Barnes and... A Conversation with GeneForeman
Steve speaks with Gene Foreman, a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, about journalism ethics. Mr. Foreman spent 41 years in newspaper journalism, which included part of his career in Arkansas serving as managing editor for the Pine Bluff Commercial, Arkansas Democrat and a reporter and assigning editor at the Arkansas Gazette. He also worked for The New York times and Newsday. He retired from The Philadelphia Inquirer after 25 years where he served as managing editor, executive editor and deputy editor.
Hello again everyone. Thanksfor joining us. Gene Foreman grew up in Arkansas and for halfcentury now has been working injournalism around the state andthe Arkansas Democrat-Gazetteand "New York Times" and newsday and the PhiladelphiaInquirer was the manager editorand now at University ofArkansas of Fayetteville and avisiting professor. GeneForeman thank you very much foryour time.
You're devoting your time tosomething unique in terms ofethics in journalism. This willsurprise people that thought wehad none.
Yes, I have been invited towork in the departmentestablishing a center forjournalism ethics and workingwith the faculty and graduatestudents we have put up awebsite that we hope will be aforum for studying journalismethics and discussing issues andI'm also getting into classesand meeting with the studentsand enjoying the experience verymuch.
The website and the instituteor the forum anyway forjournalism will accomplish if itsucceeds will accomplish what?
Well, we want it a place forpeople that interested in ethicsand journalism will gather anddiscuss the issues and learnmore what is going on, whatpeople in the profession and theacademy have to say aboutjournalism ethics. We hope it's something that teachers, students and the public willvisit regularly.
Well, the classroom or theacademy anyway and not new andyou were at Penn State for eightyears.
Yes, I taught eight and ahalf years on the faculty thereas a professor of journalism andI am continuing as a visitingprofessor at Penn State.
During that time you producedthe ethical journal.
And a study and how we can doit better and what the publiccan expect too.
Absolutely. We try to dowhat is right. I didn't rightit because I am self righteousthey have all of the answers.To the contrary we're trying todo the best that we can and tolearn from experiences that goodand bad how to do it better so Ipassed on my experiences in thatcategory to the students whoread this book.
Is there a day in day outprocess other than acceptingfreebies and there has to betougher calls in terms of theethical approach than others.
It ruins a wide range.You're right about the freebiesand this was a conflict ofeditors and accepting gifts fromthe people we cover which wascommon until the 70's and all ofa sudden we realized I thinkthere was a new generation inthe news room and said we needto do it better and the firststep would be to say no toanything that would compromiseour integrity. Eliminatesconflicts of interest the bestwe could but we're dealing inthe book and in the news room with questions about relationship with the sources ofnews, questions of privacy,taste in what we produce, all ofthese things are discussed inthe book and in regular ethicsclasses in journalism schoolstoday.
Of the obstacles or problemsthat you just mentioned maybethe one I hear more often thananything else is sourcing,anonymous sources. Millions of-- papers have been sold andbooks have earned millions ofdollars with very thin -- it'strust me, sourcing.
Yes. I agree with that.That's one of the big problemsthat we have. We know thepublic doesn't like anonymoussources yet they get into ourstories on a regular basis sowhat we try to do is curb thatand only if it's very importantto the story and the storyitself is very important and nota casual sort of a story, andwhen we do use anonymous sourcesthat we characterize them insome way to let the public knowthat this source knows somethingabout what he or she is talkingabout, and I think every goodnews organization insists thatthe editor knows who the sourceis. They're obligated by thesame promise of confidentialitybut they should know and helpthe reporter evaluate thesource.
So the reader isn'tnecessarily flying totally blindanyway. There is a managementstructure that demands to knowmore from the reporter if it'sdone right.
Yeah. If we can't tell whoit is because the source wouldbe in real jeopardy either economically or even physically that we have taken some steps tomake sure this is reallyimportant, and that we know whothe source is, and that we'revouching for it -- him or her,and we're trying to give them asmuch information that we can.
In your time as an editorwhat were examples? What weresome of the tough calls that youand your management team had tomake?
I no sooner got to theInquirer or as I was coming inin 73 that a car dealer in downwho spent a lot of money onadvertising was a friend ofsomeone who was going to be thesubject of Sunday magazine piecewhich was printed but not yetdistributed and this advertiserunderstood that this story wouldnot be favorable to his friend,so he said we don't want thatstory distributed, and if you dodistribute it we will we holdmillion dollars of advertisingfrom the Philadelphia Inquirerand we publish and we with heldthat advertising. A prettytough call. I was not the onethat made it. The editor whoarrived before me and Sam Neildecided to stand their ground.Ethically it's a simple call.You don't get pushed around likethat but there was a lot ofmoney involved. They had tosacrifice for what was right.
Behind the editors is thebusiness side and meaning thepublisher. You couldn't standup unless the publisher backedyou up.
Absolutely. It is been saidyou can be ethical easier if youhave a strong business side andbring in the money, and we studyin the book how to make decisions and to evaluate what the ethical person would do in agiven situation. It's notalways obvious but once youreach that decision the questionis are you willing to pay theprice to make the right call.
