The Digital Journalist
Celebrity Journalism and Other Corruptions

by Ron Steinman

Everyone has a theory about the current problems in journalism. I, too, have one. And with it, I am hoping to break some glass, shatter some illusions, and perhaps get people talking. The critics who discuss the crisis facing journalism today usually miss something substantial when they unleash their attacks on our profession. They choose to ignore the obvious: the journalist as celebrity in our celebrity-driven world. The journalist becomes bigger than the story he or she covers. The journalist becomes a news story, one driven by his own greed and his own ego. For me this helps keep journalism in a crisis from which it may never recover.

In this era of Bush 43, there are shameful revelations about journalists almost every day. When we wake, we discover there is a new miscreant, another wrongdoer added to the hall of shame for being a helper or a participant, often in secret, to a government agency. Each day there is a new disclosure about journalists accepting favors from the rich and/or powerful. Plagiarism is rampant. The government creates fake news pieces with fake reporters. Television stations around the country use these as if they are real. It is impossible to keep up with bogus journalism. I tell myself not to be overly moralistic. People are people and when someone in power seeks you out to carry his message, often for pay, or to give him badly needed advice, so he says, the tendency is to cave and become part of the process rather than to continue as an observer, hopefully, with sharp claws. When a journalist joins a team other than his real employer, the claws become dull. The reporting weakens. Rightfully, we look on the journalist as untrustworthy. Journalists must have clean hands. They must be above suspicion in everything.

Celebrity, too, often overrides good sense for journalists who should know better about accepting anything akin to personal favors. A transgression in the first years of this century, as revealed recently in the Washington Post, has to do with free airplane rides on a Gulfstream V corporate jet owned by Riggs Bank, and the personal transport of its then-chief executive, Joe L. Albritton. Riggs and Albritton are under Federal investigation for money laundering and the misuse of shareholders funds, among other things. In this instance, without the bank shareholders knowing it, Riggs Bank and its shareholders paid to fly Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer of ABC from New York to Washington to be Albritton’s guests at a fundraising dinner. I wonder why Walters and Sawyer did not pay for the trip themselves. They certainly could afford it. Or was the temptation of flying in a private jet a tasty truffle they could not resist?

In that same story, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, whose husband is Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, accepted a ride from New York to Washington from the same Joe Albritton. Mitchell says she thought the plane was Albritton’s and did not belong to Riggs, and that he was being neighborly. The Federal Reserve, by the way, regulates Riggs’s holding company. It was clearly a conflict of interest. Mitchell’s transgression had to be one of muddied thinking. Even if she were not married to Greenspan, she should have considered her own position and reputation and never have accepted that free ride under any circumstances.

Last year The Wall Street Journal published a story about an investigation into Conrad Black, who ran Hollinger International, a huge press conglomerate, as a personal fiefdom. Lord Black, through Hollinger, owned The Chicago Sun Times, The Jerusalem Post, The Sunday and Daily Telegraph, and the Sydney Morning Herald. According to a report commissioned by a special Hollinger board committee, Lord Black held a birthday dinner for his wife at New York’s La Grenouille Restaurant, and I quote, that “cost the company $42,870 and fed 80 guests, including Oscar de la Renta, Peter Jennings, Charlie Rose, Barbara Walters and Ron Perelman.” What bothers me is that Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters and Charlie Rose were at that expensive and high-toned dinner when they should have, for the sake of propriety, been miles away.

The food, probably, was wonderful. The ambience, I am sure, was delightful. But again, in our modern age, celebrity clashes with good sense when major broadcasters go to a private dinner without thinking of the consequences. Did they believe Lord Black would help their careers or were they only looking for a good time? Is a good meal so hard to find, especially for people in their position?

That dinner is an extreme example of bad judgment on the part of those who attended. There is more. During the national political conventions, there were stories about private dinners held either by politicians or by donors where journalists were invited but not allowed to write about anything they heard over drinks or at the meal. These kinds of events go on all the time, especially in Washington. But the press, ever its head in the sand, does nothing to avoid them or reveal them. Why pass up a great buffet table or a good meal for the simple sake of ethics? In the unseemly pursuit of self-gratification, endemic in our society, too many major journalists have become part of high society. Do they believe it enhances their work and credibility? Or simply their status? And, you may ask, why do the non-celebrity working press not make more of these events? Maybe they are also part of the problem because to expose it would expose them to criticism.

In October 2004, The New York Times ran an article about Henry Kissinger and his relationship with the press going back to the mid-1970s. The story focused on transcripts of 3,200 telephone calls that had just been released under the Freedom of Information Act. According to The Times, some of the calls show “the chumminess of some journalists with” Secretary of State Kissinger and they offer an “inside glimpse of relations between a top government official and the reporters who covered him.” Among the names: Marvin Kalb, then with CBS News. Ted Koppel, then the diplomatic correspondent with ABC News. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post and executive editor Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. Columnist James Reston of The New York Times and columnist Jack Anderson.

