Gene Foreman joined the Penn State faculty in 1998 after retiring from The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he managed newsroom operations for more than 25 years under various titles—managing editor, executive editor and deputy editor. He also was a vice president of the company.At Penn State, he was the Larry and Ellen Foster Professor from 1999 until his retirement from full-time teaching in December 2006. He taught courses in news editing, news media ethics and newspaper management. In 2003, Foreman received two awards for excellence in teaching in the College of Communications—the Deans' Award and the Alumni Society Award.
His textbook, "The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News," was published in fall 2009 by Wiley-Blackwell.
Foreman spent 41 years in newspaper journalism—not counting eight summer jobs in high school and college, or his carrier route before that. He was the managing editor of three different newspapers: the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock and The Inquirer. Also during his career he worked as a reporter and assigning editor at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, as a copy editor at The New York Times, and as the senior editor in charge of news and copy desks at Newsday on Long Island.
He was president of the Associated Press Managing Editors in 1990 and was a board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from 1995 to 1998. He has been a presenter at the American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and was a Pulitzer Prize juror three times. In 1998 he received a career achievement award from the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Interviewer: Let’s jump to this question. This is a story you told on tape at another interview. It’s also a part of the desegregation story about this guy who was a convicted burglar. Could you tell that story?
Foreman: Well, a crisis is certainly not two years long, but we consider the demarcation of the conflagration in Little Rock from the fall of 1957, when Governor Faubus called out the Guard. Eventually, of course, as we know, Eisenhower sent the federal troops there to escort the children into the school, so we had a tortured school year. In 1958-1959, Faubus closed the high schools in Little Rock to avoid desegregation. And during this time, the moderate people in Little Rock had been intimidated by the segregationists who dominated the public forum. But [in 1959] they were starting to assert themselves, saying, “This is our town; we’re not going to let this go on. We want schools, and we’re accepting desegregation.” So they had an election. The segregationists tried to recall the three moderate school board members, and the moderates tried to recall the three segregationist members. And the result of the election [was that] the moderates won. It was a very close election, but it set the course. Now, with the three segregationists off the board, the moderates decided that they would be magnanimous and allow the county judge, who was the administrative officer of the county, to appoint [one] dead-end segregationist [to be] a member of the board. He would always be outvoted, five to one. So the segregationists nominated somebody, whom the judge duly appointed. Before the story was published in our newspaper about this appointment, our reporters quickly found out that this man was a convicted felon, a burglar. [He] was ineligible to vote or to serve on the school board. So we called the county judge and the felon about this, saying that we were going to be reporting that you’re really not eligible. He said, “I resign.” [He was arguing that since he resigned, he was never really appointed, and so there was no story to report. Our editor, Harry Ashmore, rejected that argument out of hand. Harry said, “I’m not the one who appointed a burglar to the school board.”]
Interviewer: Was that a moment when everyone in the newsroom was holding their breath to see what the editor was going to do?
Foreman: I don’t think that anybody really thought that Harry would do it any other way, and we were certainly gratified that he made the decision. I think that since he immediately rejected the idea was very comforting to all of us: “This is a guy that knows what he’s doing.”
Interviewer: Would you say those things were typical of the time, or was the publisher kind of pushing his own political agenda?
Foreman: Well, I think that Mr. Annenberg went beyond what is normally done. But yes, I do think that it was a different time, and editors like Harry Ashmore and others had behind-the-scenes involvement in stories that their staffs were covering. We know today that’s not a good thing. It’s difficult for me to say, to judge – I don’t want to judge people of another era – but that was what was accepted at the time. I think that to an extent it really corrupted the news coverage, certainly the Annenberg regime at The Inquirer was not good. Knight Newspapers, the predecessor of Knight-Ridder, bought the paper January 1, 1970. Gene Roberts was its second [Knight] editor. He came in October 1972, and I joined the paper in February 1973. We were dealing with the residue of that era, so definitely we needed to try to change the course.
We did have our own problem in 1976 and 1977 when a reporter – her last name is the same as mine, but we’re not related – Laura Foreman, was found to have been involved in a romantic relationship with Buddy Cianfrani, who was a Pennsylvania state senator from Philadelphia. He was one of the leading political forces in the state, and she was covering politics. Clearly it was a conflict of interest, which she had denied to Gene Roberts. When the FBI investigated Cianfrani, who was eventually sent to prison on corruption charges, they found evidence of multiple gifts to Laura, which kind of proved the relationship. So that led Gene Roberts to say we need to write a conflict-of-interest code of ethics so that everybody understands what we stand for. We now not only are trying to live down the reputation of the Annenberg Inquirer – a lot of people are not aware there’s been a change – but we’ve got our own problem that we need to try to overcome.
