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Veteran New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. railed against the current state of American journalism last night in a speech at the Kennedy School of Government.
Brandishing a copy of the National Enquirer along with a recent Newsweek article, Apple said the "standards and practices and mores" of irresponsible journalism are increasingly seeping into mainstream news outlets.
Long regarded at the 800-pound gorilla of national political reporting, Apple became the Washington bureau chief for The New York Times last November.
Apple delivered the annual lecture honoring Joe Alex Morris Jr. '49, a Los Angeles Times reporter killed while covering the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In 1982, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and Morris' family established the lectureship, which the foundation awards each year.
In a speech peppered with jokes and personal anecdotes, Apple said the nation's top newspapers, network news shows and newsweeklies have come to mimic the values of the "lesser breed" of tabloids and television talk shows.
Citing the Gennifer Flowers story and other recent reports printed or aired without substantiation. Apple warned that "bad journalism drives out good."
"This is not serious journalism," Apple said. "This is not why [journalists] have our Constitutional protection."
Apple said the Flowers' allegations of martial infidelity against Bill Clinton appeared first in The Star, the tabloid sold widely in supermarkets. He said reporters who had investigated Clinton in 1990 and 1991 had heard her story but rejected it because she lacked concrete proof and corroboration.
Still, when The Star ran the story in January 1992, more mainstream news organizations, including "Nightline," The New York Times and most others aired or printed the allegations as well.
"We had all allowed our agenda to be set by a supermarket tabloid...that we would not give shopping cart room to," Apple said.
He also cited The Times' coverage of the William K. Smith trial, in which The Times published the name of Smith's accuser after a tabloid and NBC News printed her name.
Apple also criticized a recent Newsweek story which alleged that the Clinton family had threatened to fire Secret Service employees. Apple said the story admitted that "there is not evidence" for its assertions, and yet printed the allegations anyway.
'Flood of Junk'
He was not optimistic about the future. "He sure of one thing," Apple said. "The flood of junk will continue." Still, he said American reporting has not become as unscrupulous as it was during the 1890s, when "yellow journalists" fanned nationalistic flames and tried to create crises in order to sell newspapers.
Apple did not blame any one factor for the decline of journalistic standards, but he said the search for profits and ratings has driven news staffs to push the limits of responsible reporting to get good stories.
He offered no solutions in his speech, but in response to a question, Apple said "vigilance on the part of journalists," a "multiplicity of [news] outlets" and public pressure for ethical standards might help reduce irresponsibility.
In his 30-year career at The Times, Apple served as bureau chief in four foreign bureaus. At age 30, Apple became the Saigon bureau chief during the height of the Vietnam War.
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