Geneva Overholser


Geneva Overholser holds an endowed chair in the Missouri School of Journalism's Washington bureau. She is a former editor of the Des Moines Register, ombudsman of the Washington Post and editorial board member of the New York Times.

Action Steps: Ensuring that Journalism in the Public Interest Survives

In a related article on Poynter Online, Geneva Overholser proposes: “To all who anguish about the prospects for journalism, here is an
invitation: Let us turn our energy toward possibility.” The following is an excerpt from her report for the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

I. Corporate realities:

Enable corporate managers to focus on longer-term goals:

  • elect board members for longer terms
  • change incentives for investors
  • impose punitive taxes on short-term stock trading
  • provide tax forgiveness on long-term holding

Bring a greater sense of responsibility to corporate
governance of media companies:

  • appoint directors with journalism experience
  • assign responsibility to board members to monitor
    editorial performance
  • tie incentive compensation for corporate officers to
    journalistic quality
  • discontinue stock options for newsroom staff and outside

Enable shareholders to exert pressure for corporate

  • bring concept of socially responsible investing to media

Conduct research showing links between good journalism and
good business:

  • make corporate officers aware of findings

Consider units within media companies dedicated to
public-interest journalism:

  • sheltered from normal profit pressures
  • portion of online revenues devoted to this purpose

Establish partnership for quality journalism:

  • supported by funds from media companies
  • supported by foundations, nonprofits

Take public companies private:

  • interest local citizens in these still highly profitable
    media enterprises
  • get nonprofits involved

II. Read more


Wake Up, Newsies: Stop Fretting and Start Building

To all who anguish about the prospects for journalism, here is an
invitation: Let us turn our energy toward possibility. There are many
opportunities to help ensure the survival of good journalism — various
steps that could be taken by different individuals and organizations.
But focusing on those possibilities requires a change of perspective.

one thing, it is difficult to embrace new prospects while clinging to
the past by our fingernails — however natural a reaction that has been
to the fearsome developments of late. To champion journalism
effectively, we will have to distinguish between our traditions and our
principles. We have wonderful memories of all the things that once
were, but few of them are essential to democracy. We must concentrate
on those that are. Read more


Time to Name the Accuser

This column was filed Sept. 9, but publication was delayed as a result of review and discussion by editors and the travel schedule of the author. 

(Name withheld by editors) is taking her case against Kobe Bryant out of the criminal court and into civil court in Colorado, and it is time her name became standard media usage – instead of being reserved for radio shockjocks, Internet hitmen, Kobe Bryant’s attorney (who “mistakenly” used her name repeatedly in court) or the documents (with her name and address) that the court accidentally put online.

As I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Her voluntary step further into the public limelight makes appropriate a unified move by editors to cease the conceit of this naming taboo. Thus freed from a debate of little meaning, journalists could move on to discuss a terribly meaningful one: how to cover rape trials with sensitivity, balance, fairness, a concentration on fact over rumor.”


The name of the accuser in this case has been removed by Poynter Online editors. Read more


Calling Fox Names — Anonymously

My thanks to a colleague at Poynter, Larry Larsen, for pointing out another in a long line of stories at the Washington Post showing forgetfulness about the paper’s supposedly-tightened anonymity policies.

From the paper come these quotes:

“Fox News Channel doing a big number at the RNC is the least shocking thing that’s happened all week,” said one broadcast network exec. “The Olympics are to NBC what the RNC is to Fox News.”

“It says that Fox News Channel is the official channel of the GOP, and if people didn’t know it before they certainly know it now,” offered another competitor.

Still another said FNC’s success Tuesday night suggests the cable news network is the “in-house organ” of the Republican Party.

And from the Stylebook comes this one

The Washington Post‘s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution, and Datelines
We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources.
Read more


News With a View

I curtsy to no man in recognizing that media today are becoming more openly ideological. But acknowledging a point of view in newer entrants shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the “old media” are far from the model of open-mindedness they seem to feel they are.

And I don’t mean just the fact that coverage on such subjects as gun control or abortion often is knee-jerkishly liberal. Or the fact that, in over-reaction to those very “liberal media” charges, the occasional abortion-rights march — to take an example — is seriously UNDERplayed.

