Journalism’s new ethics Posted by: McQ
on Monday, December 05, 2005
Ralph Peters, in his own no-holds-barred way, discusses a phenomenon which I've often thought about over the years:
A specter is haunting journalism: the specter of Watergate.
Three decades ago, two young reporters became the story and crippled American journalism.
Budding yuppies who avoided inconvenient service to the state needed heroes they could call their own. And they got them.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on-screen. It was as if Mike Bloomberg was portrayed by Brad Pitt. Overnight, journalism became an upwardly mobile profession — and our country is much the worse for it.
Watergate changed journalism forever. As Peters notes, instead of a job, it became a celebrity profession. Reporters became "journalists" and stars were born. And with that event and its consequences, the profession began to draw a different type of person than the hard-nosed beat reporter who worked dilligently at getting the story right and not becoming part of it. The result? I think Peters' captures it well:
In place of the old healthy skepticism, we have arrogant cynicism. The highest echelons of the media and government became preserves for America's most-privileged. An Ivy League degree was the ticket to a reporting job on a major daily. And incest produced the usual ugly results.
"Mainstream" newspapers lost touch with American workers because the new breed of journalists didn't know any workers.
Now, you can almost miss an important point here if you read too quickly. Journalism wasn't the only profession to change. As Peters notes, so has government and by extention, politics. That shouldn't be lost in this discussion of how journalism has changed. But the key point here is the Peters assertion that because of the change, the "new breed of journalists" lost touch with the American worker.
His point is fairly simple and straight forward: given where they came from, where they went to school and where they ended up, few if any ever lived among what would commonly be considered "the working class".
That has consequences. The best analogy is found in comparing media coverage of the military. It becomes painfully obvious to most people who are veterans that the vast majority of the journalists out there have no idea how the military is structured or functions. I can't tell you how many times I've cynically chuckled when I've read a headline which begins "The Soldiers of Charlie Company....".
Every battalion in the army has a "C Company", but usually that's the only identification used in the story ... you have no idea what battalion, regiment or division the unit is with. It becomes clear, in their ignorance, that the journalist in question believes that "Charlie Company" says it all in terms of identification.
Name the last journalist of note who was in the military. Oh sure there are a few out there such as Peters, but the vast majority of them don't know which end of the weapon makes the loud noise much less how the military works.
Now name the last elite journalist on a national level who came from a working class background and has knowledge of and experience in that world.
Peters then digs into the meat of his point:
After journalists became matinee idols, every bright young reporter had a new career goal. Forget honest, get-at-the-facts reporting. Henceforth the crowning ambition in the field was to bring down a president — especially one who wasn't "our kind." Failing that, turning the tide of a foreign conflict against Washington would do.
"Serious" journalists became scandal-mongers in drag.
The other product of the Woodward-Bernstein cult was the rise of the self-adoring conviction that journalists were above patriotism, the law and common decency. Today's Joe McCarthys aren't on Capitol Hill — they're in the newsroom. In lieu of Edward R. Murrow, we have Hedda Hopper masquerading as Joan of Arc.
Legacy journalism. Everyone wanted to become Woodward and Bernstein. Why else would a Jayson Blair exist among journalists? What other motiviation than acclaim and celebrity would have a journalist do what Blair did? If focused on facts and getting the story right, there is no Blair problem, is there?
But, alas, that's not where most journalists are focused.
Leona Helmsley famously remarked that taxes are for the little people. Star journalists assume that the law is for the little people, too. "Journalistic privilege" is the biggest crock of merde since phrenology or eugenics: Reporters aren't priests in the confessional: They're citizens, just like you and me.
Celeb journalists love to invoke "freedom of the press," but dismiss the reality that the exercise of freedom in an open society demands a corresponding sense of responsibility, as well as self-restraint and mature judgment.
The coverage of Iraq by once-great publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker has been nothing more than a propaganda effort to convince the American people that our efforts are destined to fail. Stories lie by omission and manipulation.
Advocacy journalism. While we all recognize that an opinion piece will advocate a particular side on the subject, we don't want that in what one would consider to be a "news" story. But advocacy, unfortunately, is part and parcel of legacy journalism. Slanting stories is nothing new, certainly. I don't think anyone would argue that it is a recent phenomenon. But what is more recent is the amount of stories with a slant, be it right or left. No longer content with giving the readers (or listeners or viewers) the story and all the known facts, journalists are more and more compelled to insert opinion as well. And it has become so prevalent as to be almost unnoticed by the profession itself.
Which brings us to another point as pertains to the national media:
Patriotism? Forget it.
After Watergate, patriotism became an embarrassment among journalists. They're "citizens of the world." CNN International has grown so casually anti-American that it rivals the BBC, while much of big media here at home gives terrorist atrocities a pass, while celebrating the slightest errors of our troops with front-page headlines.
The Washington Post — the old home of Woodward and Bernstein — offers a fascinating study in the tensions at work in journalism today. Its editorial page has improved remarkably in recent years, while the quality of its general reporting has far surpassed the Times' page one editorializing.
Yet the quest for headlines-at-any-cost and the sense that evident patriotism is distasteful led a superb paper to shameful decisions. Dana Priest, a journalist with much fine work to her credit, recently broke the story of secret CIA arrangements to hold captured terrorists in Eastern Europe. For the sake of a headline, the paper did severe harm to our counter-terror efforts and our diplomatic relations.
The editors would insist that "the public has a right to know." That tired mantra needs scrutiny: It would have justified revealing secrets such as Ultra, the Manhattan Project or the timing of D-Day in the Second World War.
