Yale Bulletin and Calendar

March 3, 2000Volume 28, Number 23

News publishers would have a better product if journalists focused on facts, Peter R. Kann said during his talk.

Executive decries 'disturbing trends' in the media

Unlike many businessmen, Peter R. Kann wishes his competitors put out a better product.

As chair and chief executive officer of Dow Jones & Company, Inc., Kann is publisher of The Wall Street Journal and editorial director of numerous print and Internet publications around the world. He decried several "disturbing trends" in today's mass media during his talk on Feb. 24 as part of the Yale School of Management's Leaders Forum series.

"Publishing," Kann told the audience gathered in the General Motors Room of Horchow Hall, "can be both a public trust and a very profitable business."

Noting that his company's "primary product is news," he said, "News is a unique and uniquely important product. At its best, news informs and enlightens the citizens of a free society, and thereby helps to safeguard and continue to strengthen our democracy. At its worst -- which is to say, dishonest, unfair, irresponsible -- I think the media has the potential to erode the public trust on which its own success actually depends. And, even worse, it can corrode the democratic system of which it is so important a part."

Formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Kann noted that it is unusual for media companies to be run by ex-journalists. Yet, he argued, "there is a need for people who run media companies to understand the values and standards that, for example, separate news from gossip or information from entertainment."

Contending that journalism which "puts too high a priority on entertainment is almost destined to distort and mislead," Kann maintained that "entertainment that masquerades as news is really even more insidious because it taints and tarnishes real journalism."

Equally disturbing, he argued, is the "blurring of news and opinion" in today's coverage. While there is "room for both," he said, the traditional formats that divided the two in newspapers do not exist in other media. Furthermore, the "fashionable new philosophy" that "news and views" are inherently inseparable "points a dagger at the heart of what I would call genuine journalism, of seeking fact by fact by fact to record the truth," he proclaimed.

It's also become "stylish" to suggest that "the Chinese Wall which traditionally has separated news from advertising needs to go the way of the Berlin Wall," said Kann, pointing to the proliferation of "advertorials" and "infomercials." If there is no distinction between the two, he said, consumers "lose confidence in the veracity of the news medium," and advertisers lose "the benefit of an environment of trust."

According to Kann, other issues plaguing the media today include:

"The pitfalls of 'pack' journalism": While journalists like to see themselves as independent thinkers, "put a few dozen together and some strange infection takes hold," said Kann, and they lose their common sense and fairness.

A need for more "perspective": News coverage of controversial issues tends to focus on extremists' views, noted Kann, while ignoring those in the middle of the spectrum. "Normalcy, you might argue, is not news," he said, but "not all issues can be captured in terms of conflict." There is need for "a balanced context," he added.

"An exaggerated tendency toward pessimism": Unlike skepticism or criticism, which are healthy journalistic qualities, there is increasingly a "mindset that assumes the worst and bends reality to suit that framework," he said. "The truth is not always doom and gloom."

"A fascination with the bizarre, the perverse and often the pathological": Pointing out that some coverage "serves to almost instantly legitimize almost any crackpot idea or alien behavior or alleged victimization," Kann suggested that "editors should ask themselves more often if some of this amounts to news at all."

Reflecting "political correctness": The job of good journalism is not to "parrot prevailing fashions," contended Kann, but "to get beyond the stereotypes and simplifications." For example, business people "are not, by definition, greedy" and environmentalists "are not, by definition, saintly," he noted. "It is incumbent on the media to seek out the fullest range of views."

"The problem of attention span": Today, it is "a very rare issue or event that can long sustain the attention or focus of the media," said Kann. "There are too many two-day crises ... too many so-called 'defining moments' from people in search of a kind of instant history."

The "power" of the media: While "the U.S. media is a very powerful force in our society," Kann argued, "the media should not aspire to power" but should aim instead, to "empower" the public by providing critical information. The show "60 Minutes" is really "a more powerful institution than most of the subjects it exposes," he said. And, given that most media outlets are now owned by giant corporations, "we in the media cannot plausibly pretend to be a little David out there slaughtering Goliaths and expect the public to believe it," he said.

Throughout his speech, while criticizing the problems in the mass media, Kann pointed with pride to the journalistic standards held at The Wall Street Journal and its related publications, calling them "serious" newspapers for "serious" readers.

Why, Kann asked in concluding his speech, should the problem of journalistic integrity matter to an audience of business students?

While he could simply revel in his competitors' failings, Kann said, "It's not a good thing in any industry, even for quality and value leaders, to see others selling a substandard product. In short, we would rather be the best in an industry of quality producers, than one of the few quality producers in an industry largely involving junk."

Also, he added, "This all ought to matter because values like honesty, integrity and truth ought to underpin any sort of business in any industry, but, above all, in one that has such a great influence on society at large."

-- By LuAnn Bishop


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