MURFREESBORO, Tenn.The press has inflicted deep wounds on itself in recent years, but not all is wrong or lost in the media. That was the message in a three-day conference here on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.
Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who was fired over her role in a 60 Minutes II story about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, said profiteering had taken over at television networks at the expense of news. Mapes defended her professionalism in the controversy, indicating that a rush to run the story played a role in the errors admitted by CBS.
Mapes implied that she took the fall, along with other female operatives, while the male executives at the network escaped with their jobs intact. Of course, Dan Rather, who had to humble himself for the mistake, left the network anchor chair a few months later.
In response to questioning from Wallace Westfeld, a former producer and executive at NBC News, Mapes ridiculed some critics of her reporting and authenticating. Of Rush Limbaugh, she said : "I don't need to be lectured on ethics from a much married, obese, drug addict."
Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame at the Washington Post defended the use of anonymous sources. He said the first 100 stories he and Bob Woodward wrote contained no sources and incurred the wrath of Nixon administration apologists in those turbulent days.
"Without those unnamed sources, there never would have been a scandal," he said.
He was initially angered by it, but Bernstein now defends President Gerald R. Ford for pardoning Richard Nixon. Although it may have cost Ford his presidency in the 1976 race with Jimmy Carter, Bernstein said the nation had to put aside the crimes of Nixon and his aides and move on.
In Bernstein's view, the misjudgments by the current administration of George W. Bush in Iraq would never have been exposed without a vigilant press and anonymous sources. That exposure of wrongdoing, he explained, seems to always fall to the press, which then takes a beating for it.
Perhaps the most compelling session for students and journalists alike was a panel of students from the University of NebraskaLincoln. The students took on an ambitious project to follow the trail of fact and error in Truman Capote's famed book In Cold Blood, the 1965 accountwritten in the style of a novelof the 1959 murders of a family of four in a Kansas farmhouse. The students were able to get interviews with several people who had refused at the time of Capote's research to be interviewed about the killings of the Clutters.
One student-reporter, Melissa Lee, even won an interview with the boyfriend of the Clutter teenager who was murdered with her parents and brother. He had refused to talk until Lee convinced him she was not seeking to open wounds since he was questioned as a possible suspect in the early days after the murders.
The students found that in Capote's narrative there was a mixture of fact and Capote's fertile imagination. Some of his reporting lacked any semblance of truth. And the students found a degree of resentment in the area by residents who felt the celebrated writer had harmed them.
The project of the students has found its way into print and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
(The conference was sponsored by the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence at the Mass Communications School at MTSU. John Seigenthaler was the courageous editor of the Tennesseean in Nashville during the turbulent days of desegregation in the South. He later served as a top aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and editorial page editor at USA Today.)