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Ethics week

Here is the unedited text of the op-ed piece spiked by Providence Journal publisher Howard G. Sutton:

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. -- The official theme of the week at the Chautauqua Institution was "the ethics of information." The news media came in for their share of lumps.

The main lecture platform featured such names as Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post; Kevin Klose, president of National Public Radio; and Hodding Carter III, former Mississippi newspaper editor and State Department spokesman.

Carter reminded his audience that "journalism is a public trust." But he expressed discouragement about the way that trust is being served these days. As to the quality of the news product consumed by most Americans, he said, "The glass is in fact half empty and on its way down to being two-thirds empty."

More than one speaker referred to the extremely high operating profit margins achieved by media companies (20 to 25 percent for newspapers, up to 50 percent for local TV stations).

Carter quoted the late John Knight, founder of what is now the Knight Ridder newspaper chain: "We believe in profitability, but do not sacrifice either principle or quality on the altar of the counting house." Today, Knight's successors cannot make the same claim.

And Carter asked: "How much profit is enough?" His answer: "On Wall Street, they'll say, 'It's never enough.'"

The well documented liberal leanings of most newspaper and broadcast editors and reporters was barely mentioned all week as a problem, even by William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. Kristol was more concerned about the consolidation of media companies.

The only direct comment on liberalism came from Jack Nelson, retired Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and a once familiar face on Washington Week in Review. Nelson defensively and speciously commented, "The whole thing about the liberal bias of the press is total baloney, pushed by conservatives, and it's just not true."

Nelson pandered to his audience with an opening remark that he would be talking about the oxymoron of journalism ethics. Ugh.

Almost as irritating were the self-serving, self-back-patting comments of Downie, who talked as if the Washington Post and the New York Times were the only papers in the country producing quality journalism. And only a bit lower on the irritation scale were the remarks of Klose, who spent more time telling us how wonderful NPR is than shedding light on media problems.

Paul Duke, former moderator of Washington Week, kept his focus on television news, where he said he sees "fluff prevailing over substance" and "entertainment values over news values."

But too often during the week speakers would talk about the "media" as if it's all one big monolithic enterprise, lumping the serious print press with everything from supermarket scandal sheets to network TV news to the talking (shouting) heads on the TV commentary programs.

Well, don't lump me with that other stuff, please. The newspaper business has enough shortcomings without adding to our burden.

Some of our problems in the serious print press are the result of human fallibility on the part of well meaning editors and reporters. But most of our deficiencies these days stem from the bottom-line focus of media conglomerates which treat newspapers as cash cows rather than as a public trust.

That has happened to the once prestigious chain of newspapers created by John and James Knight. Both men are dead, and the organization has been taken over by executives from the Ridder chain, which merged with Knight Newspapers years ago to form Knight Ridder.

Chain ownership is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm fortunate to live in an area where I can read the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., an excellent daily owned by the McClatchey chain of California.

There are still a few family-owned newspapers around, whose executives don't feel a need to kowtow to Wall Street. And the New York Times is the rare example of a great paper owned by a public corporation but still controlled by the founding family.

Hodding Carter says there is a "terrible malaise" in the nation's newsrooms as the dreams of young journalists are shattered on the altar of profit. I don't accept that.

Even on papers whose news budgets are starved by corporations focused on the bottom line, there are conscientious editors and reporters who are striving to do a good job with limited resources.

Those are the people who are keeping the flame of good journalism alive.

Some day the corporations will feel it in the pocketbook when enough of their readers get fed up with the thin gruel they're served in the guise of a newspaper, and circulation drops to unprofitable levels.

Then they will come to the realization that there will always be an elite, educated audience that demands a solid product with a thorough and detailed news report. And when that happens, even the Gannetts of the world will decide that it's good business to put out good newspapers.

Issue Date: October 18 - 24, 2002