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Editors Urged To Take ‘High Road’

April 1, 1998

By MIKE FEINSILBER

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Newspapers can restore lost credibility by coming home to old standards and printing the news with balance and judgment, the leader of their professional association advised fellow editors Wednesday. ``We can’t out-TV television,″ she said.

``The high road is there if we will just take it,″ said Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian in Portland and retiring president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. ``If newspaper journalism and journalists long for greater respect, then newspaper editors must supply the discipline to play down _ not play up _ the trivial, the perverse, the bizarre.″

She summarized what she said was the message from readers:

``We don’t trust you. You can’t even get little things right, so you must really blow it on the big things. You’re arrogant. You don’t respect the rights of others. You’re too negative. You’re too liberal. You don’t write about things important to me.″

The topic of credibility dominated the day at the 850-member organization’s 75th annual meeting against the background of debate _ in and out of the news industry _ of the way the press has handled sexual allegations concerning President Clinton.

Critics _ also in and out of the industry _ have charged that the media have violated long-standing rules about identifying sources of news stories and respecting a president’s privacy.

The solution to ``the credibility crisis″ that Ms. Rowe urged was a return to standards, not an imitation of the journalism practiced in supermarket tabloids or on ``the runaway Internet.″

Looking back, she suggested that newspapers and their readers would have been better off during the months of the O.J. Simpson trial if they had devoted the space that the trial took on their front pages to significant, interesting local stories instead.

``Right on point,″ said Ray Holton, editor of The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., commenting on her speech. ``We take things and start reacting to them before the facts are really known. We should acknowledge mistakes and quickly remedy them.″

Added Richard Beene, executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian: ``It’s incumbent upon us to be balanced, fair and accurate, but bold enough to apologize and correct mistakes.″

Larry Reisman, editor of the Vero Beach (Fla.) Press-Journal, said on day one of the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story, ``we had a debate on whether to run it on the front page″ and finally decided that while it warranted page one treatment it would run on the lower half of the page. Now, after a barrage of stories, ``we’ve got to start thinking, Do we need to run that story? Do we run a story just because the competition has it?″

Another editor, Sandy Petykiewicz of The Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, said the standards of Washington journalism _ including the use of news from unidentified sources _ are lower than those of the staff of her own paper. She said her reporters do not write stories that come from unidentified sources.

At another session, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and CBS anchorman Dan Rather got into a finger-shaking dispute on credibility.

Frank said the press has a bias against officeholders, ``a bias to be negative, critical and skeptical″ and ``a predisposition not to trust politicians.″

Rather said a more valid criticism is that reporters all chase after the same story ``like a flock of turkeys going over a cliff.″

He conceded that the use of anonymous sources is ``overdone by just about everybody in journalism that I know″ _including himself.

There was a time, not that long ago, he said, when a reporter had to be ``teetotally certain″ that a story was true before he would put it out on the basis of anonymous sources and thus put his credibility on the line. ``I don’t except myself from this criticism,″ he said.

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