Robert MacNeil decries decline of news judgment

Monday, September 30, 2002
Robert MacNeil delivers Seigenthaler Center dedication address as Freedom Forum Chairman and CEO Charles Overby, center, and First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler look on.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Veteran broadcast journalist Robert MacNeil attacked what he regarded as the takeover of news judgment by bottom-line considerations in his dedication address on Sept. 26 for the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University.

In his speech, “Marketing Journalism,” MacNeil cited the First Amendment Center’s 2002 State of the First Amendment survey finding that nearly half of those asked said the First Amendment “goes too far” in the freedoms it protects.

Noting that “the least popular First Amendment right is freedom of the press,” MacNeil wondered whether “any such unifying idea as the American press” still exists amid the explosion of diverse news sources – “a thousand sources and a thousand levels of seriousness or reliability” – everything from NPR to “Access Hollywood.”

But he told an audience of 250 people that outside of a “responsible core of journalism that still gathers, edits and disseminates news more or less by traditional standards,” most of today’s nontraditional news sources exercise news judgment based on sensationalist entertainment criteria.

“Except in moments of extreme peril, there is no consensus on what matters,” said MacNeil, former co-anchor of “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS. “In place of consensus there is a scramble to make anything sound important, or urgent, or dire, or sexy, to hold some scraps of the splintering, channel-surfing, multitasking audience.”

He said coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was “the news media at their finest” – but that gradually the media had returned to “inconsequence and sensation.” Sept. 11 “made the media, from the most serious to the most trivial, know what mattered – for a while,” he said.

“But where was all the investigative power of American journalism directed in the decade before Sept. 11?” MacNeil asked. He said journalistic professionalism was suffering from an overpowering drive for excessive profits by the companies that own news organizations.

“The First Amendment carries no strictures against making oodles of money; it does not require good taste or good judgment; it does not condemn sensationalism,” MacNeil said. “It merely supposes that a free press is necessary to lubricate and ventilate a democratic society, and it supposes that a democratic citizenry will trust the press (or some parts of it) because it is free.”

Alluding again to recent survey results, MacNeil added, “I have no idea whether any of the public unhappiness with the press is because readers and viewers perceive they have become market fodder in the media wars … . But just as one reader and viewer, the evidence is clear to me how much news is increasingly not edited but marketed.”

The Seigenthaler Center, which houses the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center and its Diversity Institute on the Vanderbilt campus, recently underwent expansion to accommodate new programs and was named in honor of Seigenthaler.

MacNeil also noted the importance of the newsroom-diversity programs at the center.

“Newsrooms whose personnel reflect the diversity of the community serve their community better,” he said. “With that comes greater credibility, and American journalism these days needs every scrap of credibility it can earn.”

Seigenthaler, who founded the First Amendment Center, is chairman emeritus of The Tennessean in Nashville, where he worked as an award-winning journalist for 43 years. He was also founding editorial director of USA TODAY and a champion of civil rights as well as of First Amendment freedoms.

“As a person, a journalist and a citizen, John Seigenthaler has lived by the values the center enshrines,” said MacNeil, who is a Newseum trustee. Seigenthaler is a Freedom Forum and First Amendment Center trustee.

Tags: ,