It was more than 20 years ago that I began teaching a seminar called "Ethics and the Media" at New York University School of Journalism. In 1985, these graduate students read newspapers and newsmagazines with some regularity and, though computers were in wide use, they were not nearly so pervasive as they have become. During our discussions of ethical issues, I asked students to think of themselves as a hypothetical editorial board, and this was something they could do with ease.
When, in the 1990′s, I moved the course to Yale, a dramatic shift from print to cable television and online services was already happening. During the past five years, not more than a handful of undergraduate in this seminar have read the news on paper or watched network news. They were (and are)dependent on the Internet and are increasingly interested in blogs, those self-anointed online sites largely given to opinion on public affairs and lately devoted to highlighting errors or falsity in mainstream reporting. Students, who seem usually to seek out blogs with opinions in concert with their own, credit blogs with being a kind of "vox populi" in the tradition of free expression protected by the First Amendment. I don’t quarrel with that assumption, but I ask them to consider the challenge of arriving at some kind of consensus, to say nothing about truth, out of multitudinous voices and hidden agendas.
As part of our classroom discussion, I’ve asked them to consider how these forms of "new media" might replicate the efforts of mainstream news organizations that employ experienced reporters and editors engaged in the difficult business of producing reliable information on a daily basis. In a question I put to my hypothetical 2005 editorial board members, I asked if they regard the generic newsroom as an entity portable from print to television to Internet. (To ask the question a bit differently, I wanted to know if they support a process of truth-seeking by talented and skilled practitioners working together with the assistance of technology, but not in thrall to it.) The class — average age, 20 — voted in the affirmative.
I next challenged them to devise a proposal for the protection of newsroom independence and integrity. To prepare for that project, they read and discussed various texts (Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) on the origin of ethical principles, on the evolution of freedom of expression and political discourse (Milton, Kant, Mill), and about the critical importance of a free press in the formation of the United States (the Founding Fathers and the constitutional debates).
With sadness I must acknowledge that during all of my years of teaching "Ethics and the Media," I’ve encountered among the students little knowledge of American history, particularly in regard to the constitutional issues that are inseparable from the role of the press in assuring an informed electorate. The concept that a nation defines itself by the deal it strikes with its press is not commonly discussed these days but, most simply put, no government can function as a democracy if it does not permit unfettered freedom of expression. In this context, students read Walter Lippmann’s "Public Opinion" and Alexander Bickel’s "The Morality of Consent." And as a class, we examined two critical Supreme Court cases — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which eliminated sedition charges as a means of silencing the press, and the Pentagon Papers case, which confronted national security issues not unlike those being debated in regard to global terrorism. Finally, we visited the long-neglected, 1947 Hutchins Commission report, "A Free and Responsible Press," which laid out moral requirements still timely more than half a century later.
Protecting the Newsroom
All of this preceded the attempt to craft a proposal to protect the modern newsroom from the budgetary and technological forces that are buffeting it today. Though I acknowledged from the start that much of what we were contemplating wore a tinge of romanticism, I said that should not discourage thoughtful resolve. And it didn’t. Some of the goals offered by the class, however, were unrealistic.
In the first draft, the students envisioned a very substantial foundation to be funded by the media corporations (and perhaps other benefactors) for the purpose of subsidizing salary increases for journalists who produced outstanding work. The notion that large corporations would donate millions to an outside organization that might reward some of their employees, or the employees of other corporations, was not explored with much sophistication.
Back to the drawing board. In the second draft, they lowered their sights. Up for discussion this time was an internal fund that could be managed by outside directors at each corporation who would have editorial experience and primary responsibility for newsroom compensation. The fund would reward excellence based on the judgment of experts. This would enhance individual careers, but in the students’ view it would also be emblematic of the parent corporation’s commitment.
We began a conversation about the unique status of news organizations, which are private enterprises with a constitutional protection. There is no other business with a similar obligation to serve the public interest. But the irony of ethical and enterprising journalism is that what is in the public interest does not always interest the public. Add to this conundrum the realization that awakening and reawakening the public to moral standards has never been a natural pastime for journalists in a competitive marketplace.
Nonetheless the students were learning that newsrooms, which are generic centers of newsgathering, editing and editorializing, are confronted today with great uncertainty. As traditional media outlets and publications seek a base in cyberspace, the economic viability of newsrooms suffers. But this does not alter the fact that only vigorous, independent reporting can counter the charge that the First Amendment is being used to reinforce concentration of private power in the hands of conglomerates that now control cable and television, telephone and computer networks, as well as some publishing franchises. Irrefutably, the power to distribute information is potentially the power to select content.
With these thoughts in mind, the "board members" turned to a more practical approach involving an internal fund. They were prompted to head in this direction by a reminder I made of the kind of communication with which they are most familiar — the Internet — and a suggestion that they research the growth of online services already offered by major media organizations. These include archival materials, research and analysis, maps, photographs, videos and DVDs. Fees are, or soon will be, charged for these services as well as, on some news sites, payment to read specific daily content. And advertisers are using these media Web sites because of the precision with which specific audiences can be targeted.
The students’ final proposal recommends that some reasonable portion of online revenues should go to the "Newsroom Fund." Their reasoning in selecting this revenue base was two-fold: Most or all of the material and services are supplied by newsroom personnel, and the fund will balance the fact that stock options, offered to others in the corporation, are inappropriate for reporters and editors who might have to cover the activities of separate interests owned by their parent company.
Clearly media organizations contributing to a "Newsroom Fund" will have earned the trust of the public — whatever technology is used to reach them. To keep that trust, the students agreed, requires independence and financial viability. Ultimately, the confidence of the consumer will attach to the news organizations that demonstrate consistent, uncompromising ethical standards.
In composing our proposal, we adopted three suggestions made in 2002 to newspaper companies by the Ad Hoc Committee on the Press, comprised of nine well-known senior journalists. These were: Outside directors, with editorial experience, to monitor the quality of news operations; outside directors to supervise newsroom compensation policy, and prohibition of stock options for newsroom staff and outside directors.
The Hutchins Commission report prophetically observed: "The quality of the press depends in large part upon the capacity and independence of the working members in the lower ranks. At the present time their wages and prestige are low and their tenure precarious. Adequate recognition and adequate contracts seem to us an indispensable prerequisite to the development of professional personnel."
Not much has changed — except the stakes. The question looming largest now concerns the dangers of extreme political fragmentation and the increasing individual isolation. If a social compact is to survive in the digital age, it will need the help of dedicated newsrooms.
Stanley Flink is a lecturer in political science at Yale University and author of "Sentinel Under Siege: The Triumphs and Troubles of America’s Free Press" (Westview/Perseus Books, 1997).