That was a period in which I think that, certainly at The Inquirer, but [also] in the newsrooms generally across the country, things were starting to change. Nowhere was this more marked than in the acceptance of gifts from people that you covered, whether it be politicians or businesses. I remember when I first started working at the Arkansas Gazette and the electric company, Arkansas Power and Light, would give everybody in the newsroom a gift. You could look around and see that the guy who covered the State Public Service Commission would get a big electric oven. Other people would get a toaster or something. So there was a pecking order. I asked people, “What about this?” And they would say, “Oh, it’s just part of the business. We don’t get paid very much, and so free admissions and gifts are just part of the trade.” And the racetrack, Oaklawn at Hot Springs, would throw a big party every year for the press, which was kind of the big social event of the year. Nobody thought a lot about that.
Interviewer: So here’s a thoughtful question: What’s the problem, ethically?
Foreman: What was the problem? Well, if you cover these people and you’re taking gifts from them, it would appear to the public – if they became aware of the gifts, which you had to assume they were – that we had a debt to them, and that [debt would] likely be paid in the way we covered the news. It’s called an appearance of conflict of interest. … What the older reporters would tell me, they would say, “Look, I’m not going to be bought out for a toaster, but I’m going to take the toaster and I’ll cover them just the way I would anyway. I know that I’m honest.” But what we realized as we started to think about it, [was that it gave the wrong impression] and I think that was the key. You really started thinking about it. I think our generation that became editors, say in the 1970’s, [did that]. We had the Hutchins Commission’s recommendations on the social responsibility of the press, issued in 1947. I think [Hutchins] had some effect even though, at least on the surface, the editors rejected that. But I think it did make an impression. As we went along, the older people – the people who told me … it’s okay to take a toaster – retired and moved on, and were replaced by younger journalists. I think that things changed by evolution. But it really did have a marked change; the evolution sped up in the 1970’s.
Interviewer: So in drafting a code of ethics for The Inquirer, could you talk about what that process was – what actually was involved, and how you came up with what the provisions should be?
Foreman: Yes, Gene [Roberts] asked me to make sure it got done, which is kind of the things a managing editor would do. We also discussed [that] there ought to be a staff committee. I would say to this day – and I try to point this out to aspiring journalists in my book – that an awareness in … journalism ethics comes not just from the newsroom leaders, although they’re certainly important, but from the rank and file. The peer pressure to do the right thing is probably more effective than us saying here are the guidelines or rules for the newsroom. … So we were aware that there was a very strong feeling in the newsroom about what had happened, say, in the Laura Foreman case. They felt that they had been tarnished by this as much as the newspaper’s name. They individually had suffered a loss of credibility, a loss of professional self-esteem. … So we got staff members involved. Jim Naughton became a kind of scribe. … We’d have meetings and talk about it, and Jim would then kind of codify it and issue a proposed guideline that we’d all then discuss again. My part was to try to survey what was out there. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and I think whenever you do something like this, you try to take advantage of what someone else has already done. So I called a bunch of newspapers, called ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] and APME [Associated Press Managing Editors] and tried to find out what newspapers had done.
Interviewer: Once you had this code, how do you make it sort of work in the day-to-day life in the newsroom? I remember reading an article once where journalists were asked about their paper’s code of ethics and they would say things like “Oh yeah, I think we’ve got one around here somewhere,” and they were rummaging around in a drawer. It was one thing to develop a code of ethics, but another thing to actually use it. There are two issues. One, what do you do if somebody violates it, and the other is just the awareness of ongoing sort of training of reporters.
