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News council’s demise still leaves many venues for press critics

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Gene Policinski
February 5, 2011

After 40 years on the job, the Minnesota News Council is closing down. Council President Tony Carideo has said public complaints are down and so is corporate support for the independent news-review operation. Carideo noted that e-mail and Twitter now provide virtually instantaneous ways for people to raise their concerns directly with journalists—presumably in contrast to the relatively lengthy notification-and-hearing process involved in council proceedings.


But even as the Minnesota council closes, a Washington state counterpart is going full speed, just announcing it has raised $100,000 to match a Gates Foundation grant. This independent group, much like the soon-to-be defunct Minnesota council, provides a place for anyone to bring a complaint about news coverage. If warranted, there is a follow-up investigation and perhaps even a public hearing.


News councils—which generally include a mix of journalists and citizens as members—cannot force news operations to cooperate in their investigations. They don’t have legal powers to compel witnesses or gather facts, and they lack authority to enforce any penalty, correction or retraction. Though supporters see councils as a way to encourage accurate and fair reporting, opponents have raised objections ranging from personal pique at “outsider meddling” to an old claim that such private reviews are a first step toward government interference with a free press.


Still, John Hamer, president of the Washington News Council, wrote recently that others tell him such watchdogs are needed “more than ever.” Hamer writes that despite “all the new and easy ways of responding to the news media on the Internet, through comments, blogs, hyper-local websites, Facebook, Twitter and other means—online digital response mechanisms may not be enough.”


If any group ought to be open to the idea of receiving and responding to criticism, it should be a free press. The nation’s Founders provided First Amendment protection for those gathering and distributing news and information so that the public could be well-informed, and to protect an independent watchdog on government. There was a national news council in the United States for a decade, from 1973 to 1983—but it never had the support of many major news media companies, most notably The New York Times.


Along with Washington state, Hawaii and New England have councils still operating. But in most regions, the idea found little or no traction. Another public-accountability mechanism, the in-house ombudsman, gained a bit more favor—but only a handful of news outlets have such a full-time position.


And there was one inescapable fact that had kept criticism muted: As The New Yorker magazine press critic A. J. Liebling noted in the 1950s, “A free press is guaranteed only to the man who owns one.” Critics were routed to the limited space in a “Letters to the Editor” section or, all too often, an editor’s wastebasket.


The Internet Age has changed all that. Global, instant criticism is now within the reach of anyone with a computer or smart phone. Tweets and blogs, website comments and journalists’ published e-mail addresses provide daily opportunities for readers to go around the offending medium and speak directly to fellow citizens.


As complements to that direct Internet avenue, news councils—or less formally, reader panels—can provide a nongovernment process that can be documented and detailed. Staff news ombudsmen can provide access to editors and reporters and an expectation of accountability, right at the source.


And in the latest wrinkle on news-media criticism, a new website, NewsTrust Baltimore, was announced Feb. 1 to allow readers to rate and comment on aggregations of stories published in that city by traditional and independent news operations. At this point the site is described as a several-month experiment, but it’s one well worth watching.


Methods of critiquing the news media will come and go in form and favor—but the effort to “get it right” ought to be an ongoing one that welcomes sincere help from any venue.


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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