Here is one more quote from that article which only strengthens my thesis. “Newsmakers and news reporters use one another and it may not be so surprising that they sometimes grow personally close.” Major figures in government and business know how to play the press for their own gain, and, too often, the press falls victim to their flattery. That does not make it right. I would rather have a journalist dig for news than sit next to a high-ranking official and get a tidbit while passing the salt. If it means being somewhat socially isolated, then so be it. This may seem extreme, but in the end, the payoff can be higher, with the reporter’s ethics beyond reproach.

After the Henry Kissinger revelations, I am certain there will be others, each more damning and damaging than the previous ones. We will learn of more aberrations, as these quickly become the norm. Blame it on modern communications, if you will: tape recorders, e-mail, text messaging and the like. But know the blame really belongs to the human foibles we all possess.

Journalists have always hobnobbed with the mighty. That is part of the life of a reporter, and maybe one of its attractions. Perhaps it makes us feel loved, or at least wanted. Certainly important. It is normal to aspire to be more than what one is in life. As a journalist, you do not have to be friends with your source or with a public figure, unless that person is a whistle-blower and can or does lead you onto a path where you would not normally go. Unless there is a true adversarial relationship between reporter and subject, and I know this is extreme, I do not believe the reporter can properly do his job.

Over time television news developed more power to influence its viewers than newspapers had to sway their readers. It still does, and will remain so, despite the musical anchor chairs we are now witnessing. However, we must realize that television is unique. Its problems did not grow slowly over time. They go back almost to its founding in the middle of the last century. Its lack of credibility began when the business was still young.

Put simply, the trouble with broadcast journalism in the last 50 years began when television news elevated some reporters, meaning anchors, to celebrity status making many of them, despite their feigned modesty, more important than the news they covered. They became icons who reveled in their new idolatry. Despite that elevation, at one time broadcasting wanted - I would say demanded - a person have experience and intellect to present the news. Then it morphed quickly into a “face” that worked best on the air. Ugly people need not apply, especially in local television where blonde-haired women ruled. Face, the look a person had, became everything. Easy to recognize when seen. Quickly forgotten when removed from the tube. Thought to be the reason people tuned in. Then, later, laughed at, and a major reason television news took a dive on people’s acceptability scale. It is why it is still tanking.

The biggest mistake, and here you can accuse me of heresy, took place when CBS News made Walter Cronkite managing editor of the CBS Evening News. Eventually NBC with Tom Brokaw, ABC with Peter Jennings, and, of course, CBS with Dan Rather not only followed suit, they kept up the new tradition by rewarding face with power. Anchors being who they are - men and women driven mostly by strong egos - rewarded themselves by accepting the power, and then, in taking their new gains seriously, taking even more. We all know the troubles Dan Rather and CBS News had over the forged Bush documents flap. Rather had very little to do with the story, but he takes the rap because he is the front man, much the way Peter Arnett did at CNN several years ago. Once again in television, celebrity trumped good journalism, because the so-called reporter on the assignment did not really do the job.

Newspapers had their own stars for years. But these were usually faceless columnists. Walter Lippman, Westbrook Pegler, Max Lerner, Joseph Alsop, and Scotty Reston became stars in their own right. However, they were mostly unrecognized by their audience. Yes, their photo often accompanied their column. They wrote books, and sometimes appeared as guests on radio and later on television. But their essence had to do with the power of intellect, their ability to turn a phrase in a story all their own, not the power of presence that governs the stars of journalism today. It hardly matters if you agreed with them. They had a bully pulpit and used it to propagate their views. Your safety valve was not to buy the paper, or to refuse to read their column. After all, there were always the sports pages, society news, fashions, and the comics. As kids, when our shoes got wet from the rain or snow, my father stuffed them with the newspapers he had finished reading. They had a use after reading. You cannot say that about television, though I wish I could.

Walter Winchell and Gabriel Heater were broadcasters who had radio shows that elevated their status. Until television opened its huge maw to suck in a growingly passive audience, they, among others, came into our homes regularly. Television saw the start of the worst in celebrity journalism. Competition for airtime, for space in a paper or magazine, to have their byline appear or the name displayed in the lower third of the television screen became more important for some than the news they conveyed. It meant fame and fortune, with fortune the greater goal. There are fewer newspaper and magazine stars today. Stardom comes when they morph into part-time pundits. With so many journalists spending so much time on the air, I wonder when they have time to report.

Print journalists today get more exposure, even extra money, for appearing as experts on TV talk shows. The networks usually do not trust their own to be experts. Print journalists have come to believe their own reviews, and they become celebrities in their own right. We are in a vicious cycle with the new celebrity journalist continuing on his or her merry way. With each step, they have to outperform, out shout, and certainly out grimace, their fellow entertainers. Their journalism suffers, I believe, for some, and the pancake makeup fouls the brain cells and prevents them from working as they should.

I hope we are not so naïve as to believe that scandals in the press, whether broadcast or print, are new. In the last century the yellow press flourished. Remember the Maine? No one in the press suffered for that outrageous misuse of a newspaper’s policies. Hearst made a fortune, got his war and is forever in the purgatory for journalism’s worst. Today, scandals usually have to do with weak and sometimes incompetent editors who overlook the reporter’s performance. We know that one story is stronger or weaker than the next. One story has more information than the next. No two are ever the same. How does the scribbler present a piece he wants to make his best, when to all appearances it has no substance? We now know that the possibility of fabrication squeezes its way between commas and periods. Facts are suspect. Sources remain in the dark. The reporter protects himself by hiding behind the source. Big trouble ensues.

