Monday, August 20, 2007

The Problem With Professional Journalists

Blogs: All the noise that fits ~ Michael Skube, LA Times
I like the noise of democracy. ~ President James Buchanan
There is a growing belief among journalists that the noble profession of journalism is above the common rabble of citizenry. Citizens hold opinions and they express them; journalists are above such petty things. Their problem, of course, is with blogs. There was no problem as long as citizens expressed their opinions around the water cooler or at the corner bar where few could notice. Now, with the Internet, every citizen can own his own printing press; with vblogging every citizen can be his own broadcaster. There's the problem. The elitism that came with being a professional journalist has been lost, hopefully forever. All they have left to claim professionalism is doing their job well. But, professional journalism is becoming a lost art.
The freedom to share one’s insights and judgments verbally or in writing is, just like the freedom to think, a holy and inalienable right of humanity that, as a universal human right, is above all the rights of princes. ~ Carl Fredrick Bahrdt
In part, I don't disagree with Skube. Properly done, journalism is a vital force for democracy. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics. Ethics that are breeched so frequently I suspect most journalists have never read them. A few examples.

"Deliberate distortion is never permissible"
On August 15, 2002, Rena Gold, the executive vice-president and general manager of CNN admitted they censored news from the Afghan War. It was "a reluctance to criticize anything in a war that was obviously supported by the vast majority of the people." They distorted the facts so as to not disillusion the public. The effect has been a war that is not going well in part because the media deliberately lied.

Anonymous Sources
There is an epidemic of anonymous sources in American reportage. The Code of Ethics states, "Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity."

Let us take the Valerie Plame case, for example. What was the motive for Scooter Libby and Karl Rove to out a CIA agent? They wanted to injure the wife of an Administration critic. Was the public entitled to know the source so as to judge its reliability? You betcha. Politicians chat up reporters on background all the time. The politicians like it because they get to rumormonger with impunity. The reporters like it because it makes them feel important. The vast majority of anonymous sourcing is unnecessary and a violation of journalistic ethics.

Conflicts of Interest
Before Campbell Brown, former NBC and now CNN reporter, became engaged to Bush adviser Dan Senor how many people knew they were dating? Would Brown's objectivity have been questioned were it known that the content of her reporting might hurt or help the career of the love of her life? In Washington and elsewhere, reporters and the people they report on go to the same parties, date, marry, and shag all in delicate secrecy. The ethical code is: "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." This is the scandal of professional journalism. Accurate reporting is sacrificed for all these friendships and love affairs.

"Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error." We've all seen it. Reporting so slipshod it wouldn't meet the ethical standards of a fifth-grade diarist. The run up to the Iraq War was filled with such laziness. In 2006, Juan Cole noted this example where journalists couldn't be bothered to get accurate translations. One of the reasons I like Jon Stewart's Daily Show is their habit of juxtapositioning statements from politicians that show them clearly lying. It is real reporting that simply requires a little research. It is a disgrace that a faux news comedy show does a better job reporting this truth than NBC, CBS, and ABC.

Fox News
"Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent." 'Nuff said.

The Good and Bad
There is good reporting happening, although seldom from Washington. Christine Amanpour is of a class with Edward R. Morrow. Chris Matthews is closer to Soupy Sales. We have lost some of the best reporters on the planet, like Daniel Pearl. Pearl died while seeking the truth about al-Qaeda. Tim Russert sipping cocktails with Josh Bolton in the evening and then refusing to ask him tough questions the next day doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph.

As for bloggers, there is some good reporting coming from them as well. And as for the opinions we express, often aggressively...
The right to discuss freely and openly, by speech, by the pen, by the press, all political questions, and to examine the animadvert upon all political institutions is a right so clear and certain, so interwoven with our other liberties, so necessary, in fact, to their existence, that without it we must fall into despotism and anarchy. ~ William Cullen Bryant

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