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Just Tell Us The Truth

by George Clooney

The author, tabloid target and journalist's son, demands a return to the news values on which he was raised - those that prize information above entertainment.

This article appeared on AOL's Talk Back section in early June and will appear in the first issue of the new magazine Brill's Content.

I'm 37 years old and, like many people of my generation, when I was growing up, journalists were heroes. Woodward and Bernstein exposing a crooked president; Walter Cronkite bringing the insanity of the Vietnam War into mainstream America; Edward R. Murrow ending McCarthyism. Heroes all.

Unlike most people of my generation, my father was a journalist. A columnist. A news anchor who still wrote his own copy. I grew up sitting in the car all night while he covered the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire (where 165 people died), sleeping on office couches while he argued with news directors about whether a particular story was fair.

In my family, journalism was our religion, our love, what put food on the table-and sometimes what took it out of our mouths. A lot of jobs were lost because my father wouldn't bow to the pressure to entertain rather than inform. I was always taught that journalism was the most important institution we have, more important than government.

That's what I believe. That's what my father believes.

So what happened? How have we strayed so far from Cronkite and Murrow and Woodward and Bernstein? When did journalists become the bad guys? Are they the bad guys?

On the plus side, it's still a noble profession with dedicated reporters. Twenty-six journalists died last year, risking their lives to keep us informed. They're still out there in every city, asking questions, bringing us real news.

But right now, we have no issues-no wars, no civil rights movement, no real turmoil-nothing that affects us personally. We don't demand as much from public officials or the reporters who are supposed to watch them. I'm as guilty as the next person. If this year we were faced with Watergate or The $64,000 Question, more than likely, nothing would happen. It wasn't the breaking of the laws, but a passionate public outcry that brought these scandals into focus-and defined generations. The passion that fueled the people who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and gathered at Kent State.

I'm not sure we could accomplish that today. Too many times, we turn on the TV to see that another 12-year-old boy has taken an automatic weapon into his seventh-grade class and shot holes into dozens of families' lives, and in the same breath, the anchorman will look to his coanchor, smile, and ask, "Carol, what's our weather going to be like this weekend for the folks going to the Michael Bolton concert?..." "You know, he sings opera now..." And it's gone.

In that one brief exchange, almost as if it never happened. Maybe it never did. An hour later, we think to ourselves, "I'm sure glad I caught the news tonight. You know, we might get rained on at the Bolton concert."

So we're to blame for some of this, you and me. Facts aren't important. Truth is secondary. We prefer to be entertained rather than informed. But somewhere in all of this mess, journalism itself is culpable.

The profession of journalism has always been the watchdog of government, crime, religion, even ethics. Today that profession is letting us down. A good percentage of news outlets have decided that they don't have to be held accountable, and since we don't hold them accountable, our news is becoming a neatly packaged entertainment show, oftentimes to the detriment of truth.

So how do we fix it? Maybe it's just a matter of definition. We need a line drawn between legitimate news and entertainment.

Tabloids want this issue murky. Hard Copy gets former news anchors and former news directors, and dresses itself up to look like news. It is not. A couple of years ago, Hard Copy secretly made a written agreement with me never to put me on their show as long as I would cooperate with their sister show, Entertainment Tonight. I have that letter framed. No legitimate news organization would do that. What if later, I'd done something that was actually newsworthy, like commit a crime? Could you imagine CNN saying, "Senator Kennedy, if you give us an exclusive interview, we won't cover you on any other issues"? CNN would fall apart. A few days ago I looked up two words in the dictionary: tabloid and journalism. Tabloid: Giving the news in condensed form, usually with illustrated, often sensational material.

Journalism: The style of writing, consisting of the direct presentation of facts or occurrences, with little attempt at analysis or interpretation.

I've heard the phrase "tabloid journalism" (hell, I've used it), but when you put these definitions down on paper, the truth is, these two words cannot coexist.

So, it's up to the legitimate news to draw the line of distinction. Tell us what you're willing to do. ABC News, will you back your stories with two "reliable sources"? You used to. NBC, will you guarantee that one of these sources won't be the National Enquirer or a "London tabloid," an "unnamed source," an "insider," or a "close friend"? It never was before. Just tell us. I don't want this article to be about me or my experiences, but I thought I should try to give a specific. Being in the spotlight, I have a public forum to defend myself. Most people do not. Richard Jewell did not.

A few nights after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, I was at a black tie event at the Hilton. On the way in, reporters from each of the four local news stations asked my thoughts on the Lewinsky saga. I said we should wait until we hear the facts, which wasn't an exciting enough answer to make the news.

More important is why I would be asked that question by legitimate news stations in the first place, I'm an actor (unless you saw Batman), so how could my thoughts on this subject be newsworthy? Several actors were quoted on the air that night.

I don't know what the solution could be. Maybe if just one news outlet would have the courage to take a stand. Run ads telling us that the news they give may not be first every single time, but it will always be accurate. That they'll stand by every story. I think we'd pay attention. Not in great numbers at first, but slowly we'd look there for the truth. Walter Winchell had more listeners than Murrow for quite a while. It's Murrow who stands the test of time. Murrow changed generations. Forty years from now, I wonder, what we will have gained from Jerry Springer, and yet NBC News in Chicago put him on the 10 o'clock report as a commentator. Two good anchors quit NBC News over that.

Give us news, not titillation. Recently, three local L.A. stations led their news with a tape of Tom Cruise making an emergency call to the police from his car phone. He was being followed home and didn't want to take matters into his own hands. (He was always smarter than me.) There is no news value in Tom Cruise's frantic 911 call…but we'll watch. We will always be a society that slows down to gape at the accident on the side of the freeway, but it's against the law to put that accident on the road for the sole purpose of attracting our attention. The result is a massive traffic jam, with all of us late for our destinations.

What we're talking about is ethics, and you can't pass a law to try to enforce them. There is no legislating good taste or doing what is right. It's up to the real journalists to take a stand. We need you, Ben Bradlee, more than ever. Mr. Koppel, Mr. Rather, Mr. Wallace, don't give up on us. The stakes are far too high. Not just for the profession of journalism, but for the future of this country. Too many wars have been fought. Too many lives have been lost in defense of this inalienable right.

The mortar that holds our democracy together is freedom of the press. And with that freedom comes responsibility.

   

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This page was added on 7/5/98

Last updated 7/5/98

Created by Courtney Stovall © 1998