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SHOULD MEDIA BE PRESSED BY A `WATCHDOG’?

SHARE SHOULD MEDIA BE PRESSED BY A `WATCHDOG’?

Newspeople have never been much enthused about having a watchdog council second-guessing their work. So it was with the first of the councils, the British General Council on the Press - the British papers had to be dragged in kicking and screaming in 1953. They never supported it adequately, and the council expired in 1990.

And Britain's latest, the Press Complaints Commission, was created as a voluntary body only when Parliament threatened press controls as the alternative.So it was with our National News Council, modeled on the British. It died in New York in 1983 after struggling for 10 years to develop a national constituency without the support of the big media.

So it appears to be with a new Northwest News Council, which to say the least is finding it tough to get even grudging acceptance from the Oregon papers.

- AND SO IT IS with the latest attempts by academics to get a state news council started in Utah.

A news council is an independent group of community people who monitor media performance. Some councils are set up primarily to judge complaints. Others, like the short-lived Logan Press Council, are essentially focus groups that come together once a month or so to rap about the media and make suggestions for improvement. They are nongovernmental, cannot punish and depend for their impact on what is called "the cleansing light of publicity."

Alf Pratte, a journalism professor at BYU, was pressing the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to give its blessing to a judicial type of council. He prepared an elaborate proposal. He approached some newspaper editors first and found that they were not set against it, though there were reservations.

- BUT RANK AND FILE newspeople, as represented in the SPJ board, slapped down the idea out of hand a month ago, sending Pratte away licking his wounds. The media people said Pratte could go ahead and set up his council if he was all that keen on it, but Pratte said the council could not operate without their willing response.

Only three press councils of any consequence are left in the United States, in addition to the Northwest Council: one in Honolulu, the other in Minnesota. Ralph Barney, another BYU professor, was one of the founders of the Honolulu Council while teaching at the University of Hawaii, and Pratte, who was then working in Honolulu, was close to it for a number of years as its membership chairman.

Pratte proposed a Utah council something along the lines of the successful Honolulu group: a board of 25 people, about three-fourths from the community, the others from the media, who would meet once a month to review complaints and talk about other issues of media quality.

Pratte says the Honolulu council not only gave access to people who felt the media don't listen to rebukes but also helped educate people about what news work is and ought to be.

It's easy to see the Utah group was gun shy.

Until 1987 SPJ called on members to "actively censure" violations of the standards. But review procedures were never spelled out fully or applied uniformly, and the code itself was at best vague on many important ethical issues. The debate within SPJ over keeping the provision degenerated into name-calling between the "ethical crazies" and "ethical wimps." The clause was rescinded, and SPJ substituted meaningless words calling for "strengthening the bond of mutual trust and respect between the American journalists and the American people."

Nonetheless, two SPJ chapters in Oregon and Washington not only endorsed the Northwest News Council but also funded it. Then they found out the media were skittish. The Eugene (Ore.) Register Guard refused to appear at hearings into complaints against it. The paper said the council, like the earlier SPJ ethics committees, lacked criteria for making judgments, hence had no credibility.

- AND THE REGION'S biggest paper, the Portland Oregonian, refused this spring to have anything at all to do with the council's review of a complaint against it. A candidate who lost in the U.S. Senate primaries had brought the action against the Oregonian for accusing him of a "low and dishonest" campaign.

Other knowledgeable media critics have fared little better in proposing the council idea. Alan Dershowitz, the famous attorney and Harvard law professor, got nothing but flak when he told publishers convened in Boston this spring that the news profession should establish "an internal court of corrections" on the basis of peer appraisal. He said it would save the media a lot of money because complainants coming to the council would waive their rights to go to the courts, as in a suit for libel.

Editor and Publisher, the newspaper trade journal, jumped all over Dershowitz. It declared imperiously that there never was much need for a national news council and even less today than a decade ago, because newspapers today are at more pains to correct their mistakes. It said, without citing any evidence, that "further peer pressure is not going to change the mind of papers that refuse to admit mistakes."

- A COMMON COMPLAINT but the least valid is that councils encourage press bashing and therefore imperil press freedom. But as Pratte points out, nine out of 10 complaints in Honolulu were not upheld. In most press councils far more complaints are rejected than accepted and many of those adjudicated are resolved in favor of the media.

Furthermore, every news council has as one of its mandates the protection of press freedom. Richard Salant, once the head of CBS News and the last president of the National News Council, wrote eloquently in his valedictory that "second thoughts . . . will persuade thoughtful and open-minded editors that an objective, expert body, without sanctions, whose functions are to examine complaints, to speak out on press freedom issues, and to analyze recurring problems of journalistic ethics is a protection, not a derogation, of press freedom."

Salant's conclusions and the objective record of the National News Council ought to be resurrected when the Utah council idea is again broached. I expect that it will be someday, because it retains enduring promise despite its inherent obstacles - and despite Pratte's bitter comment that the Utah newspeople are not mature or confident enough to accept it.

Pratte may be right in suggesting that, for all the difficulties, a well-run press council can be a better corrective than letters to the editor, self-selected corrections made by the media themselves, or the ruminations of critics. But we'll never know until it is tried out.