Paying the price, money, andethics. It's a murky kind of astew. I don't know mixedmetaphor there but given thebusiness today and particularlythe newspaper business todayit's treacherous territory giventhe trends and the technologicaltrends and reader's taste.
Yes we are very much intransition and not a favorablefor one for us in the news roomand people wanted news delivereddigitally and on mobile devicesand while some advertisingrevenue is there followed thebulk is not and classified usedto be a big money maker forprint newspapers. That's not inthe books at all now. It'staken by other websites thatspecialize in selling cars andreal estate and marketing jobs,so we're struggling to be ableto finance the kind of newsorganizations which are veryexpensive to provide the newscoverage for the people that wehave traditionally doneprimarily through print but alsoin broadcast and there wereso-called legacy media now arelosing a lot of their revenue,and our websites are notpicking it up. It's defused outalong a lot of advertising mediaso that's the problem.
Yeah. Old song journalismcost money and good journalismcost a lot of money.
That's how I see it.
Where to find it and thereare temptations for the management side of journalism that are perilous.
Yes and one problem we seetoday is what they call nativeadvertising. Native -- Iunderstand because it wants tomimic the appearance of the newscontent that it mingles withfreely on the web, and there'ssome disclosure, but it's oftenobtuse, very obscure and I don'tthink the readers understandwhen they get into it thatthey're reading a paid message.Sooner or later they do discoverthat and I think they trust usless because they have beenfooled. These are ad messagesthat appear to be news but theydiscover they're not really butthey're serving the purpose ofthe marketers and I think themarketers are fine but theyought to be in their environmentwhile we're in our environment.
Our environment is pretty --you help lead the PhiladelphiaInquirer to unquestionexcellence in the quartercentury that you were there.
It was a great experience.
Well, you look at some of thegreat papers of the country andthere's just depressing. Cutback after cut back. Foreignbureau is closing. Domesticbureau is closing. How to riseto this challenge? It'sfinancial.
We're hoping that someonewill come along, an entrepreneurwho likes it and under write thejournalism that people are usedto and they expect. We've notgot that savior yet.
You have wealthy people likeMr. Buffet bias newspaper andJeff -- I can't pronounce hisname.
And the Washington Journal sold recently and the ownershave deep pockets but otherpapers are shuddering. Fewereditions. Are these toys or dothey know something?
We know that Jeff at theWashington Post knows what hewants. He's a successfulentrepreneur and apply that knowhow to making money for theWashington Post so its excellentnews staff can continue withthat kind of work, so Mr. Buffetobviously knows what he is doingwhen he is buying midsize paper.I live in Charlotte Virginia andhe is spending it there and Ihaven't seen him do that but Ithink he sees there is demandsfor papers of that size into thefuture and they supply the localnews that people can't getanywhere else and that is themix but metro newspapers whichprovide so much of the contentthat we read and hear and viewand look on the websites forthey are in real trouble.
Boston Globe, a paper withcertainly national -- ofnational significance and firstrate job of local coverage tooand a lot of people -- it waspurchased by the "New YorkTimes" company for over abillion dollars, something likethat and sold for -- just theother day for -- I am trying toremember how little.>>I am sure it's under sixfigures and same thing hashappened to the paper theyworked on for 25 years, thePhiladelphia Inquirer. It hasfive owners in the last sixyears. When Ritter sold it toMcClatchy they sold it as partof the package for the papersand McClatchy sold it to a local a huge amount and the owners bought it for 55 million and thepoint is well taken.
And the old Newsweek sold fora buck. Is there a countersource? Are news consumerssaying they still want news?You know there are I think 6,000channels coming in on my cablesystem at home. I have theinternet on my fingertips with azillion websites niche and veryfew broad base informationthings that I consider reliable.What's a consumer to do?
It is true it's gone to theniche. Roger Ailes had a greatbusiness plan years ago andestablished Fox News. Myexperience as editor is thecomplaints we get are mostlyabout bias in political coverageand I try to be detached aboutthat and analyze the complaintsand people were not reading inthe paper what they wanted toread so Roger Ailes gives themwhat they want to see and hearand so does MSNBC which followsa similar business plan but onthe other side of the spectrum.It's diffused now. There are somany as you said so many ways toget news and I think people arelooking for -- I hope they arefor news sites they can trustand I think the legacy media,the broadcast networks, the bignewspapers like the "New YorkTimes", the "Wall StreetJournal" hope to survive withthe long-term success on the webbecause people can trust theirbrand.
A couple of your colleaguesat Fayetteville discussed justover coffee the prospect anywayof coming full circle inAmerican journalism anyway wherepeople return to an largely partisan press where the consumer can go out and getexactly what he or she wants tohear, not necessarily vetted,not necessarily to any greatstandard of the mainstream orthe legacy media as you put itbut they want to hear, what theywant to believe. A concern ofyours?
Yes I don't think that's theway journalism should bedelivered but you're right ourcountry was founded with freepress but the basis was there ahighly partisan press and overthe years, maybe a century afterthat, as mass circulationdailies flourished theyrecognized that we ought toappeal to a broad audience andnot on the basis of partisanopinion so the idea of a neutralpoint of view took hold at theend of the 19th century andthroughout the 20th and now asyou have said we're moving backtowards a partisan source ofnews, and I think that a nonpartisan approach to the news isthe best way. I hope that's theway that survives but we don'tknow.
