BILL KOVACH ,the social responsibility in the media and journalism.
Latin American journalists are invited to a congress organized by the Argentine group Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA) on social responsibility in the media and journalism. The meeting will be held on November 20 and 21 at Universidad de Palermo in Buenos Aires. The opening address will be presented by American journalist Bill Kovach, the former New York Times bureau chief in Washi
WHEN BILL KOVACH LEFT Washington in 1986, he was by anybody's definition a true media insider: head of The New York Times Washington bureau and on the short list of people who might one day achieve the Holy Grail of journalism and become the paper's executive editor. When the Times passed him over, the news that Kovach was leaving town to run The Atlanta Journal-Constitution created a sensation in the hermetically sealed orbit inside the Beltway. The day of the announcement, Kovach pulled a bottle of Scotch from his desk for a bittersweet late-afternoon celebration with his staff. They were disconsolate; he was jaunty. "I'm going to fly it into the mountain," he told them, "or I'm going to make it work."
History will record that the plane did indeed fly into the mountain: after a stormy two-year tenure in Atlanta, when the paper won two Pulitzers but Kovach ran afoul of his profit-minded corporate bosses, he left Atlanta to become curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. This summer he's returning to Washington to write books and op-ed pieces--moving back into the same house in Chevy Chase where he and his wife, Lynne, and their four children lived when he was the Time? bureau chief. But while the address hasn't changed, everything else has. Reporters don't keep bottles of Scotch in their desks these days unless they want a referral to the Employee Assistance Program, and Kovach is no longer a newsroom bigfoot. He's a press critic--a role that, depending on prevailing opinion, makes him either a priggish elitist or a self-exiled member of an unruly and irresponsible tribe. His complaints are forceful and particular: The rise of the 24-hour news cycle is tempting journalists to abdicate their obligation to sort out gossip from facts, he says, and turning them into mere conduits for a slurry of fact, innuendo, rumor, and opinion. Reporters are forgetting why they got in the business--presumably, it was to expose vice and give voice to the powerless--in their quests for blockbuster stories and the chance to make big bucks as TV pundits. Media mergers threaten to obliterate the line between editorial and advertising. Things have gotten so bad that even The New York Times used anonymous sources in roughly a third of its coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story, and The Washington Post used them twice as often as that. In other words, we're not just going to hell--you can actually see hell from here.
Hawk-nosed and white-haired at 67, Kovach speaks with a Southern accent that betrays East Tennessee hill country, but the accent is somewhat misleading: In fact, he's the son of Albanian immigrants who settled in Morristown, Tenn. in the 1920s after his father, John, won the lease to the town's Busy Bee Cafe in a poker game. Albanian culture is, according to ethnic stereotype, argumentative and prone to nurse grudges; in Kovach's case, reality fully conforms to the image. Lynne Kovach recalls that in the early years of their marriage, Bill's fights with his brother Joe would sometimes get so violent she was afraid they would kill each other. After his father died when he was 13, Kovach grew up on the streets "as what you'd call a juvenile delinquent, except for a few teachers in school who kept me in line," he says. He joined the Navy in 1951 straight out of high school and learned to swim and dive during his military service, returning to Johnson City, Tenn. after four years to go to college on the G.I. Bill. His intention was to become a marine biologist, but a summer job at The Johnson City Press Chronicle between college and graduate school changed that forever. After only three weeks, he had discovered, he said, "what I was born to do."
Bill Kovach has been a journalist and writer for 50 years. In that time he was chief of the New York Times Washington Bureau, served as editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and curator of the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard University and the founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a group that now totals more than 9,000 journalists worldwide. Kovach is co-author with Tom Rosenstiel of The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Crown 2001), which was awarded Harvard University’s Goldsmith Book Prize (2002), the Sigma Delta Chi award for research in journalism and the Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism. Kovach and Rosenstiel also co-authored Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media (Century Press in 1999), which earned an SDX Award for research in journalism in 2000. Kovach was the 2003 recipient of The Richard M. Clurman Award for Mentoring and has also been honored with the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, which was accompanied by an honorary PhD from Colby College. In Fall 2004, Kovach was named to The John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Among his other board affiliations, Kovach serves on the advisory boards of the Center for Public Integrity, the Native American Journalists Foundation, The Right Question Project and the Encyclopedia of the Appalachians. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, and many other newspapers and magazines in the United States and abroad.
THE 12 QUESTIONS ABOUT JOURNALISM
BY BILL KOVACH
2. Will political advertisements, YouTube videos, and television comedians such as Jon Stewart supplant the printed word as the preferred form of communication about public affairs?
3. When news devolves into a fragmented private dialogue among family and friends in cyberspace, can journalists think of new ways to help people make sense of overabundant, undifferentiated information?
4. Do journalists recognize that distribution is now determined by the portability of technology and by the end user, and that reported material and analysis must now be organized to serve many differing audiences?
5. Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand said that in a democratic society we “have staked everything on the rational dialogue of an informed electorate,” and philosopher Hannah Arendt added that “freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed.” How, then, can journalists use interactive technology to help citizens participate in verification and discussion? Can new tools engage the knowledge and experience of citizens as reporters, analysts, advisers? Can journalists using synthesizing technologies help citizens solve community problems?
6. Will our public education system take on the responsibility of educating students to think critically about their role in self government and about the type of information that role requires?
7. Can journalists use images, sounds, data mining, narratives, and interactivity in ways that connect their most serious work to the public? Can journalists see this as an opportunity to help people unlearn some of what they are being taught by the popular culture?
8. How can public affairs be reported in a way that enables citizens to track its impact on policy or test alternative outcomes? How can journalists present engaging, verified information that diminishes messages of fear and self-indulgence?
9. Will Internet aggregators such as Google develop algorithms that filter out propaganda designed to mold rather than to inform public-policy decisions?
10. What would persuade bloggers and other citizen practitioners to develop a commitment to independent thinking, verification, and ethical standards?
11. Can newspapers find an economic model to replace the loss of advertising to finance the work of editors and reporters who substantiate what is reported?
12. Will the public realize that the news they now acquire for free will rapidly diminish in quality and value if a new way is not found to fund its production by careful practitioners?