Critics fret as journalists make believe


There is a jarring note of reality in the new cyber-thriller "The Net." There amid the diskettes, Internet sites and computer viruses is Daniel Schorr, the distinguished veteran journalist whose career dates back to the Marshall Plan and who served at CBS with Edward R. Murrow. It is Mr. Schorr, playing a TV anchor, who reads the news stories that advance the movie's plot.

From "Murphy Brown" to David Letterman's "Late Show" to "The Net," television and movies are luring journalists into the land of entertainment, and the trend worries some media observers.

"If people see a journalist on TV one day and see him in a movie the next, they could see that as a further blurring of the lines between news and entertainment," says Bob Steele, the director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "We put integrity and credibility at risk by stepping into an arena in which others can make fun of us or our credibility is brought into question."

It's striking enough to see an old-media mainstay like Mr. Schorr in a distinctly new-media movie. But what's more surprising is that Mr. Schorr -- a champion of traditional journalistic values who made Richard Nixon's enemies list and risked a contempt of Congress citation and imprisonment to protect his sources -- lent his image and craft to the pursuit of box-office bucks. This is the same Dan Schorr who, in a 1993 speech at Harvard, decried the impact of the dollar-driven ratings frenzy on TV news.

Taken on its face, Mr. Schorr's foray into Hollywood isn't perceived as a major sin.

And the journalist, now at National Public Radio, is candid about his appearance in "The Net."

"I've taken a very big public position that we journalists are the last guardians of reality," he says. "On the big issue, I will still argue . . . that one has to be extremely careful."

His movie role, he adds, was "totally inconsistent" with that philosophy. "The idea amused me. I cannot in any way justify it. I just went ahead and did it because at age 79, I said, 'What the hell.' "

Mr. Schorr isn't the first to succumb to the lure of "lights, camera, action." Earlier this year, Dan Rather obligingly did a "Top Ten List" shtick on the David Letterman show that he later acknowledged regretting. The 1993 movie "Dave" featured a host of journalists -- from NPR's Nina Totenberg to Newsweek's Eleanor Clift -- evaluating the tenure of the presidential stand-in played by Kevin Kline.

One of those newsmen/actors was Bernard Kalb, who regularly scrutinizes press ethics on CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Broadcast journalists regularly show up on "Murphy Brown." Former ABC anchor Howard K. Smith appeared in the movie "Nashville," and Walter Cronkite did a famous bit on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Geraldo Rivera once played an obnoxious talk show host (surprise!) in a Perry Mason movie, and he appeared as a journalist in "Bonfire of the Vanities."

And as television historian Alex McNeil points out, John Daly actually was host of the old CBS game show "What's My Line?" at the same time he was anchoring the ABC evening newscasts. By way of comparison, he says, "It would be like Peter Jennings doing the 'Dating Game' on Fox."

That mind-boggling scenario has yet to unfold, but Patricia Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University, says the warning signs are ominous for the viability and credibility of the news business.

"I don't think we can leave it just to the journalists," she says. "I don't think they can be the sole proprietors of journalistic integrity. . . . There's a very, very stong push in the industry to make news another profit node and to make it more entertainment."

News organizations today, she adds, "have all become part of huge infotainment machines." Examples: the Time Warner empire and Disney's purchase of ABC.

It can be hard to tell news from entertainment without a scorecard. Several years ago, NBC's "Dateline," in the guise of investigative journalism, created a fiery but fictional truck crash worthy of a Bruce Willis action film. Last month, ABC's "PrimeTime Live" allowed itself to be exploited as little more than a long commercial for the flagging career of Michael Jackson.

Compounding this dilution of news values is the culture of journalist as celebrity.

Stories in the American Journalism Review have hammered hard at the practice of "buckraking" in which such media stars as Cokie Roberts and George Will jet into a convention, give a standard speech, shake a few awe-struck hands and collect tens of thousands of dollars. Critics consider it journalism's version of a Las Vegas nightclub act.

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