Foreman: Well, that’s a very good question. We did recognize that it’s not going to do any good if it sits in an office drawer and is ignored; that would defeat the purpose of what we were trying to do. We, of course, have a Guild, a union in the newsroom, and at that time the policy of the National Labor Relations Board on newsroom codes of ethics was not fully formed. As a matter of fact, during that period, the Madison newspaper in Wisconsin issued a comprehensive guideline on freebies. They were saying we’re not going to accept free tickets – the sort of thing that today is a given. The union took them to the NLRB, saying [it was an] unfair labor practice, you have to bargain this. The administrative judge agreed initially with the union, saying that you’re taking compensation away by saying they couldn’t take free tickets, and you do have to bargain. The NLRB eventually then, in the 1970’s, did set aside that ruling. It said that yes, you can write your own code of ethics, but you can’t enforce them like other work rules that are in the contract. We were fine with that. We wanted not to have our principles watered down in a labor bargaining process. We were willing to deal with it without the teeth of a work rule that could be enforced under the contract.
Two things were immediately brought home to the staff that we had a code of ethics.
One was that the book editor was found to have been sending review copies to the Strand Bookstore in New York to be resold. He would then pocket the money from the review books that had been sent to him. Interestingly enough, he had been a part of the committee that had written the code, and had provided the language that “review books may not be sold under any circumstances.” APME was doing a study, and some editor got a staff member hired by the Strand Bookstore. He made notes on which book editors were sending books in, and our guy was one of them. So we couldn’t fire him for violating the code of ethics because it didn’t have the standing of a contractual work rule. We removed him as book editor, and he fairly soon left the paper.
Then the Nightlife columnist was found to be going into business, establishing something that would be covered by his Nightlife column. He would be in partnership with someone that – by our count, going back into the archives – had been mentioned favorably [in the column] fifty-six times in the last year. So Gene Roberts told him, “You can’t go into this business and continue to be our Nightlife columnist.” He said, “I’m going to go into this business.” And Gene said, “You’re no longer our Nightlife columnist,” and he soon left the paper. We didn’t go out and advertise it. Everybody in the newsroom knew about it, so they knew that we now had a code that meant something.
[The code became a part of new staffers’] orientation. We would send them a copy when they were hired. Then when they would come to work, we tried to have groups of staffers who would come over a period of three to six months and gather for a day. One of the sessions would be talking about the conflict-of-interest code. We would give them about twenty hypothetical situations, and then we would talk about how the code would apply to them. So as new people came in, they got some kind of formal indoctrination on the code.
Interviewer: So you were managing editor of The Inquirer during some pretty turbulent times in Philadelphia. Can you think of any thorny ethics issues that came up in the coverage of the city or the world beyond the city during your tenure there? You really had to make some tough decisions.
Foreman: [There was a case in which we had to break a promise in order to tell our readers the truth. It involved an adoptive couple who were being asked by the birth mother to give up the child that they had bonded with.] … I don’t see heroes and villains in this thing, because I think the birth mother had a legal right to ask for the baby back. But it clearly was an emotional problem. Our reporter apparently had arrived [late for the adoptive couple’s] news conference when this story began. That was not a good idea, but they said, “Well, okay, then everything’s agreed.” Well, [our reporter] had not heard everything, but he agreed. So we’ve reported this childless couple now is going to lose the baby, and this story went on for some time. Then another reporter covered [the story], and this reporter asked, “What is this three-year-old child doing in the house?” The other reporters said, “Well, that’s the child we’re not supposed to report.” Apparently the deal – which was certainly quite ethically wrong – was that they had accepted that they would not mention the other child in return for getting access to the couple.
Of course, our reporter – turning the clock back – should have said, “Well what are the guidelines because I missed them?” And he would have said, “Absolutely not. I’m not accepting that.” And … we certainly could have covered the story and reported correctly all along. Our reporter had been considered to have given the people his word that he would not report on that. We were saying, “Well, we’re not going to continue lying to our audience that they’re a childless couple.”
It was not explained very well by us in the paper why we had done this, which I think is another thing we’ve learned about ethics: You need to be transparent. You need to try to explain everything. We just said that we had discovered this and that we were now reporting it, which led some people to write letters to the editor saying, “What is there, a rule that you can only have one child … ? What difference does it make?” They missed the point. The difference was not whether you could have one child or two or ten, but do we tell the readers the truth. That meant having to renege on the ill-considered promise that our agent had made. That’s the kind of things that come up. I think that with the benefit of the kind of training that we’re trying to give our students now, that even though I had been in business a good while, I could have handled it a lot better. I think the main thing would have been to tell the audience specifically why we thought it was important that we report this now – that we were not concerned about the number of children, but rather about the truth of what we were reporting.