USA Today founder urges media to establish trust

Sean Madigan

Reporters must shed trends of cynicism to re-establish trust to foster a better understanding between the public and the press, Allen Neuharth said Thursday.
Neuharth, founder of USA Today, delivered his message to more than 200 students, faculty members, alumni and media professionals, in his lecture “Can the Press be Both Free and Fair?” at the 13th Annual Silha Center Lecture in Cowles Auditorium.
“I think the public’s standards are higher than ever,” Neuharth said, “but I think the mainstream press has greatly improved in the last 20 years and the public is just not aware.”
Neuharth said the public no longer holds the press in high regard. Anonymous sources and cynical reporting based on hearsay or gossip have formed a general public mistrust of the media stemming back to coverage of Watergate, he said.
The media must regain the public’s confidence by reporting facts rather than speculation, providing news they can trust and use, Neuharth said.
For 19 years Neuharth served as chairman and chief executive officer of Gannett Company Inc. The self-made millionaire at one time controlled 87 daily newspapers, 33 non-daily newspapers, seven television stations and 13 radio stations. The Washington Journalism Review named him the most influential person in print media for the 1980s.
“He revolutionized the newspaper business,” said Al Tims, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “An incredible innovator and previous head of Gannett make him one of he most influential men in the business.”
Neuharth, founder of the Freedom Forum, a private foundation to fund projects regarding free press and free speech, is working to bridge the gap in understanding between the public and the press.
“The media is sensitive about criticism; we owe it to the public to explain where we are coming from,” Neuharth said.
Neuharth addressed the public’s criticism of the media as not necessarily unwarranted. He cited many notable lapses between the media and the public, such as the O.J. Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, bombings in Oklahoma City and Kenya, school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark. and the ongoing scandal involving President Clinton.
While the media believed greatly detailed reporting and around-the-clock broadcasting of these events should have been journalism’s finest hour, the public viewed the coverage as overwhelming, Neuharth said.
The Freedom Forum built a $52 million “newseum” last year just a few miles from the Washington Monument. The museum is designed to show the public the news gathering, synthesizing and disseminating processes. Neuharth said the museum will help the public and press better understand each other.
“He is certainly one of the leading journalist figures of my lifetime,” said Otto Silha, retired chairman of the board of Cowles Media Co. and namesake of the University’s center for the study of media ethics and law.
“Having him back in his native territory is good for the journalism school and good for the University,” he said.