6 November 1998
1,335 words

What's worse--faking stories or capitalism?
Self-criticism at ASJA-NYU ethics panel
News judgments: Monica yes, tobacco no

NEW YORK--Greg Moore, managing editor of the Boston Globe, came to New York University to be humiliated and apologize for Mike Barnicle.

"We all would acknowledge that we did not handle the question of Barnicle very well," said Moore. "We were guilty of arrogance."

In a panel, "Ethics and Journalism," moderator Lamar Graham, associate professor of journalism, recalled how he exposed Barnicle 7 years ago. "I was not the first," said Graham.

The panel on 5 November 1998 was sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the NYU Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The editor of Boston Magazine, where Graham was freelancing, called him about Barnicle's last column. Tommy Boyle and Rita Mae Jackson had gone off together to New Orleans many years ago, but Tommy left her, wrote Barnicle. In 1991, Rita called Tommy. She was dying of cancer. She wanted to see him again. Tommy got a ticket on a Greyhound bus and went to New Orleans. It was "pretty unbelievable," said Graham.

Boston Magazine offered Graham $800 to check out Barnicle's column. If he couldn't check it out, they would pay $2,000 to write a story about it.

"Not one thing in the story turned out to be true," said Graham. Tommy Boyle and Rita Mae Jackson couldn't be found. You can't buy a Greyhound ticket from Boston to New Orleans.

For a year, Graham wrote a column called "Barnicle Watch" for Boston Magazine. Howard Kurtz wrote about it for the Washington Post. Barnicle told Kurtz, "I feel responsible for the kid's employment." The Boston Globe's ombudsman brushed off all complaints--until last summer.

Why, asked Graham, did it take so long to expose Barnicle?

Marquee columnist

"Questions had been raised about Barnicle from day one," admitted Moore. The problem was that Barnicle was a "marquee columnist," he said. "You treat your stars differently."

Readers said they bought the Globe just to read Barnicle, said Moore. There was a fear that if they lost their star, they would lose circulation.

"It was Barnicle versus the rest of us," said Moore.

Barnicle "was untouchable," recounted Moore. "We had a no-smoking policy." Barnicle would smoke in his office. He would send Barnicle an e-mail saying, "I need to talk to you." Barnicle would never respond. They wrote ethical standards. Barnicle ignored them.

The firing of Patricia Smith, for fabricating quotes, pushed the double standard to a crisis, he said. People were saying, "If I did the same thing Barnicle did, would I get away with it?"

Barnicle was fired. The circulation hasn't gone down, said Moore. The Globe "didn't go dark."

Worse than Barnicle

"For me, ethics is not Barnicle" said Karen Rothmyer, managing editor of the Nation. "Ethics is what you cover."

For example, said Rothmyer, on 13 September AP reported that an internal memo from BAT Tobacco which revealed that they increased the concentration of nicotine in cigarettes, in contradiction to testimony of BAT executives under oath before Congress. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times all ignored it, she said. They were "obsessed with Monicagate."

"That is the ethical question," said Rothmyer.

With the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "the Republicans and the press were outraged," said Eric Ephron, founder and editor of Brill's Content (and a last-minute substitute for Steven Brill). On TV, a panel of journalists was complaining that "the public wasn't outraged" about the Lewinsky scandal. "We were outraged," they said. "Why wasn't the public outraged?"

Journalists are losing touch with their audience, several panelists agreed. "We get 35 e-mails a week from people who feel that they have been mistreated by the press, said Ephron. "I like the press but there was an article about something that I know a lot about and they got it wrong."

Journalists are moving away from a feeling of responsibility for informing the public about important issues, in their quest for "eyeballs" or audience, said Bob Frye, former executive producer of ABC World News Tonight, and fellow at the Media Studies Center. Instead they're presenting drama. "What's the latest movie we should develop? Lewinsky?" The pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, and the Internet, have increased the competition and are making news more sensational, and given journalists less time for thoughtful decisions, he said. There is less of the feeling of responsibility to the public that broadcasting used to have in the golden age.

"Journalists in the 50s were really terrible," countered Rothmyer. "They reported everything that Joe McCarthy said," just like they report on Ken Starr today. "But they didn't report on racism and poverty."

"In the 60s, we had really good reporting," said Rothmyer. "Now it's back like the 50s when journalists were in their lousy period." She predicted another cycle of good journalism to come.

"The threat of the Internet to us is our advertising base," said Moore. "It's easier to buy houses, cars, find a job on the Internet." The strength that newspapers have is their "brand recognition, authority, credibility, and trust that Matt Drudge doesn't have."

What is to be done?

"What should we do about it?" asked Rothmyer. "We all have to take responsibility. The best way is unions." She pointed to the teachers' unions, which will go on strike, not just for money, but for professional issues, like class size. Heywood Brown complained about his frustrations in organizing the Guild, she recalled. Brown said, "Journalists just bitch all the time, and they don't want to get together to do anything about it."

Graham was skeptical. "Do you think that somebody is going to get up and say, 'Enough of this. No more Lewinsky!'?"

In responding to the threat of the Internet, "Why don't newspapers do what they are traditionally good at?" said Rothmyer. They can do longer, more analytical stories.

Rothmyer also suggested that newspapers could be more independent of advertisers--even do without advertisers. In Savannah, GA, Albert Scardino was the editor and publisher of an alternative paper competing with a "truly wretched" local paper. He said that the biggest mistake he made was not charging people what the paper was worth, which they would have paid, but being dependent on advertisers, who would cancel their ads "every time they pissed off their advertisers, which they did with regularity." People might pay $3 a day for a newspaper if they felt it was worth it, she said.

"In Britain, there is a tax on radio and TV sets, and that money goes to pay for the BBC," said Rothmyer. "Public TV was born from that." There is now a proposal before Congress to have the TV broadcasters, in exchange for the extra spectrum, to have to provide services in the public interest, such as free air time for candidates. "They're fighting it tooth and nail," she said. "Clinton has been weaseling on this."

"McNeil-Lehrer could go to 2 hours," deadpanned Ephron.

Market forces

"I don't think market forces are bad," said Ephron. "Part of the financial whip is creating something that people are going to want to watch. There is pressure on the Boston Globe to connect to its readers. That's dirty?"

"The Nation is not about money, and there's not that pressure," said Rothmyer. "That's why we're talking about poverty, while other people are talking about buying a condominium."

"I would love to work for a place that was owned by the working people," said Rothmyer. "I wish we could figure out some way" in which the goal "was not to make money but to do a good job."

The problems of corporate control of network news will probably be resolved, said Ephron, when corporations decide that investing money in news divisions isn't profitable. "Disney is going to be the end of ABC," he said. "For CNN, it makes sense" to invest in news. "So I think we're going to see networks give up on news," and leave it to cable. "There will be a good Drudge."

--Norman Bauman