Our country is at war with implacable enemies. If the media disdain supporting our efforts at self-defense, they should at least refrain from undercutting our security. How many deaths is a story worth? (And imagine if we had published daily casualty reports from World War II battlefields. Would "journalistic integrity" have justified aiding Hitler)?
Obviously the way you come down on this issue has to do with how you feel about the "rights" of journalists. The argument that is now prevalent among journalists says the "public right to know" trumps patriotism. They feel they should be shielded from having to reveal sources. That, in fact, journalists shouldn't be held to such plebian standards as keeping secrets which might help an enemy or cause the death of Americans be they soldiers or civilians. That their trade is so sacred that it transcends nationalism and thus patriotism and should be exempt from both. That journalists have a responsibility to the public to report everything they come across, even if it works to the detriment of that very same public. That of course is because instead of defining the public as that of the nation in which they report and live, they grandly consider themselves citizens of the world and the public they report to not that of a particular nation, but the whole world.
As Peters points out, if the present journalistic paradigm were prevelant durning WWII that would mean the press would have had front page stories about the Manhattan Project and our capture of the German decoding machine "Ultra" as soon as they found out about it. The carnage the latter revelation would have caused is truly incalculable. Knowing Germany's secrets through a system they continued to think was secure during the entire war saved thousands, if not millions of lives on the allied side. Imagine invoking the "public's right to know" in that instance.
And take it a step further. Imagine disclosing war plans or unit locations something all of us recognize would put our soldiers in immediate danger. Why isn't this vaunted "right of the public to know" applicable in that case? If it isn't applicable in that case, how is it applicable in other cases.
No one is claiming that journalists have to be enthusiastic and jingoistic supporters of an administration or country at war, but, as Peters points out, they are citizens of the country and that brings with it a certain level of responsibility. They are not above that responsiblity nor is their trade "sacred" and "above the law". It is a trade. And as a trade, it owes its allegiance to the public that supports it financially and the country which makes the practice of the trade possible.
For those interested in this general area, Bernard Goldberg’s recent book "Arrogance" is in the discount bins. I got it for a buck at one of the "Everything’s a Dollar" stores. It’s not as good as "Bias", and in fact probably did poorly in the bookstores because it covers so much of the same territory. But I enjoyed it, and he has a lot more recent examples of bias in the media than "Bias" did.
Just look at the stink they’re trying to make over the Iraqi media propaganda effort. Is it really newsworthy that our military would use psychological warfare? Why is the exposure of an ongoing, classified military operation—during wartime—not resulting in people getting jailtime?
Sure, the media is intentionally hurting our war effort, so why isn’t the government doing anything about it?
In defence of the Press they do make a lot of money. The product is marketable and it is a competitive industry. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Or better yet set up a network to reach those working class Joes and you’ll make a killing (like the _____ in the henhouse).
the problem as I see it is that the people who go into Journalism usualy are motivated by two factors, 1) they want to "change the world", and 2) they don’t want to have to take hard subjects like economics or science.
An interesting commentary on motivation, but in the case of Jayson Blair, whom I represent, it misses the mark. Jayson was in the midst of a mental breakdown due to untreated manic-depressive disorder when his journalistic sins were committed. Ambition, a desire for celebrity, promotions, money, or journalistc awards had nothing to do with it. He just was not playing with a full deck at the time.
"Now name the last elite journalist on a national level who came from a working class background and has knowledge of and experience in that world"
This isn’t a defense of big time journalism - I could care less for it, but I think Brokaw probably comes close to your challenge. I found all this Googling. I’m not a Brokaw fan - I just remembered that he was born in SoDak (my home state) and figured there was a better than even chance that his upbringing was not silver spooned.
"Tom Brokaw was born in Webster, South Dakota and graduated from Yankton High Senior High School in Yankton, South Dakota, where he was a debater. According to debate-team legend, his wife was a better debater than he was. As a high school student, Brokaw was governor of South Dakota Boy’s State, and in that role, he accompanied then South Dakota Governor Joe Foss to New York City for a joint appearance on a TV game show. It was to be the beginning of a long relationship with Foss, whom Brokaw would later feature in his book about WW II vets, The Greatest Generation. Brokaw started his collegiate studies at the University of Iowa from 1958 to 1959 where he says he majored in "beer and coeds". In 2002, he set up a scholarship for American Indian students at the University of Iowa. Brokaw dropped out there and then transfered to the University of South Dakota where he studied political science and worked as a radio reporter from 1959 to 1962. His journalism career began at KMTV in Omaha, Nebraska."
From an interview with him:
" My parents were critically important to me. They both grew up in a working class environment during the Great Depression. They believed that the greatest rewards for work well done was in a job well done. They had a kind of inherent modesty about them. Not all of that took—after all, I’m now a television anchorman—but it always kept the public acclaim that I received when I was in high school for achievements, at one time or another, in the appropriate context."
From another interview:
"One of the things I learned, since my parents came out of the depression and just from witnessing them, was you take away what you earn. They worked hard for everything they has. You let the results of your work speak for themselves, as opposed to using the work to draw attention to yourself."
From an editorial review of his book A Long Way from Home:
"Brokaw was born in 1940 in Webster, S.Dak., and lived in the area for the first 22 years of his life. The son of upstanding farmers who lived by the motto of "waste not, want not," Brokaw had a squeaky-clean childhood and adolescence, ruled by work, sports and family."