The more a reporter appears to have a valuable, sometimes incendiary and unusual story, the more their editors often equate what the reporter does with high performance, however suspect. When accompanied by the byline, which is what modern journalism is all about, at least to some reporters, it increases the newspaper’s chance of reaching every seat in the house. It means the journalist as performer, especially in newspapers, sells more papers. It does not matter what the reporter looks like unless television appearances become important, especially when the newspaper’s logo helps fill part of the screen as an advertisement for itself.

On television, as I have said, the face of the reporter or anchor is today often far more important than the story. This is no different from an actor who needs the audience to applaud his work. Power corrupts, and news executives in broadcasting mistake star power for quality. Power translated into bigger audiences is more important than reliable reporting. Bigger audiences mean more revenue. Revenue rules in the world of conglomerate-owned broadcasters.

Broadcast executives made anchors into stars and did the same for even the lowliest of reporters who appeared on the air. The tube made everyone instantly recognizable. The public came to believe these new icons were god-like, infallible, and believable. The anchor as star was suddenly brilliant, warm, and honest beyond belief, and they could think on their feet like no one in the past. Why then, in live situations, do we equip them with earplugs connected to the producers in the control room, who constantly whisper information into their ears? They do need to know what comes next, which correspondent is ready to report, how much time remains before the next commercial break, and the other interviews coming their way. Problem is the anchor and his cohorts started to believe their own press, willing to fool the audience and the growing number of television critics into believing they were omniscient.

With omniscience, the self-satisfied feeling the anchor has makes him believe he knows as much or more than the editors and producers, who gather, sort and edit the news. Then came omnipotence. By default, strength of will, and the desire for power, the anchor started to rule, to fill the vacuum of who is in charge. Strength of will is very important. The audience believed in their anchor. His so-called masters at the networks feared him. Smelling that fear enabled the anchor to assume a large role, out of proportion to his competence. Long ago, in a stunning blow to good journalism, management gave up and gave in to the anchor’s newfound power. With his new title of Managing Editor contractually in place he started to influence the choice of correspondents who appeared on air, on his show, no longer in his mind, the network’s broadcast. His show. When did a columnist or editor of a newspaper claim the paper was his, not management’s? These new anchor-managers often got involved in what stories were to be covered, their emphasis and context, even which correspondents should cover a story. I am not implying they were failures then, or that they do not know what they are doing now. Most anchors are good journalists. I contend their involvement reaches far beyond their duties as the “face” of news for their network. No person can succeed as an anchor unless the drive and self-esteem is there to win battles. Anchors are not born. They are self-made. Without an overblown ego, they might be working in a car wash.

In the golden days of newspapers, the men and women in print were not immune to glory. Radio dealt mainly in headline news and pop music. Newspapers were the only game in town. Television did not exist. Today, however, print journalists are seeking the glory, and more money, as they straddle the weak world of television journalism and the troubled, corrupt world of print. But their glory comes with a price. The payoff may be a front-page byline, appearances on radio and network television, speeches, books, and panels on C-Span, CNN, MSNBC and Fox. However the price is the loss of good journalism, taking the journalist out of the running as a newsperson and putting him into the category of celebrity.

There was a story recently about a hostess in Washington, the parties she gives, and the guests she gathers around her - or, as some would say, she collects - many from the world of news, especially television news. The story describes some of the women reporters as beauteous. The Times reporter and editor ought to know how long it took women reporters to make it in print, in broadcasting, and television. Women reporters should complain loudly, and some still do, that holding onto their jobs should not depend on looking like they just stepped onto a fashion show runway. All reporters should succeed because of their ability, not their appearance. Neither might be in the offing because celebrity pays.

Some reporters will say that going to parties like those in Washington and elsewhere, especially New York and Hollywood, pay back in stories or “gets,” securing important interviews for their shows and newspapers. I seriously doubt it. Maybe it works once, but not always. Publicists control who goes where for an interview on television, and the venue has almost nothing to do with the interviewer. Size of the audience is the determining factor. Here is where the hidden desire for celebrity overrides good sense. Forget the free canapés. Do your reporting elsewhere, over the phone, on the scene, at the location. Do not become part of them. Keep your credibility and stay away from the caviar. It is too salty, and often suspect of being fake, anyway.

In the end, we are all human. Fame is heady enough, and none of us is immune. Fifteen minutes may no longer be sufficient, especially with the smell of money everywhere. When we look inside ourselves and decide the direction of our careers, our guiding principal should be the quality of our work. I would not advise a child of mine to go into journalism today, and especially broadcasting, unless they were sure of what they were doing. In the words of many immortal grandmothers, “Do yourself a favor and get a real job. Who needs the trouble?” Take heed. That is not bad advice in these times of troubled journalism.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.