Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/03/24/bu_res.html
Journalism schools have not been known as places from which rebellion is likely to come. Far short of rebellion is their record for taking stances on things that are, shall we say, at stake in the news. The record is basically non-existent.
Journalism Deans (I was a department chair, which is like a dean without secretaries…) might and did speak up as individuals, but not as a council, which might have had some weight but also meant agreeing on what to throw our weight behind. This didn’t happen much during my years of service.
Many faculty members are media critics, of course, and get involved in the passions of the times, but as individuals, not as “the faculty” speaking into public debate. I’m not saying it never happens, but it rarely happens; and during the recent stresses and strains on the press, we haven’t seen J-school faculties passing many resolutions, or putting up much of a fight. (Including, of course, the NYU chapter.)
One could argue that this system is a wise system. “Let individuals take stands.” Most of the time that works.
So I was mildly surprised and mighty interested when I received a copy of a unanimous resolution passed by the Boston University Journalism Department Faculty and circulated to other J-Schools by Bob Zelnick, the former ABC News correspondent who now teaches journalism for a living.
The resolution condemned the practice of broadcasting government video news releases (VNRs) where the source of the material is not identified. It condemned the use in VNRs of “phony reporters” and their phony reports, “including sign-offs.” And, in its most important section, the Boston University Journalism Faculty urge the Bush Administration “to identify and cease other practices with respect to VNRs that run a substantial risk of misleading the public.”
Which is speaking from the seminar room directly to the White House.
Zelnick, who describes himself as a Republican and a conservative today, said in a cover memo to us, his colleagues in J-schools at other universities, that the action his faculty took was, in a sense, a memorial to a time when such actions made a difference.
“During the civil rights era, and again during the Vietnam war, we found that simple appeals to decency and respect for the rule of law presented by academicians often carried great moral and political impact,” Zelnick wrote to us. “We believe the same may be true with respect to this situation which strikes at the core of journalistic integrity.”
And then he urged other faculties to join his. Here’s the Resolution. On the other side, I will have some analysis, and more from Zelnick (who is an interesting man) on why he did it.
of the Boston University Journalism Faculty
Condemning Fraudulent Use of Video News Releases
March 22, 2005
As educators of the next generation of American journalists, we the journalism faculty at the College of Communication, Boston University:
Recognize the need of citizens in a democracy for information that is accurate, unbiased and independently gathered and presented;
Recognize the vital need of government to communicate with its citizens and the useful role print and video news releases (VNRs) can play in this process;
Recognize the obligation of news organizations to identify clearly the origin of any editorial material provided by government, business, interest group or any source other than their own news gathering or that of affiliated news organizations;
Recognize the obligation of government to avoid using VNRs for purposes of political advocacy or propaganda;
Recognize the need to avoid presenting the material in a way that invites public confusion as to its source;
Note the President’s recent statement that acknowledges the need to maintain a clear line of distinction between journalists and members of the government or Administration;
Condemn the use of “phony” reporters hired by the government to perform in VNRs where their affiliation with government is unstated, and urge the Administration to translate the President’s words into action by ceasing this practice at once;
Urge the Administration to identify and cease other practices with respect to VNRs that run a substantial risk of misleading the public;
Condemn the deliberate use by television news outlets of material knowingly obtained from the Administration without clear identification of its origin, and urge all members of the media to cease this deceptive practice at once.
We invite colleagues at other journalism schools and departments to endorse the Boston University Resolution.
of the Boston University Journalism Faculty
Condemning Fraudulent Use of Video News Releases
March 22, 2005
Department Chairman Bob Zelnick’s Letter to Colleagues:
Attached is a resolution adopted yesterday by the faculty of the Boston University Department of Journalism condemning the practice of broadcasting government video news releases (VNRs) where the source of the material is not identified.
We find particularly objectionable the use of “phony reporters” hired by one agency or another who deliver complete reports, including sign offs, without ever mentioning their affiliation and, in some cases misrepresenting it.
We also condemn those stations that knowingly run news segments, written, shot and recorded by the government with no identification as to the source of the material. We regard these practices as unethical journalism that run a high risk of confusing or even deceiving the public.
During the civil rights era, and again during the Vietnam war, we found that simple appeals to decency and respect for the rule of law presented by academicians often carried great moral and political impact. We believe the same may be true with respect to this situation which strikes at the core of journalistic integrity.
Accordingly we invite your distinguished faculty to join us in protesting the subversion of journalistic values both by the Government and those media collaborators who seek competitive advantage at the expense of fundamental public integrity.
Please let me know how your faculty responds to this invitation. It is my judgment that by acting in concert, we can achieve significant results.
College of Communication
Zelnick said he had a sense of alarm about the political moment in journalism. He did not think we were in danger of losing a free press; “that would be too much.” His concern was that the “press is losing its influence and standing in public policy debates.” In effect, a loss of power, but also truthtelling authority.
Zelnick traced things back to Nixon and Agnew and “they way they turned the power of the news media against itself.” (Which I thought a great way of putting it.) He said he recognized, as did others who have been around, that there is a pendulum swing in government and press relations; as they struggle for control of the news agenda, one side will gain on the other. But this situation was different.
“I don’t see the pendulum swinging back,” Zelnick told me. “I see us heading toward lower public standing, our confidence eroding, with the press losing some of its freedom not to government, but to corporate ownership. A lot of negatives. But they do not amount to the press being unfree.”