That little herky-jerky dance is lamentable. But I’m talking about a deeper and broader truth: The establishment media are so terminally ESTABLISHMENT. And they don’t seem to get how much of a bias that is.


This thought struck recently as I read “The Ascendancy of News with a View” in Newsday. The gist of it is that folks like George Stephanopoulos and Ted Koppel are alarmed to find that some Americans are looking to sources other than the likes of ABC to get an idea of what’s really going on. Read more


A Revolution in Journalism Accountability

I have a clipping in my files dated January 13, 2003. It’s from a British newspaper, the Guardian. Here’s the headline: “With war looming, it is no good the American public looking to its newspapers for an independent voice. For the press have now become the president’s men.”

This morning (Thursday), The Washington Post ran a remarkable story on its front page, responding to months of charges like that one in the Guardian: charges that the Post and other media failed the public in covering the buildup to war in Iraq. The story, by media writer Howard Kurtz, says the coverage “in hindsight, looks strikingly one-sided at times.” Last May, The New York Times did its own mea culpa. Its coverage, the story said, “was not as rigorous as it should have been.”

The Post is the major paper in the nation’s capital. Read more


Colin McNickle Responds

From: Colin McNickle
Sent: Monday, August 09, 2004 1:33 PM
To: Overholser, Geneva
Subject: Incredible

Ms. Overholser –

I found your recent posting “Omitting Telling Details” both laughable and tragic.

The larger question is my employer, not that I never got an answer to what even The New York Times was forced to admit was a perfectly “reasonable” question?

Furthermore, you, supposedly the paragon of journalistic whatever, link to a Max Blumenthal blog that is so factually bereft that it would be filed under “fiction” in any library.

Just one example is the smear of my days with UPI (as a bureau chief in two cities and as the broadcast editor for Pennsylvania based in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, no less). Sorry to burst all you liberals’ notions, but I didn’t work for the Rev. Read more


Omitting the Inconveniently Telling Detail

I came back from vacation raring to gripe about how we in the press conveniently overlook significant details on these catchy little stories we go bonkers over.

Details like the roar of the crowd in the Des Moines ballroom where Howard Dean screamed his immortal Scream. Details like a full characterization of the journalist Teresa Heinz Kerry told to “shove it.” Then, I discovered just how far behind the curve a blissful few days in the West Virginia mountains can leave you. See, for example, this and this.  

Still, I want to add my two bits: When I Googled “Teresa Heinz Kerry” and “shove it,” I saw twice as many references to the episode that do NOT mention Richard Mellon Scaife (who employs the journalist she told to “shove it”) as references that do. Read more


Fear and Anxiety in Network Newsrooms

Much that is commonly “understood” among journalists is rarely voiced in public. A pre-convention event this week in Cambridge – where network anchors went on the record about the partisan and corporate pressures they feel – was a bracing exception. The Shorenstein Center program was mostly noted in the news for Jim Lehrer’s chastisement of the big three anchors for their stinted convention coverage. But even rarer was the theme kicked off by Dan Rather at the start: “Fear has increased in every newsroom in America.” The three anchors (Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw) sparred with one another about whether it was “fear,” “caution,” or “anxiety,” but its existence seemed clear.

Rather started by noting this: When you’re a reporter contrasting what someone in the administration says with what you know to be the facts, pointedly laying out the differences, “You’re gonna catch hell.” “And those who are willing to pay the price,” Rather said, are fewer today than before. Read more


Anonymous in the Midwest

Paul Wolfowitz is accustomed to requesting –- and receiving –- anonymity when he wants it. But, as the Des Moines Register reported (not, alas, online, though you can read about it in Slate) that doesn’t work everywhere:

Incognito in Omaha

After Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spoke to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce last Friday, he set aside 45 minutes to talk about the Iraq war with a handful of newspaper reporters from Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. As is common in Washington, D.C., a Pentagon aide swooped down just before the questions began and explained that Wolfowitz could only be identified as a “senior Defense Department official.”

But this was Omaha, and the Midwest reporters rebelled at the suggested anonymity. They told Wolfowitz such a session was essentially a waste of their time, and besides, it’s customary for public officials in the Midwest to put their name behind their comments.

Read more
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