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U.S.: Is America's Media In Crisis?

Washington, 29 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An expert on the U.S. media says the American press is in the midst of an identity crisis and the result is a flurry of irresponsible journalism.

Carl Stern, a professor of journalism at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., made the comment last week at a press briefing in Washington. Stern was part of a distinguished panel of journalists and media critics that addressed the question: "Is There Too Much Freedom of the Press?"

At issue for the panel were a series of journalistic missteps ranging from the fabrication of articles in prominent publications such as The Boston Globe and The New Republic, to a controversy over the accuracy or even truthfulness of a recent CNN/Time magazine article alleging the U.S. used nerve gas to hunt down Vietnam War defectors in the early 1970's.

Stern said these transgressions are simply a few of the numerous examples of the media abandoning their journalistic responsibility. He adds that these kinds of careless mistakes are causing the American public to increasingly distrust and dislike the media.

Legally, journalists in the U.S. are not bound by any press laws, government controls or licensing requirements. Instead the American press operates primarily under the dictates of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It forbids Congress from passing any legislation that would restrict freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Traditionally, the American media has policed itself through peer pressure, strong self-criticism, and strict, but non-binding, professional and ethical standards. But experts say this does not mean the press has the right to print untruths. There are libel laws in the U.S. that prevent the media from publishing falsehoods and give the public legal recourse against the press.

But Stern said those laws have been considerably weakened over the past few decades.

He explained: "In decisions about 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court was persuaded to exempt the mass media from the usual 'libel' rules. It said the press should only be held accountable if it printed or broadcast something false or defamatory against a public figure or someone involved in an issue of public concern, or if it knew what it was printing or saying was false, or if it was published with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity. That opened the door for freedom to speak without consequences in most cases."

Stern provided an example of this from his own personal experience. He said several years ago a local magazine printed a "false and unflattering" article about him. When he called the magazine to ask why no one called to check on the reporter's allegations, Stern says he was told the magazine had been advised by their lawyers not to engage in such practice as it would open them up to a libel lawsuit.

Said Stern: "Can you imagine that? A system that rewards not checking. Why then should we be surprised when we have made-up quotes appearing in the Boston Globe or The New Republic? Who is checking?"

Stern also says that increasing pressure to be the first to get the scoop has caused many news organizations to abandon caution and common sense and simply "hurl stuff on the air and out through the Internet" without concern for balanced reporting or accuracy.

Howard Kurtz, a prominent columnist for the newspaper the Washington Post agrees. Kurtz told RFE/RL that the media has done a "pretty lousy" job at policing itself. He says readers can call to complain or write letters to the editors, but often cannot get any satisfactory response from the big news organizations. Kurtz said this is one of the things that "makes people think the American media is rather arrogant."

Kurtz said: "It seems to me that we are in a hyper-competitive, often sensationalized media world these days. Everybody wants to get the story first, everybody wants to make a big splash. And that has lead to stories that are shaky at best. Now 99 percent of stories are carefully researched and well-checked, but what the public tends to remember are the big embarrassments that seem to happening in the media more, rather than less, these days."

Kurtz also said he doesn't believe the American media is being self-critical enough and owning up to its blunders.

Kurtz explained: "'The 'American press' does tend to engage in sort of a general self-flagellation after we have gone on a binge and over-covered or sensationalized a story -- the Monica Lewinsky story comes to mind. But then, like an alcoholic, we start drinking again and do the same thing the next time such a story comes along."

However, Paul McMasters, a First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum -- a U.S.-based private foundation dedicated to promoting a free press worldwide -- said he believes the American media is doing a good job of maintaining its journalistic responsibility and integrity.

McMasters, who was one of the panelists at the National Press Club briefing, said the American press is "better, more sophisticated, more educated, and more ethical than it has ever been in history."

McMasters said the libel laws in America are working well and cited a number of recent cases where court rulings went against media organizations.

He also said that the Boston Globe, The New Republic and CNN are being held accountable for their mistakes by being forced to publicly acknowledge their transgressions and put their reputations on the line.

Said McMasters: "Take a look at some of the court decisions that are being made, and tell me the media is not being held accountable. Take a look at CNN as well as their sister publication Time, having to go through the embarrassment to explain a rush of judgment, and having to hire a First Amendment attorney to 'investigate' their story, and tell me that is not being held accountable."

McMasters pointed out that the very fact the press briefing was being held and people were openly discussing the mistakes of the media were signs that self-criticism is alive and well in America.

Said McMasters: "'The press' is being held to account and we do make far too many mistakes. But journalism is an unfolding process. It may well be written in haste, but it is never carved in stone. It may well injure and harm, but it also -- in the long run -- heals. It is the one thing that we can hold up on a regular basis as the best, and in some cases, the last hope of a democratic process."