NBC News President Steve Capus told an audience of journalists
in Washington Thursday night that the pressure to break news is never worth
breaking the public trust, and used the News Corp. cell phone hacking scandal
of last fall as an example of what not to do to retain that trust.
Capus was in town to receive the First Amendment Leadership
Award from the Radio-Television Digital News Foundation.
He also talked about proposing an "alternative" to
the rearview mirror mindset that talks about how good the old days were, and
instead look at the heroes currently in uniform in Afghanistan and the
journalists "out there reporting and fully dedicating themselves to
getting the story right."
He said it was a time to lead the news business into a new
golden age, one that "shines the light on the dark recesses of
government" including how decisions are made, how money is spent and who
benefits. He said that it was especially important in an election year to pay
attention to campaign promises and report fairly and accurately so voters know
who and what they are voting for.
Capus said it was not just what was reported, but how.
"We must be accurate, even-handed, and, indeed, ethical. In the news
business we are often presented with options of shortcuts for taking advantage
of a situation when it's presented of breaking the news first. And, let's be
honest, it is exciting to get exclusive information or the first interview. But
under no circumstances is it worth the cost of breaking public trust. Trust is
what news organizations live and die by, and it takes an unwavering commitment
from every employee to keep that trust alive."
He did not mention News Corp. by name, but he did not have
to. "Last fall," he said, "we witnessed a frightening example of
a news organization allegedly abusing the privacy rights of citizens in order
to access information on their cell phones. Regardless of how this all went
down," he said, "it was a scary example of what can happen when we
lose sight of ethical journalism and the importance of trust."
Capus gave a shout-out to international coverage. He said
exercising the First Amendment meant looking beyond our borders. "We must
look closely at what is being done in our name in foreign regions, both in
peace and conflict."
He said NBC News does not take its foreign coverage lightly.
"We do indeed invest in it and we know there are great risks in sending
our people overseas to areas where there is no such thing as press
Capus was preceded on the dais by ABC correspondent Martha
Raddatz, winner of the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment award, who was hailed
for her coverage of war -- over 20 visits to Iraq -- both the soldiers and
their families. She had called on news organizations to continue to invest in
foreign coverage. She said that ABC had supported her passion for foreign news
coverage and invested in it, and said Capus had invested in such coverage as
well. "It is so important to keep doing that to help Americans
understand..." Zeidenberg is the late senior correspondent for B&C.
Capus also put in a plug for NBC's new primetime news mag, Rock Center With Brian Williams. Williams
presented the award to Capus calling him one of the best network news
presidents. "This has not been a ratings play, believe me," he said
to laughter from the audience -- the show was down 40% Wednesday night (March
15) to a new series-low 0.6 rating.
He called it "a commitment to something else,"
saying it was an attempt "to make a commitment to journalism that matters
at this incredibly important moment in history."