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Dutch Warning

In 1982, Mayor Dutch Morial addressed a journalists' convention on the topic of the press and politicians. Nearly two decades later, amidst current debates about relationships between mayors, mayoral candidates and the media, his remarks bear revisiting.

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WDSU-TV anchor Melanie Sanders' decision to appear in campaign commercials on behalf of her husband, mayoral candidate Troy Carter, sparked debate recently over the co-mingling of media influence and political power. ("Married to the Media," Nov. 13.) But the local media has had few critics as forceful or as prominent as the late Mayor Dutch Morial -- father of outgoing Mayor Marc Morial, who is married to WWL-TV journalist Michelle Miller.

In a 1983 address in San Francisco to the journalists' standard-setting organization Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists), the elder Morial offered a sharp critique of media, campaign politics, and government. He also took a few characteristic jabs that might be of interest to anyone tracking today's campaigns for mayor and the City Council.

University of New Orleans history professor Arnold Hirsch, who recently wrote a chapter on Dutch Morial for the new book Black American Mayors (University of Illinois Press, 2001), cautions any reader who would compare New Orleans' first black mayor to his son Marc Morial. "The times were different," Hirsch says. "The city has changed a little bit, too. ... Dutch being the first black almost-everything in the city, had to build up some scar tissue along the way. His experience [with the media] would have been a bit more raw than his son."

In 1983, Louisiana had more political reporters than it does today. Edwin Edwards had just been elected to an unprecedented third term as governor. And although Morial does not mention Edwards by name in his address, he expresses frustration with reporters who cover "humourous anecdotes" at the expense of public policy -- a thinly veiled reference to coverage of the always-colorful EWE.

Journalism has seen its changes in the past two decades, as well. In his remarks, Morial refers to an ethics code that stated: "Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage their observance by all newspeople. Adherence to this code of ethics is intended to preserve the bond of mutual trust and respect between American journalists and the American people." That conclusion has since been edited out of the SPJ code, following internal debate over whether journalists should police each other.

Read today, Morial's text (reportedly written with his press secretary John Bender) offers time-honored insights from a political warrior. The following are excerpts of his speech:

"I believe there is a symbiotic relationship between public officials and reporters. We need the news media to help us inform the public and you need us to produce news. In the end, we both seek the same thing: to keep the public fully and accurately informed.

"It does not have to be an adversarial relationship. It should be a relationship that serves the best interests of the public. And neither public officials nor reporters have the exclusive right to determine what is in the public interest. That is a joint responsibility.

"When a person becomes a public official or a candidate for office, he or she expects to have their actions publicized, analyzed and criticized by the news media. Most of us welcome fair and responsible examination by the media and we are prepared for that. But what many people learn when they become public figures is that we become a commodity that is packaged and sold to the public in a manner that is more often slanted toward boosting ratings and circulation to make profits, rather than toward fully informing the public.

"The problem is more pervasive among television news than print. If it's not entertaining or controversial or shocking, it's not news. If we don't have tape on it, it's not news. If it doesn't fit a 'minute-30,' it's not news."

Morial goes on to recall how a local television reporter complained that a monthly half-hour public affairs program, featuring the mayor and members of the local media, was "boring" because of its emphasis on government issues rather than politics.

"When I took the oath of office, I pledged to manage the affairs of government to my best ability and to represent all of the citizens of New Orleans. Do I also have the responsibility to entertain television audiences? The emphasis, as least in New Orleans media, is moving toward politics [rather] than government, personalities rather than issues, style rather than substance. The result is an oversimplification of complex issues, emphasizing an offbeat or side issue while down-playing the major issue, manufacturing controversy where none really exists, and giving preferential coverage to one political figure who may be more interesting or entertaining than his opponent....

"Not all of the blame goes to the reporters and editors. There are politicians who promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, who devote more time to writing new jokes and humorous anecdotes than they spend developing public policy. But I think reporters are guilty of catering to those politicians while sacrificing serious discussion on the issues. While this kind of reporting makes campaigning easier for some candidates, it makes governing much more difficult for an elected official. If the public does not have the necessary background information, they will not understand how their government functions or why certain policy decisions are made. ..."

When a panelist asked Morial if some reporters get "too chummy" with politicians, Morial answered in the affirmative.

"I believe this has always been a problem and always will be. This problem can be seen in its most obvious form in New Orleans by walking into a particular steakhouse any day of the week and seeing political reporters enjoying free meals from the politicians who frequent that establishment. And I am aware of one case where a political reporter moonlights as a paid writer for a political consultant.

"But the problem is not always that obvious. Because political reporters are dependent upon informed sources, there is the danger that they will develop a close relationship with a small circle of pollsters, political consultants and other so-called 'political observers.' And from this small circle of sources they develop a particular political view that becomes apparent in their reporting and their analyses of political issues. In every city, there are competing factions and interests and there is a danger of a political reporter becoming too closely associated with one faction or another.

"Another consequence of the close relationships between political reporters and political figures is that some reporters want to become participants rather than observers. Some cannot resist the temptation of getting up in the game and devising political strategy and dispensing political advice. In a recent statewide election in Louisiana, one of the most common phrases used by political reporters was 'if candidate X is going to win this election, he is going to have to do this or that.' And woe be to the candidate who disagrees with or ignores the advice of certain political reporters.

"I believe it is acceptable for political reporters to report on the political strategy of various campaigns even though I would prefer to see them concentrate on substantive public issues, but I do not think that political reporters should place themselves in a position of publicly or privately advising candidates on strategy. Once a reporter becomes involved to that degree, he or she has a stake in the outcome of the election and an interest in proving themselves to have been correct.

"I believe the best safeguard against improprieties by reporters is a strong and active professional organization that is willing to establish and enforce a strict code of ethics. Having been a member of the Bar Association for 28 years, I believe in having professional organizations setting standards of conduct and enforcing self-discipline. It is much preferable to government regulation. Unfortunately in New Orleans, there is no ... established forum for debating the kinds of issues that we are discussing here today.

"When a dispute arises between a public official and a reporter or news organization in New Orleans, the Press Club may adopt a resolution to take a position on the dispute, but there is no group that can mediate and help resolve those disagreements. I think the Code of Ethics developed by Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society for Professional Journalists) is excellent and that it could be effectively enforced themselves without infringing upon the First Amendment rights of anyone."

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