A spokeswoman for a small but influential local branch of a major American corporation was helpfully trying to explain why all my calls to employees are deflected to her. “If we get a call, it’s routed through PR, and we assess who the best person to respond is,” she told me. “If you called every company around the city, you’d find that, normally, those calls go through PR.”
But hers is not just any company. She works for Baltimore’s CBS television station, historically the city’s leading news channel. And the folks from whom she is deflecting my questions are journalists who spend most of their day asking questions of others—and expecting to receive answers.
Turn on the news on that station or any of its competitors and you’ll likely find one of the following: a victim’s sob story, an apparent wrongdoer’s indignant denial, a public official’s crusade, a parent’s whipped-up worries, a ballplayer’s lament. Each of these stories share a single ingredient: They involve interviews. Once the tape is rolling, most reporters and producers display little compunction about asking questions that delve into the most private, painful reaches of people’s lives. It makes for what’s considered good television. Every now and then, it even makes news.
During the past year, I’ve covered the television news business as a reporter and media critic. When I call reporters and producers, they routinely tell me they’re not allowed to comment. For some, just the suggestion of a conversation over coffee stirs fear for their jobs. The culture of TV news is so firmly tethered to whim and pique, they say, that they could be fired if their names were to appear in print. The subject of the story almost doesn’t matter. Sounds like the caprice found in a movie studio—or the CIA.
The CBS station’s spokeswomen inadvertently led me to two extraordinary insights into the thinking of many people who are in charge at the nation’s news outlets.
First, the news business, to them, is a business whose product happens to be news. If that means they’re seen as providing a public service, so much the better. But it’s not required. That’s why many local stations have standing orders for all inquiries to be referred to public relations departments. National networks, too, try to exercise tight control over which employees comment about what topic and when they do so until they get too big to corral. (Those prominent journalists who are willing to criticize themselves, or their peers, often get tagged as troublemakers.) In doing so, these companies are following the pattern set by General Motors or General Electric in hyper-managing the company’s image.
Second, there’s a fundamental lack of trust. These networks and stations pay their staffs to sort through complex stories, often turning their subjects’ lives upside down in the process. But they don’t trust those same news professionals to act competently—to behave themselves, really—when they themselves are questioned. If there’s more tangible evidence of the contempt with which some media companies regard those who report and present the nation’s news, I haven’t come across it.
These attitudes prompt some important questions. If the companies do not trust their own reporters and producers as professionals, why should their viewers? And if those staffers are not ultimately worthy of trust, doesn’t that undermine the credibility of newscasts—the “product” these companies are hawking?
It would seem that over time bad ethical positions prove bad for business. Such aloofness (from the public) and distrust (of their own staffs) does not explain the erosion of ratings on broadcast television. Cable stations and VCRs probably have much more to do with it. But it doesn’t seem as though the networks and local stations are doing themselves any favors by imposing this kind of silence at a time of industry-wide anxiety.
The networks were probably pretty controlling back in the day of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, too. CBS broadcaster William Shirer (author of “Reich: A History of Nazi Germany”) left the network because of his tangle with disapproving bosses. But the recent absorption of so many media outlets by major corporations can’t help this situation. The entertainment mega-companies Viacom and Disney, respectively, own CBS and ABC. The manufacturer and defense contractor General Electric owns NBC, which teamed with Microsoft to create MSNBC. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation holds the Fox network and the Fox News Channel along with a movie studio, a satellite TV venture, and other interests. The online, entertainment and publishing behemoth AOL/Time Warner owns CNN.
None of these parent companies display particularly journalistic impulses of the kind that might recognize the value of allowing those whose job it is to ask questions to answer them as well.
A few months ago, prompted by the situation in Baltimore, where I live and work, I wrote about this phenomenon. Two of the four local stations with newscasts maintain not exactly a “no comment,” but a “don’t comment” policy. The rule is that if an outsider calls to ask about a story on the air, the new station jingle, the meatloaf at the company cafeteria, or the cube root of 27, that call should be bounced wordlessly to the general manager or spokesman. One of those two stations sometimes allows its reporters and staffers to talk about general journalism issues. The other almost invariably doesn’t.
The story generated strong response. The readers were, understandably, outraged. The professional journalists, equally angered, were pleased to see this usually ignored topic receive public exposure. From a newspaper’s TV critic: “It’s bad here in Philly—and getting worse.” From a magazine editor who is a former big-city newspaper reporter: “How can we have the guts to run a controversial story and then put a muzzle on staffers to comment?” From a network producer: “Even in the places where there is no set policy against speaking to the press, one is still very cautious. It’s not merely hypocrisy, it’s also a) cowardice and b) hyper-awareness of how reporting works.”
In the column, I quoted an MSNBC spokesman who jokingly said the cable news channel put no locks on the phones. Keith Olbermann, once an anchor there, suggested otherwise. In 1998, Olbermann delivered the convocation address at Cornell, his alma mater. He gave a talk excoriating his industry, his station and himself for coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, intending to deliver a message of personal responsibility.
After his remarks received criticism from others in the media, the cable network forbade Olbermann from commenting publicly. By Olbermann’s account, he wasn’t allowed to return a call from a newspaper reporter whom he had known for years. He was even rebuffed after offering to allow a public relations staffer to listen in on a different extension. Olbermann was not long for MSNBC.
At The Sun, our public relations director likes to know who gets interviewed for what, although it appears to be more of an attempt to prove to our new owners, the Tribune Co., that we’re part of the great multi-media bandwagon than any effort to silence reporters.
I am not suggesting that anyone should be required to speak. But for journalists, in particular, I think it can help restore trust with the public. When a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review requested an interview with Jeff Gerth, the talented but controversial investigative reporter for The New York Times, Gerth initially insisted that he speak only off the record. When challenged, he relented. Yet Gerth’s partner on stories about the Wen Ho Lee spy charges, James Risen, declined to comment for that piece, even though serious questions had been raised about the fairness of their coverage. The Times felt compelled to publish a story dissecting the implications of its own articles. In doing so, it sought to redeem its credibility by demonstrating to readers its fairness.
Policies intended to button reporters’ lips, whether explicit or not, serve to keep the decision-making of news organizations mysterious and obscure. Such a policy further distances the media from the viewers and readers. Journalists should not be forced to respond to requests for interviews. But they might win some converts if they were to offer some insight into how they make decisions about their coverage. At worst, they might think things through a bit more thoroughly the next time.
All of this should go without saying. But it shouldn’t pass without comment.
David Folkenflik is the television writer and media critic for The (Baltimore) Sun.