It felt like the Waldorf Astoria Trailer Park. At a surreal luncheon last Saturday in New York, about 1,000 journalists watched 60 Minutes media celebrities lose their cool in a boorish-yet-riveting name-calling fracas reminiscent of Mama's Family. Before it was over, CBS patriarch Mike Wallace had called his former producer Lowell Bergman -- both subjects of the film The Insider -- a "son of a bitch," and Wallace's boss, 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt, had made an emotional ass of himself.
The trashfest was the keynote address at the national Investigative Reporters and Editors (www.ire.org) conference at the Waldorf Hotel. A diverse mix of TV and print journalists attended: freelancers like myself; local investigative reporters who get minimal recognition; and celebrity journalists like ABC's Ted Koppel and NBC's Stone Phillips who show up when IRE conferences pass through New York. Many Internet journalists also participated, and several panels dealt with technology-related issues: privacy and online journalism standards, among them.
Per usual with media pundits, "gatekeeping" got a lot of play. Many journalists say the ease of Internet self-publishing is obviating media gatekeeping functions: editing, reporting standards, ethical rules. Most journalists believe such filters are necessary online, as in broadcast and print, to ensure fair and accurate reporting. The Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) has become a media symbol for how low unchecked "reporting" on the Internet can stoop.
They're right, in theory. Despite inevitable violations, we need journalistic standards. Every medium, online or off, needs to carefully check facts. Columnists need to base opinion pieces on actual, substantiated facts. Journalists should always credit other publications for stories they piggyback onto. And everyone, journalist or not, who publishes opinions online needs to understand libel and copyright law. These standards are often ignored in self-published reports on the Internet, or in bogus statements passed by e-mail. And some of the most libelous statements happen in those online forums: Unfortunately it'll probably take a few highly publicized lawsuits to teach that an angry citizen can't just unleash unsubstantiated accusations against the enemy for all to read. We all share the same responsibility, journalism degree or not.
Of course we need "gatekeeping" -- but where should it come from, and is "self-gatekeeping" possible? Increasingly, our gatekeepers are operating under a corporate umbrella, whether America Online, Microsoft, Disney or a pseudo-libertarian Orange County publisher. It too often becomes a question of whether one corporate giant will criticize another. And will a corporate brother (say, NBC) investigate its stepsister (Microsoft)?
Maybe they will, but can we trust that they will? No.
The CBS mud-sling during IRE shows that traditional gatekeepers are becoming less capable of being entrusted with that role; they're too busy defending their own questionable decisions and cover-ups. CBS' Hewitt ostensibly stood up Saturday to tell journalists how to do our jobs better. He instead showed what not to do: an ad hominem attack on a man not asked to attend. (There goes "fair.") The "hack" -- now a PBS producer and Berkeley journalism professor -- had his say during the film, Hewitt said. After the keynote ended, in the hall journalists crowded into a surreal circle around Wallace as he called Bergman a "son of a bitch" in an argument with PBS Frontline producer (and Bergman defender) David Fanning.
Sure, the dirt was mesmerizing -- it's hard not to watch stars mud wrestle. And it certainly highlighted the problem of corporate media ownership, in ironic ways: When asked by a reporter, 20-20 producer Roberta Baskin, who introduced Hewitt, admitted that her CBS career ended when she complained that reporters should not be forced to display Nike emblems on their jackets during the Olympics. But this dogfight rendered no solutions, or tips or even hope: The 60 Minutes folks want revenge for their bruised reputations. Thanks to corporate Hollywood, the film itself was too fictionalized to stand well under scrutiny. And the networks with the big money and power to expose corporate ills are scared of big tobacco, and God knows who else. (The NRA, Pfizer and Microsoft could make the short list.)
The Faustian drama did prove one point, however: The outside is a beautiful place to stay.