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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 30, 2002

Watergate coverage set news standard

By Chuck Freedman

Television recently marked the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in with a spate of shows featuring Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters who broke the story. The consummate point the reporters made was that this extraordinary, investigative journalism led to our understanding of a deep and fatal flaw in President Richard Nixon and, ultimately, to his resignation from office.

A secondary discussion point was the impact the Washington Post's Watergate coverage made on journalism in the three decades that followed. Woodward and Bernstein were highly critical of the "gunslinger" reporting that Watergate bred. They were quick to point out the Post's standards for gathering and corroborating facts before anything was published. They grieved the erosion of these standards.

As I watched the CNN coverage of this, CNN proudly voiced-over its "Real News, Real Fast" slogan, and I wondered if I was the only one in America who caught the irony of the moment. I thought to myself, in honor of Woodward and Bernstein, how about "Real News, Real Accurate" or just "Accurate News" because news by definition should be real?

The race to be first with the "story," in too many instances, has made a victim of balanced news. Thirty years after Watergate, everyone who values the free press should take stock not merely of "what" a contribution two "beat" reporters and a newspaper made to our country, but "how" they made it i with journalistic discipline that made a model of free speech.

We should examine these issues in our own back yard by questioning the practices of local media, either to grab their audiences by placing marketing over journalism or by blurring the lines between "real news" and everything else, from entertainment to sensationalism.

Let's examine several local examples, not by themselves high crimes, but indications of slipping standards. High on the list are TV news "phone-in" polls in which the audience is asked to call in its opinion on the issue of the day. This type of poll has no accuracy because there is no statistically valid sample. Some "genius" mainland consultant probably has told the TV station this is a good method to increase viewership.

One station reports these meaningless findings as if they are news, and then tells us this is an "unofficial snapshot." What does that mean? Now they are labeling a worthless news practice with language that is seemingly vague but in reality is meaningless. Bad journalism described badly. And they steal from the already-small TV news hole to do it. Really, this is an embarrassment; I don't care what they are doing in Los Angeles.

The daily newspapers have adopted the practice of running columns on news pages, challenging readers to determine if they are getting news or opinion. Lee Cataluna's column in The Advertiser is marked as a column and thus easy to separate from the adjoining news stories. But the Raising Cane articles by Rob Perez in the Star-Bulletin are a hybrid. My Jerry Seinfeld inner voice asks, "Is it news? Is it opinion? What's up with this story?" Suggestion: If it ain't pure news, put it in the editorial pages, or at least clearly label it as an opinion piece.

Perhaps that's too picky a point. But if the newspapers are not the standard bearers, who will be?

Local TV and press are jointly guilty of "rounding up the usual suspects" when it comes to getting quotes on particular issues. In the media universe, there seem to be just a handful of university professors constantly quoted on politics, a minimal number of general business savants and — perhaps saddest of all — a limited number of people commenting on Native Hawaiian issues. The "Real News, Real Fast" Rolodex reflects a desire to quickly get a quote, pseudo-pithy and predictable. Our community is rich and diverse in opinions; let's increase the tributaries which feed news stories.

Somewhat similarly, there is an increased tendency by reporters to pick up blocks of information from "the Web" and using it without confirming it, as if it's accurate because it's been printed. Clearly no source of information needs more double-checking than cyberspace.

We should have hope. For a relatively small market, Honolulu has a strong supply of talented reporters. Indeed, if there were a way out of this market, without going to the Mainland, we would likely lose more of our better reporters.

I believe the call to action from Woodward and Bernstein is for self-discipline and self-policing, which begins with the reporter and must be supported by the hierarchy of the news organization. The reminder is simple. The integrity of the news grows in direct relationship to the manner in which it's gathered.

Chuck Freedman, who was communications director for Gov. John Waihe'e, works for the Hawaiian Electric Co.