The incidents of blatantly untrustworthy conduct by supposedly prestigious news organizations have become so numerous that they are almost no longer newsworthy themselves. Journalists failing their core ethical standards when maintaining them would be inconvenient? That’s not news. That’s the status quo.
Patrick B. Pexton, the Washington Posts’s ombudsman, had to write about the strange case of Jose Antonio Vargas, the celebrated journalist, once employed by the Post, who admitted last week that he was an illegal alien. In particular, he had to write about 1) why a Post editor, Peter Perl, continued to employ Vargas and hid his immigration status for eight years after learning that he was in the country illegally and 2) why Vargas’s 4000 word piece about his deception (and the Post’s complicity in it) was killed by another Post editor, resulting in its being picked up and published by the New York Times. So the in-house ethics watchdog wrote about it, and concluded—nothing.
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who decided not to run Vargas’s story, ducked Pexton’s inquiries with a boilerplate “the paper doesn’t discuss internal news judgement” response. “Fair enough,” Pexton writes. Fair enough? That is certainly not fair enough; no Post reporter would accept that kind of a non-answer answer from an elected official.
Thus the published report on the internal investigation by the Post’s independent journalism ethicist leaves us with these unavoidable conclusions, though Pexton does not have the boldness and honesty to state them clearly:
1. A Post journalist broke, and continued to break, U.S. immigration laws with the complicity of a Post editor.
2.What objectivity regarding illegal immigration issues and the immigration policy debate can the Post be trusted to maintain when its own management? None.
3. Rather than expose its own misconduct and dubious handling of the Vargas situation, the Post refused to publish the story.
4. If the Washington Post will not honestly and completely reveal facts that are embarrassing to its management, why should any reader trust the Post to report other facts, events and conduct that are detrimental to the Post management and staff’s own interests? No reader should.
5. Finally, if the Post management will not be candid with its own ombudsman about a series of ethics breaches, how serious is the Post about its integrity, objectivity and trustworthiness?