There has traditionally been a journalistic bright line that separated reporting and opinion, and reporters from those who publicly voiced their position on issues. Conscientious reporters don’t vote in primaries, don’t join groups that advocate for a cause and in the course of practicing their craft scrupulously avoid any activity that might suggest the appearance of bias.
It was inevitable, therefore, that a viewer would raise the issue of NBC10 news anchor Gene Valicenti hosting a call-in talk show Saturday mornings on radio station WPRO.
In an email that touched on other subjects as well, the viewer wrote, “ . . . on the face of it, local news anchor and call-in radio talk show host seem at odds with each other. I do not see how they can coexist.”
In response, Valicenti says “The traditional journalistic prohibition is against a reporter letting his bias and/or opinion influence his story or report. I’m satisfied that I hold to that tradition in my reporting on NBC 10.”
Valicenti says there is no prohibition against a reporter offering “commentary” in an alternative format, and points to opinion based shows of Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper.
Valicenti also says he does not view his show as a traditional Rhode Island talk show, but as “an alternative to the Monday through Friday lineup on the radio.”
I am not convinced that self regulation works or even that it ought be an option for a reporter. The level of public mistrust of the media is too great to risk suspicion of a reporter’s credibility, or the credibility of a news organization, for what appears to be the limited benefit of airing opinions for a few hours a week in the unscripted and uncontrolled format of call-in talk radio.
This is not NPR, nor is it the type of scripted program for which many reporter/ commentators – such as Rather and Cronkite – are known. And, despite efforts by Valicenti to separate himself from the weekday talk show formats, he cannot escape the danger of being judged by the company he keeps.
Nevertheless, two professionals, whose opinions I value highly, disagree to a great extent with my position and don’t see an inherent conflict in the dual anchor/talk show host roles.
Brian Jones retired after 35 years as a reporter for the Providence Journal and has always been a respected local observer of journalistic ethics. Dr. Edward Wasserman is the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
“In a reversal of my past thinking,” says Jones, “I do want to know a journalist’s political and philosophical leanings. It helps me evaluate his or her work. What’s important is how well somebody with a dual role . . . does both jobs. In the anchor’s job, he should play it straight and impartial . . . As a talk show host, he should be a fair broker, having guests who represent all sides of an issue, treating callers with respect and encouraging those with divergent views to participate. He should be a challenging interviewer, always pushing back against a guest’s or caller’s assertions, politely but relentlessly.
Further, says Jones: “In the cases where the journalist’s personal leanings become known to the viewer, the viewer then can be alert as to whether the game is being played squarely. Let’s say the TV anchor is anti-abortion on the radio. As a pro-choice viewer, I’m going to be watching the 6 o’clock news closely to see if he’s slanting an abortion issue story with code words, the famous raised eyebrow and not supplying whatever balance the particular story calls for. If he plays it straight, I’m now more inclined to trust his journalism than I would have been if I didn’t know where he was coming from. If he cooks the newscast, then I can call the general manager and use my knowledge of his position, and the points of contention in the newscast, to try to get him canned. If that doesn’t happen, I know that there is yet another newscast and station I have to be wary of.”
Dr. Wasserman notes that in the past, journalists have “played different roles in the public conversation depending, in part, on which media they were on.”
“Walter Cronkite, the sainted one, was much more opinionated as a radio commentator than he was as a network TV anchor,” says Wasserman. “When LBJ observed that they had ‘lost’ Walter on Vietnam (and therefore were going to lose the nation), it was a radio commentary the president was referring to.”
“My own sense is that this isn’t really an ethical problem, and it’s important from the outset to realize it isn’t,” says Wasserman. “There’s nothing unethical about offering commentary, analysis, opinion in one forum, and observing very different rules of discourse in another. As long as he plays it straight as an anchor, has no offscreen obligations that he isn’t disclosing that might obligate him to peddle an ideological line, and is doing nothing furtive about slipping his own enhancements into the punchbowl, he’s on solid ground, ethically, in my view.”
The dangers, Wasserman suggests, may be more to the organization than the individual:
“By the same token, however, there may very well be sound institutional reasons why your TV station may want to prohibit his moonlighting. The station has nurtured a brand identity, it has encouraged its audience to expect a certain kind of professionalism (namely, neutrality) and . . . offering strongly felt and well developed positions on matters of public controversy may . . . be inconsistent with that.”
The test, then, appears to be whether a newsman can, in a local talk radio format without a reputation for fairness, accuracy and balance, maintain the respect and credibility both he and his television employer have worked to build for more than 50 years. It’s too early to tell.
This column was originally published on Turnto10.com (WJAR-TV) on January 23, 2011.