integrity of broadcast news, which would give opponents an excuse to cut much of it out. To paraphrase Ted Koppel’s goodbye speech earlier this year on “Nightline,” give TV news a fair break, or, “I promise you, the network will just put another comedy show in this time slot. And then you’ll be sorry.”