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Don't hesitate to pursue public fig

Don't hesitate to pursue public figures, scribes told

The Hindu (New Delhi)
August 29, 2000

CHENNAI, AUG. 28. Journalists can legitimately pursue the background of
persons in high office, where it bears significantly on the public
interest, said Prof. Tom Goldstein, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism,
Columbia University, New York.

The freedom to report is inalienable to the journalist, and the public
can draw its conclusions. What is more, journalism cannot be fettered by
notions of national interest, with only a few exceptions as in Defence.

Those in the profession would be better off if they had the
self-confidence not to "join the pack" and settle for press conferences
and political conventions, because they invariably had foregone
conclusions. The real stories were to be found where the crowds were not

Dwelling on the question of journalistic pursuit of public figures,
Prof. Goldstein said in an interview that in the current United States
Presidential campaign, the background of the candidates was extensively

It provided the opportunity to the voter to decide. "I do not agree with
those who say that candidates have no privacy but the more important a
public figure is, the more that person sacrifices personal privacy. That
is the reality."

Private acts should not be made public activity. But background was fair
game. On the Clinton-Lewinsky episode, he said it had a bearing on his
public activity. Mainly because it happened in the White House and
constituted a public indiscretion.

It was the job of reporters to report on that. Going by some opinion
polls, the public did not care. "So be it", but the journalists were
right in reporting on it.

Prof. Goldstein says it is the journalist's job to report and not worry
about the national interest. "Let the people decide," he emphasises.

The big challenge before the journalistic profession today was to
attract and retain good talent. Though one could not "get rich" in
journalism, it provided the fascinating opportunity to create an impact
on society at a young age, compared to a doctor or lawyer.

Also, a journalist was someone who continued to learn all his life. "We
have to make sure that people have those opportunities," the Columbia
Dean adds.

With the advent of the internet, journalism had evolved. Anyone with a
computer was a reporter and anyone with the camera a photographer
online, though this had raised issues of credibility and souring of
information. The nature of the online medium was such that it replicated
"multiple hearsay reports" very fast.

On the patterns of media ownership and their impact on freedom, he says
in the U.S., acquisition of TV channels by non-media interest, was a
matter of concern. Closely held media was often able to resist pressure,
against pursuing something in the public interest. Publicly held
companies faced tension about the conflict between responsibility to
shareholders and the public interest.

Welcoming coverage of deprivation and development issues, Prof.
Goldstein says, such a subject in journalism education lays down the
values and priorities clearly.

In America, politics receives saturation coverage, but it is also under
constant scrutiny and there is also a lot of dissatisfaction about it.

"I think it is fair to say, that reporters are better at covering
campaigns, than covering Government itself. There is more vigour in the
campaign coverage. There is a lot left to be desired in coverage of
Government," he says, giving the example of Agriculture, Defence and
Justice, which attracted fewer journalists.

Journalism in the U.S., and presumably elsewhere, was much better of
than it was a generation ago. "The formats set a generation ago, such as
covering speeches, have vanished. Progress has been made."