Seigenthaler: Attack coverage could help restore news media’s credibility

Thursday, September 27, 2001

The news media’s outstanding coverage of the recent terrorist attacks on the United States could help heal the erosion of the public’s trust in the press, John Seigenthaler told a packed audience at Arizona State University in Tempe last week.

“The excellent on-the-spot reporting offered by many reporters can help rebuild the credibility of the news media which has suffered substantially, largely because of tabloid journalism and irresponsible reporting,” he said. “I’m so hopeful that this will bring about a healing in the political system, a healing in the country and more trust and credibility in the news media.”

Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, joined KPNX-TV 12 news anchor Lin Sue Cooney on Sept. 18 in a discussion about the news media and the First Amendment as part of the First Amendment Festival at ASU.

John Seigenthaler

Both Cooney and Seigenthaler pointed to the quick, accurate and compassionate way journalists reported the suicide attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

“I think the media has done a good job of covering [the attacks] on the spot and as the days have unfolded,” Seigenthaler said.

“I was surprised to see Dan Rather cry on the ‘David Letterman Show,’ ” Cooney said. “There’s this feeling that we’re all in this together and are being as open as we can.”

In the aftermath of the attacks, the media are obligated to report the news accurately and thoroughly and to curb the instinct to report rumors, Seigenthaler said.

Excessive reporting about such incidents as the sex scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky have contributed to a mistrust and disrespect of the media, he added. “Changes in the culture of news reporting have shaken confidence in the news media.”

But competition, not a desire to report accurately, motivates the media to cover sex scandals and other titillating items, Cooney said. “The public got so tired of it that they were screaming for something else, yet the competition drives the press to keep those stories at the top of the news,” Cooney said.

Journalists don’t always exercise the best judgment when it comes to selecting news items, Seigenthaler said. Constant reporting about scandals “makes people want to go somewhere else on the tube,” he said. “That’s why old movies, new movies and dirty movies sometimes get better audiences than legitimate news programs.”

Although journalists have done a good job of giving a blow-by-blow account of the attacks, they have not done a good job of informing the public about the Islamic world, Seigenthaler said.

Lin Sue Cooney

“The press hasn’t told us enough about Islam and Islamic extremists,” he said, emphasizing that the two groups are different. “The mainstream of that religion is as committed to love as the dominant Christian religion in this country. … I think the press has a major responsibility to help us understand the parts of the world that we don’t know. It’s a cliché to say we’re a global village, but it’s true.”

The news media also have a responsibility to guard against government secrecy, especially in times of war, Seigenthaler said. “The press has a responsibility to be on guard against the fearful government reaction that comes when trouble strikes.”

The public, however, doesn’t always understand the news media’s role, Seigenthaler said. A journalist’s primary job is to keep the people informed, he said. The public’s understanding of the press is directly tied to public opinion about First Amendment guarantees, he added. People don’t understand that “press rights are their rights.”

“Part of the reason is that we don’t tell them. Almost never do we explain what we do or why it’s important,” he said.

Seigenthaler agreed with founding father Alexander Hamilton who said the guarantee of First Amendment rights “will finally depend on the public opinion and the general spirit of the people and the government.” Seigenthaler said he created the First Amendment Center because people do not overwhelmingly support First Amendment freedoms.

“The idea was to raise the level of discussion and have people talk about what [the First Amendment] means to them and their families — what free thought, free expression, the freedom to worship, the right to assemble — what all that means,” he said. “I thought if we could raise the level of debate about it then it [would] help [safeguard the freedoms the First Amendment protects].”

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