Interview: Terence Smith

Terence Smith has won plaudits during every phase of his 40-year career in journalism.

Terence Smith has won plaudits during every phase of his 40-year career in journalism.

Since joining The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in 1998 as its media correspondent and senior producer, Smith has received several National Press Club awards for media criticism.

Before The NewsHour, Smith, son of sportswriter Red Smith, spent 13 years reporting on politics, government, and international affairs for CBS News, where he earned Emmy Awards and the George Foster Peabody Award for general excellence. He spent the bulk of his career at The New York Times, where he was nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes and served as assistant foreign editor, national political correspondent, and chief White House correspondent.

PRWeek: What are the most fascinating trends in today's media industry?

Terence Smith: I think there are really good and bad trends, in the sense that people are doing some of the best work ever in newspapers, on TV, and in different mediums. We've seen some of the most serious examinations of the government, of our national policies, and of news organizations and their frailties.

Of course, that's also the bad trend. There have been all sorts of scandals and disappointments in news organizations that we trust, such as The New York Times, USA Today, and others. The good news is that I see a real willingness on the part of these institutions to look at what has gone wrong and try to correct it.

PRWeek: How do you explain the intense criticism of Judith Miller and the New York Times by other reporters?

Smith:
I think there has been piling on, but there is no question that the New York Times, as we speak today, has to do a much better job of explaining to its readers what Judy's role was in the reporting running up to the war in Iraq, what her relationship has been to important sources in the administration and the way in which the publisher apparently aligned the interests of the New York Times, the institution, with Judy Miller, the reporter. They are not the same and probably haven't been the same since the early days of this whole saga. I still have a great deal of confidence in the New York Times and the seriousness with which it takes its work. Because I have that confidence, I am confident that they will examine all of these things eventually in a thorough and professional way. But they haven't done it yet.

PRWeek: In light of the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller sagas, do you think editorial control at the New York Times has diminished or changed since you were there?

Smith: It certainly sounds in this case as though there was insufficient oversight by management, by the editors of what Judy was doing and not doing. Has it changed? Of course it's changed. But times have changed. And ultimately these are questions of leadership. And the responsibility is that of leadership, from the publisher on down.

PRWeek: How do your years as a print reporter compare to your time at CBS News and the NewsHour?
Smith:
Each has its own strengths, its own priorities, its own imperatives. Both are collegial efforts, but television much more so. You can have an impact and sometimes a reach with television that is immediate and powerful. But you can have a more lasting effect on opinion and knowledge through print.

PRWeek: How does working for a public TV news organization compare to commercial TV?

Smith: Night and day. The network news divisions have some terrific people, some of the very best in the business. And they're very serious about what they do. But the TV news divisions, all of them, are under such pressure to become profit centers of the conglomerates that own them that their greatest energy is put into things that they believe will develop ratings. You simply do not have that consideration in public television.

In public TV, at least at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, the news drives the agenda. It's the primary consideration. Every morning when we have an editorial meeting, usually at 10:15 in Jim Lehrer's office, the question is, what to put on the broadcast that night? The question is, what is the news? What calls out for analysis and reporting that night? There are no considerations given to what's going to build the audience, what's going to increase the ratings. We know what the ratings are. And the ratings are important. I'm not saying they're not. Public television needs a critical mass to be relevant like any other institution. We need to have an audience that follows what we do. And we do.

PRWeek: How would you describe your relationship with PR people and news sources since you've joined The NewsHour?

Smith: We listen to suggestions and suggested guests. But in the end, we've got to make our own call, and we do. But, of course, we're dealing with the PR representatives or spokesmen of government agencies [and] private corporations every day for every broadcast. Sometimes it's very helpful, and other times it's just sort of naked self-promotion. I hope we know the difference.

PRWeek: What is your opinion of the government's use of PR agencies to educate the public, and some of the controversies that have arisen from this practice?
Smith:
We've been following it as a news story in the case of Armstrong Williams. We've covered the Bush administration's use of everything from video news releases to payments to columnists and others, like Armstrong Williams. For us in the media unit [at the NewsHour] it was a news story rather than a practice and we covered it as such. I don't have a strong view on the practice. It's got to meet the same standards that it would if it was an officially designated spokesman of a federal agency. The standards don't change if it's outsourced to a private firm.

PRWeek: What have been some of the more interesting stories or people you have covered since you joined the NewsHour?
Smith: There have been so many. I came in here in August of 1998 and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal had just broken. And that was followed in quick succession by the impeachment of Clinton, the disputed election of 2000, the election of the new administration, 9/11, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq. It has been breathless for the last seven years. It has been one of the most extraordinary news flows that I have encountered in 40-plus years in this business.

PRWeek: How has public TV been affected by the Bush administration's focus on Bill Moyers and accusations of a slant in PBS public affairs programming in general?

Smith: I don't really think it's had much impact at all. It's been a public debate for months, but, in the end, Congress provided the same amount of money that was expected before the debate. And public TV is proceeding.

I'd say the larger, more long-lasting questions are: What is the role and relevance of public broadcasting in the 200-channel universe? How has that changed since its inception? Does it need to be reexamined and scrutinized for just those two things - the role and relevance? I believe there is a role and there is a relevance. I just think it needs some high-level scrutiny as [to] what it should be going forward.

Name: Terence Smith
Program: The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Title: Media correspondent and senior producer
Preferred contact method: tsmith@newshour.org
Website: pbs.org/newshour

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