| Home | Interview: Terence Smith, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer -- Jan./Feb. 2004
October 1, 2014

Terence Smith, 65, is a media correspondent and senior producer for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Before joining the NewsHour in 1998, Smith spent 20 years as a national and foreign correspondent and editor with The New York Times, and 13 years with CBS News. At the Times, Smith was nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, and served as assistant foreign editor, national political correspondent and chief White House correspondent. He also was bureau chief in Israel (1972-76), Saigon (1969-70) and Bangkok (1968-69). At CBS, Smith did pieces for CBS Evening News, 48 Hours and CBS Morning News. He also was CBS' White House correspondent from 1986 to 1988. Smith and his NewsHour 'MediaWatch' unit are four-time winners (2003, 2002, 2000, 1999) of the Arthur C. Rowse Award for Media Criticism, given by the National Press Club. Smith graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1960. He is married, has two grown children and lives in Washington, D.C. He spoke with about public TV journalism. Can MediaWatch truly be neutral in its coverage of the media since it is associated with a news program?

Terence Smith: Judge us by our product. We cover this beat the way we would cover foreign affairs or the White House or any other industry. When it impinges on the NewsHour, we mention the NewsHour. The answer is yes, we can, as long as you apply the same objective standards to the news business that you would to the coverage of the news business. I have not found that to be an inherent conflict or problem over the last six years. At a time when network evening news programs are losing viewers and cable and the Internet are gaining viewers, where does public TV journalism find itself?

Terence Smith: With this fragmentation of the audience that you're talking about, there continues to be a modest but significant audience for serious news, and they are the people who come to the NewsHour each evening, and who tune into NPR. That audience has been remarkably steady in a period when, as a result of the fragmentation, everybody's audiences have gone down. I see it as a consequence of the tremendous variety of choices that people have. In what ways has the NewsHour's mission changed since you joined it in 1998? Is the NewsHour still relevant to today's viewership?

Terence Smith: I don't believe its mission has changed. Its mission is still to provide the news and analysis that the audience for serious news wants. And they do that I think very consistently, and very well. It demonstrates again and again on a nightly basis, in fact, that there is that audience. This after all is more of an analysis program than it is a newsgathering organization. It's not large enough to be that. It does not attempt to duplicate the function of the networks. It's trying to do something else, and the audience for that has remained remarkably consistent. Why has the public's perception of the media turned more negative in the past decade?

Terence Smith: The media's performance the past decade has incited the public's disregard. I'm talking about the trend toward tabloid-zation of the news, the trend toward celebrity journalism, the blending of news and entertainment. An interesting study done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that if you dumb-down the news, the audience responds negatively, and begins to think of it as a diminished product. They're no fools. They know what they're getting -- particularly on the all-news cable channels -- is not really news. It's news-lite at best.

I believe it's pretty widespread. There are exceptions of course. NPR is a dramatic exception. Theirs is one of the few significantly growing audiences over the last 10 years. Public television has held its audience. But beyond, I think this trend is really widespread. The cable news channels tend to infect the broadcast networks with their news agenda. That has a multiplier effect on the audience. The fact that CNN and the other cable news channels are on all day in the newsroom affects the news diet more broadly than just those cable channels and their audiences. What needs to happen to stop this tabloid-driven journalism? Does the public going need to say we don't want this anymore?

Terence Smith: I think, in a sense, the public is already saying that. The diminished audiences suggests they're not enthralled. You look at the audience for say, the cable news channels, it's not very good. The public is editing out a certain amount of what they see, and voting with their clickers. Would you say with cable news it's hype, running a breaking news font when something has been known for hours.

Terence Smith: It's not a question strictly of hype. The cable news outlets have the same amount of time to fill 24 hours every day of the week whether there is news or not, and therefore, the ration of news on a given day gets spread over those 24 hours, and that spread can be pretty thin if there's not a great deal going on. When there is important breaking news, they provide a tremendous service. It is in those moments of major news that those all-news cable channels do there best work. It's when the news flow is modest that the product gets very thin indeed. Right now for example, they seem to be devoting more time to what they call the four trials than they are to the presidential election or the war in Iraq. So the four trials -- Peterson, Stewart, Bryant and Jackson -- are getting wall-to-wall coverage even though only one of them is in session...

It's an interesting and somewhat self-reinforcing cycle. If they present a tabloid take on the news, then the public treats it as tabloid news with only the measure of respect it deserves. I think that's why some studies have shown that people are turned off by it. The NewsHour received a lot of criticism in November 2003 when it killed a taped interview with media critic Michael Wolff. NewsHour executives said the interview was unbalanced. But some critics suggest the NewsHour did not want to offend the media moguls whom Wolff insulted in the interview. Is it true that you protested the decision not to air the interview?

Terence Smith: What I can tell you is that it is absolutely untrue that the NewsHour made its decision either as a result of pressure from anyone or out of concern about pressure from anyone. That is a fantasy that exists in Michael Wolff's head. In the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, you interviewed executive editor Howell Raines. What impact do you think that interview had on the scandal?

Terence Smith: I think it gave some opportunity for Howell to put it in perspective. If I recall correctly, the interview was on a Friday prior to very lengthy correction that they ran that Sunday. It was useful to hear Howell Raines describe the way the paper viewed the problem at that point in time. But things moved so quickly after that. They published their report on it Sunday. It was quickly found to be inadequate in that it never addressed the role of the editors and assigned all the blame basically to Jayson Blair. And that was found to be inadequate even by the staff of the Times itself and that's what led to the pressure on the publisher to ask eventually for Howell and Gerald Boyd's resignation. Did you agree with the publisher's decision?

Terence Smith: It was the publisher judgment that Howell and Gerald lost the support of the staff. Restlessness of the staff and discontent with their leadership was so widespread that they couldn't in effect put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Once he reached that judgment, there was no choice but to let them go... If indeed Howell and Gerald had lost the support of the staff to the degree it was reported, then their situation was untenable. But I have a lot of admiration for Howell Raines as an editor, and for many of the things he was trying to do with the paper. One doesn't necessarily take away from the other. I still admire some of the things he was doing and hoped to do with the paper. After working at the New York Times for 20 years, what inspired you to switch to broadcast journalism?

Terence Smith: First off, I got an offer from CBS News. I was intrigued by the possibility to do what I regarded as the same job through a different medium. I had done a lot of public television at that point -- mostly Washington Week in Review -- and I enjoyed it. I was intrigued by the prospect of learning what I had done at The Times in a different medium. That was the principle reason to make the shift. You've covered stories in 40 countries during a four-decade career. Which story gave you the most satisfaction, and which one had the greatest impact on society?

Terence Smith: It's very hard to pick one. But if I had to, I suppose covering the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. That was an unparalleled experience for me. It came fairly early in my career. And if you think about it, the consequences of those six days in June are still with us today, 36 years later. For sheer, long-lasting impact, I can't think of anything -- Vietnam included -- that equaled it. If you had to do it over, would you still have become a journalist?

Terence Smith: Absolutely, it's been a wonderful front-row seat on amazing times, amazing events, and an introduction to amazing people.

Copyright © 2004 All rights reserved.

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