Why do they not believe it,so many consumers not believeit? You guys are bias --usually to the left. You'rebias to the left.
That's what they say. Ithink we're not guilty ascharged. Not that we're perfectbut I think the news media aregenerally trying to do the rightthing. Journalists are tryingto do the right thing and thebetter we get at that in termsof more ethical the morecriticism we get. All of thepolls show that over the last 20years that our credibility has diminished. We working with fewer resources so maybe we'renot as good as the 80's or theearly 90's in terms ofresources, but I do think thatjournalists have tried todeliver the news impartially,straight news, but people aresaying that they don't trust usas much as they used to.
I think it was the lateLiebling -- AJ Liebling saidthat freedom of the pressbelongs to one that owns one.
It's a good line.
And printing press and$30 million to set up anewspaper, something along thatline. Now for $500 you can geta laptop computer and maybe -- Idon't have one but maybe awebsite costs $50, $100 bucks toset up. Let's say a thousanddollars and now you're ajournalist and anyone can tunein and you can put just aboutanything on there. There isstill a liable standard so it'sso diffuse.
Yes, I think most of those --
And I guess gene ought to bewe're not a profession. We needto point that out and we're notregulated by government and norshould we be.
I think we adopt thetrappings and ethics code of theprofession but you're rightbecause of the first amendmentwe can't be regulated andoverall that's a good thing andthe politicians who would be theregulators might put a goodjournalist out of businessbecause they're making anuisance of themselves to thepeople that want to control theinformation so it's a good thingbut it also means anybody can bea journalist and do they proscribe to truth seeking and serving the public. If everyoneis a journalist there aredifferent motivations and Ithink we will lose something andthe buyer has to be aware -- theconsumer has to be aware is thesite they're looking at reallytruth worthy? And I think thisis where the legacy media withthe brand names have anadvantage if they don't lose it.
Back to ethics or more onethics. This industry has beenI think fair to say over theyears slow to open itself tooutside inspection. There wasgreat -- the National NewsCouncil founded 20 years ago Iguess. Short lived a lot ofpapers -- the old gray lady in"New York Times" andreluctant and practical in houserevolt over a ombudsmen andother papers have been slow toaccept it and adopt it but nowthere seems a trend in thatdirection. Toward an outsideset of eyes, an ombudsmen,editor.
The idea of a news councilhas been around for a long timeover 60 years but you're rightit never took old and the "NewYork Times" among otherorganizations opposed it. Theirconcern was that a voluntarycouncil of outside people tryingto judge you and regulate youand would lead possibly togovernment control, so onprinciple they opposed it, butafter the Jason Blare case ofthe "New York Times" where areporter fabricated andplagiarized and fooled "New YorkTimes" readers and the editorsthey decided they would accept ain house public editor that isinsulated from the control or influence of the editors themselves, and we're now in ourfourth or fifth public editorand all good journalists butthey have a mixed review in thenews room. Do they really wantsomebody that we're paying tocause us a lot of problems?
Do we want it both ways?
Yeah that's right. Want itboth ways, but we should be opento criticism. In public we'reserving the public and we try toopen yourself up to letters tothe editor and now commentsonline and I think we recognizethe importance of being part ofthe community and having adialogue with the communityabout what we're doing. Ourperformance is very muchsomething that ought to bediscussed by the public, yes.
That tension -- that's everpresent though particularly insmaller papers. ThePhiladelphia Inquirer maybe ableto buck a million dollar threat.
But the -- well, a paperdaily of 30,000 circulation thatis taking a $10,000 hit, a$100,000 hit. That's tough.
I concede -- it's easier todo if you're running ametropolitan newspaper back inthe heydays of where we had alot of revenue and we could sayno without a risk we would goout of business. Did it costus? Yes. But did it put us outof business? No and a milliondollars or less as you suggestin a smaller organization is adeath nail for them, so thelevel of sacrifice the smalleryou get the greater thesacrifice to do the right thing.
I suppose it just goeswithout saying that one editor faced with cut backs I kind of admired and I won't mentionwhich one but said "Enough ofthis. We have to do more withless" And that's nonsense. Wedo less with less.
Yeah. That is whistling inthe dark there and surmount thecuts that come time and timeagain. We're not going to be asgood as we were before. If Iremember the managing editor yeswe have to do the best we canbut we have to make harddecisions about what we're notgoing to cover in the future.
With all of this said are youoptimistic? Where are you on ascale?
Yes, I tell the students -- Itry to explain to them ascolleagues do and the transitionperiod and the difficulties themedia is in we want them to goin with their eyes open. Wealso tell them that journalismon the web and all of thedigital devices to transmit thenews and back to the newsorganization and to the audiencespeed of light offers greatpossibilities if we can justsolve the economic problems.They will do better in thelong-term than we can and in thepast of delivering the news so Ithink it's casual optimism isthe way I see it.
We will end it there. GeneForeman thank you very much foryour time.
Thank you for yours and wewill see you next time.