Journalists who allow themselves to turn into celebrities run grave risks of damaging the profession. That’s the warning from one of the leading US print journalists, Johnny Apple, who believes that the credibility of journalism is under threat like never before.
Giving the Reuters Foundation’s Iain Walker Memorial Lecture last week at Oxford University, Apple said: "We are in the process of being turned into entertainment personalities, into celebrities. Let me tell you, celebrity is a pernicious, poisonous quality."
Apple, whose 46 years at The New York Times included a spell as bureau chief in London, noted that the US now has about 17 nationally broadcast television talk shows.
Most of these issue regular invitations to journalists "to come on and say what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with the president… to come on and air their views their prejudices, whatever. And these are not editorial leader writers, these are not columnists – these are daily reporters. And then they have to go out the next week and write stories about the politicians they have been trashing. That just strips away the last shred of credibility of fairness in my view. Even worse, we lose the sense of who we are. We are meant to be reporters, not entertainers; writers, not dancers."
He was armed with a sheaf of further examples of the blurring of the journalistic boundaries, most pointedly the appearance of CBS news presenter Dan Rather at a Democratic Party fundraising event, where he gave the principal speech. "When asked about it, Rather said, ‘maybe it was a bit over the line, but it didn’t hurt anybody’," Apple said. "Well let me tell you, it’s just one more for all those thousands of people who don’t believe us when we say we try to play it straight."
Apple was also concerned at journalists’ assumption that their own analysis was more important than the facts. "There is a tendency to front-load stories with the journalist’s opinion. The reader deserves to get the gist of the story before we start spinning.
"All of this has helped to persuade the American public that we, like our government, are not to be trusted and are not doing our job. And my big question is, how do we get back the confidence that they once had in us?"
Apple added that he felt British broadsheets had lost some of their ability to report stories straightforwardly. "It’s all interpretation. The reporting ain’t what it was. There used to be wonderful, wonderful reporting from abroad and now… I have the feeling that the broadsheets have gone into the entertainment business. But I wonder if this is down to changes in ownership because the journalists have not got stupider – no way."
By Ian Reeves