No matter what the transgressions of journalists today, they can't hold a candle to the excesses of yesteryear. What media baron of this era has the power-and gumption-to provoke a war, as Pulitzer's World and Hearst's New York Journal did when they reported on Spanish atrocities, real and alleged, to oppressed Cubans? Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba, and the Journal plastered half the front page with a Remington sketch depicting a naked Cuban girl surrounded by leering Spanish officers after they had boarded a ship flying the American flag. The World later revealed that the Remington illustration was pure fiction, but such reporting fanned the flames for U.S. intervention.
Two months after the U.S. battleship Maine mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana's harbor, the U.S. declared war on Spain. Coverage of the four-month Spanish-American War was wild-the Journal issued as many as 40 extras a day. William Randolph Hearst even drummed up news himself by capturing a group of Spanish soldiers.
That all happened almost 100 years ago, in 1898 (somebody is going to get rich by selling "Remember the Maine" t-shirts next year). Maybe things get a little strange at the turn of the century, but don't you think a Chicago TV station's hiring of Jerry Springer as a commentator, as it did last month, pales in comparison to the Journal's reporter who rescued a beautiful Cuban rebel from jail and brought her triumphantly to New York, as Karl Decker did nearly 100 years ago?
Of course 100 years ago people had nowhere else to turn for news of the day. And newspapers had no trouble selling their product-even if they had to start a war.
Today, the news comes from everywhere-as fast and furiously as anyone could want it. And yet, newspaper circulation and TV viewership continue to decline.
Bob Giles, formerly editor and publisher of the Detroit News who has just been named executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center in New York, believes to many Americans "the mass media has become the massive media-intrusive, sensational, uncaring and flawed by bias and inaccuracy. To many Americans, we lack introspection, discipline, restraint and a capacity for self-scrutiny."
All that-and lots more-could have been said about the "Yellow Journalism" of the Hearst and Pulitzer days. But Bob's point is that expectations are higher now. "The public recognizes that when the media descends on an individual citizen, it is a mismatch. The public recognizes imbalance in coverage and can separate what is newsworthy from what is trash," Bob said at a DePauw University gathering the other week.
Bob doesn't think a national news council, which would review complaints about the media, would do much good. He doesn't think it would be very useful as a way for the public to become better informed about how the press works. Too slow, too much like a libel trial.
The press, let's face it, doesn't want anybody poking into how it does business. But Steven Brill, the founder of American Lawyer, is about to take the law in his own hands, if he can raise the money. Mr. Brill wants to start a magazine on journalism, called Content, which would encourage complaints about the media. For six months prior to launch, his magazine will launch an "aggressive" consumer ad campaign soliciting complaints from all sources. He's even talking about making the most controversial complaints the subject of mini-libel trials on a weekly cable TV channel such as Court TV.
The media, I am convinced, is about to come under intense scrutiny, brought about by its arrogant ways. The difference between now and 100 years ago is that back then newspapers had no pretensions about aspiring to a noble calling.