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A Journalistic Wake-Up Call

Peter Arnett, the pugnacious New Zealander who made his name as a correspondent in Vietnam and burnished it by his coverage of wars around the world thereafter, kept his job with CNN last week but tarnished his reputation.

Mr. Arnett made a dreadful professional mistake. He allowed himself to be used on camera mouthing words written by others on a story he wasn't sure of because he hadn't done his own reporting on it.

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The story, trumpeted by CNN, and carried more nervously by its news partner, Time magazine, was that American forces, on a secret mission in Laos in 1970, used lethal nerve gas to kill American defectors. The story smelled from the beginning. If the military had wanted to exterminate defectors, there were simpler methods available to do so - methods which would have been much safer for the forces involved in the operation.

Once the story was aired by CNN and published by Time, gaping holes appeared in it. Some people quoted hadn't said what they were supposed to have said. A key source had had an extraordinary memory lapse which made his recollection highly dubious. The denials of some of those involved in the operation were omitted or truncated.

After a public outcry and an internal investigation, CNN disavowed the story and apologized abjectly. So did Time. Not only had two great news organizations been mightily embarrassed. All journalists were spattered by mud from the fallout. However unfairly, critics of the press look at this incident, along with a recent string of other media irresponsibilities, and argue that if seasoned organizations like CNN and Time can make such a botch of things, why not other networks, news magazines, newspapers?

What impelled Arnett to participate in this journalistic debacle? Was it ego - a feeling that the Vietnam story was one he once dominated and he could not let it go? Was it the excitement of beating out other networks on a big story? Was it the urge to outmaneuver rivals within CNN who sought to host the show? Or was it simply the consuming desire to assert star-power; the insatiable thirst for air-time that mesmerizes so many TV reporters?

Television news is different from other kinds of journalism. One of America's greatest television reporters once told me: "We are merely caption writers. The pictures tell the story."

Television is the medium of images. Print is the medium of ideas, where you find depth and perspective.

On the nerve gas story, CNN departed from what it does best - live, on-the-spot coverage of breaking news - and went for the splashy, TV "news" magazine sensation that is more entertainment than news. Though the pictures used were dramatic, and the "Valley of Death" title was apocalyptic, the story just wasn't there.

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Print journalists should take no comfort from CNN's discomfiture. In the past several weeks, major publications have had to hang one embarrassing apology after another on a long line of dirty laundry soiled by instances of irresponsibility, illegality, misplaced zeal, and voracious ambition.

In the frenzied early coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Dallas Morning News and later The Wall Street Journal had to recant on stories linking the president with Ms. Lewinsky.

In May, the New Republic was obliged to fire one of its editors for inventing characters, organizations and dialogue in a string of stories he had written.

A month later The Boston Globe forced the resignation of one of its columnists who admitted fabricating characters and quotes.

Then, within days, The Cincinnati Enquirer was publishing a multi-edition front-page apology to Chiquita Brands International, and agreeing to pay $10 million compensation for mistakes in a series of stories on the company's business practices.

All these professional embarrassments were caused by inventing, manipulating, overstating, or misinterpreting the facts. Why are they happening? In large part because of the intense new competition between media organizations. Hundreds of new cable channels are competing among themselves and challenging the traditional networks. A crop of TV news magazines is in fierce combat for audience supremacy. Print newspapers are competing for readers against supermarket tabloids, weeklies, throwaway freebies. The internet proliferates. Talk radio jousts with everybody.

This, in turn, has generated an excess of ambitious zeal among competing reporters who work for the competing entities. Many avoid the short-cuts. But some skate over the need to get the story right as they strive to get it first, and make it flashy and confrontational. As Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek: "The rewards in the business favor cleverness and attitude over the substance of policy issues."

Journalism needs a wake-up call. Some suggestions:

* Tougher training in ethics in the journalism schools.

* Ethics seminars - just as many newspapers hold libel seminars - in the newsrooms.

* Clear rules of professional conduct. Many newspapers never wrote them, or have mislaid them.

* Risky stories need to be cleared by seasoned editors who can smell a phony story coming - not the striplings that strut in many TV newsrooms.

* When a story aired or published turns out to be wrong, editors should confess and apologize promptly.

* Knowing, or careless, perpetrators of such inaccuracy should be fired.

Mistakes will still be made, but this might minimize them.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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