True. He clearly wanted to be what is sometimes called (in the biz) an “activist” chair, and stir the pot with his term. I told Zelnick that I admired what he had done, and would pass it along to his counterpart at NYU, acting chair Professor Mitchell Stephens— also a journalism historian, media critic, friend, co-author. It would be Mitch’s decision to bring this before the faculty, and I hope he will.
“I can think of a number of issues large enough to benefit from the expressions of the journalism faculty,” he said. Zelnick was serious about parallels to the civil rights era. It seemed to me he was asking the perfect question: if once there were university faculties who felt they had authority to speak in resolution form on vital questions of the day, what happened to that voice?
Did it go away, or did it die? “I would like to see other schools endorse the Resolution,” he said. And maybe more collective action down the road. He said he considered us—the J-school faculty of America!—an “untapped resource.” And of course we are. Zelnick’s a good chair; he knows what he’s doing. But it is the faculty who excelled here, speaking as one. (Itself a victory over the narcissism of small differences.)
Their statement is not excessive. It is not toothless; it has bite. It describes what is wrong. It objects with precision. It connects the duty to speak out with the duty to teach and set an example for the next generation. It is hard on professional journalists (“… We also condemn those stations that knowingly run news segments, written, shot and recorded by the government”) and on politicians or would-be propagandists.
But also notice: the resolution does not grandstand and condemn the Video News Release as a form. It is not about attacking public relations people. Or the Bush Administration with some grand theory, such as you might find at PressThink. It recognizes that government has to communicate information to citizens. It calls on the President to do something: review and cease VNR practices that “run a substantial risk of misleading the public.” It was put together with care and it shows fine political judgment. It limits itself to one thing: a matter of misleading the public— by design.
Thanks, Boston University Journalism Faculty, thanks Bob Zelnick, for setting an intelligent example.
At Nieman Watchdog, former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman writes: “Reporters should put the question about the fake videos not to groups that may be seen as adversaries of Bush but rather to his allies, including Republican governors, senators and other GOP figures. I expect some of them will have strong opinions on the issue, if asked.”
Susan Poling, managing associate general counsel at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), interviewed on On the Media:
SUSAN POLING: We didn’t choose to go by defining propaganda. Propaganda is a little bit in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s information or facts is another person’s propaganda. In a pre-packaged news story, an agency is emphasizing some facts and leaving others out. It’s just by the nature of anyone who sits down and writes something - they tell you some things; they don’t tell you other things. When you can evaluate what the source is, then you can help decide for yourself what information you are getting. So, we believe that it’s truly the covert nature of this that pushes it over into propaganda, because if the material were properly identified, we would say it is informational.
Brooke Gladstone of On the Media talks to Barbara Cochran, head of the Radio and Television News Directors Association:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, the president of the RTNDA would never advocate additional rules coming from the FCC. I understand that. On the other hand, though the RTNDA has a policy, it has absolutely no way to enforce it, and not even any way to monitor these infractions. So, broadcasters can continue to play these things without consequences.
BARBARA COCHRAN: You know, I think, again, the number of instances in which this material has actually been used are so few, relatively speaking, compared to all the information that goes out over the air all the time on so many local television stations.
“It is fair, of course, for the government to communicate with citizens via press releases on video as well as in print. It is not ethical or appropriate, however, to employ people to pose as journalists, either on or off camera.” From the American Society of Newspaper Editors letter of protest to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in the Karen Ryan case. (The Radio and Television News Directors Association, the comparable group in broadcast journalism, did not send such a letter.)
Andy Lark: “This is exactly the kind of leadership I wish we could get from the various PR associations that exist.”
Tom Rosenstiel and Marion Just write on the op-ed page of the New York Times:
Local broadcasters are being asked to do more with less, and they have been forced to rely more on prepackaged news to take up the slack. So we don’t have to search far to discover why the Bush administration has succeeded so well in getting its news releases on the air. The public companies that own TV stations are so intent on increasing their stock price and pleasing their shareholders that they are squeezing the news out of the news business.
Online petition from Free Press, an activist group, to Stop News Fraud. (41,000 signatures so far.)
Kudos to thinking man Joe Territo, who changed his mind about this post.
Slate, The Age of Missing Information: The Bush administration’s campaign against openness.
From the Washington Post, evidence that “the press” as a kind of umbrella institution does exist and will occasionally take action:
The friend-of-the-court brief was filed by 36 news organizations, including The Washington Post and major broadcast and cable television news networks, in support of reporters at the New York Times and Time magazine who face possible jail time for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigating the allegations. Those two organizations filed a petition Tuesday asking the full appeals court to review the case.
New York Times, Columbia Plans 2nd Master’s in Journalism. It’s the dawn of a two-year Master’s program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. (President Lee Bollinger is quoted.)
There will be two compulsory courses, a history of journalism and another, taught by the dean, on evidence and inference, in which students will learn to find and interpret statistics, archives and legal documents.
The program will also feature four yearlong seminars, based on subjects taught elsewhere in the university but intended for journalists. These include arts and culture, economics and business, politics and science. The program plans to add other courses, including immersion courses in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.
“We were very clear that what’s involved here is not farming out students to different disciplines, to simply learn what you learn in any political science class,” Bollinger said, “but, how do you create the materials and subject and form and shape of a deep, professional education for journalists?”