I do want to hold the line on featuring Comments of the Day that I think exemplify awful ethical reasoning, as opposed to those that are provocative and enlightening, to a minimum. This one, however, is too rich to ignore. It is the defense of an apparent journalist for the ethics-busting behavior of the Washington Post in the recent Jose Antonio Vargas incident using a dizzying array of alibis and rationalizations, including “they’re better than most,” “people don’t care,” “you have to cheat to stay in business,” “they are better than the alternative,” and others. It also resorts to the time-honored “who are you to judge?” and “you couldn’t do a better job.”
If this is typical of how journalists view their profession’s ethical obligations—and I think it is—the comment explains a lot. You can read my lin-by-line response after the original post. Here is the Comment of the Day, by okonheim:
“First of all, my main argument is not through my words, but the fact that I’m still going to buy the newspaper and I doubt that circulation numbers would be majorly affected if every single subscriber were required to read your web post. You can talk about ethics in a bubble all you want, but within the practical reality of the world, the Washington Post’s ethics are already higher than they really need to be from a business standpoint anyway.
“I don’t know much about you, the author of this blog, but I don’t entirely give a s— about your judgement of the Washington Post from a theoretical standpoint. Criticism like this is just malicious and purposeless unless you can convince me that you would be able to run the Washington Post newsroom, what I would imagine is a very, very difficult task, any better than it’s currently being run.
“I’m not sure if you are aware of a blog for journalism ethics or just ethics in general, but let me give you a picture because I’m not sure you realize how ethical newspapers are and how little it benefits them from a profit-margin perspective to do so. The Washington Post style manual of guidelines is 200 pages. That’s 200 pages full of things you’re not allowed to do. The newspaper business is an industry that is forced to ignore most avenues of profit that are knocking at its door, which is especially troubling when people are losing their jobs and the public doesn’t place the proper market value on them. Oh yes, and it’s also trendy to hate the media and rattle on about how they’re doing their jobs wrong.
“I was just meeting with a manager of a chain of small newspapers who talked about having to do what you’ve gotta do to stay in business. That’s the nature of the times we’re in. I was once sent on a story to report on the opening of a new restaurant and noticed shortly into the interview that the restaurant had just purchased ad space in the newspaper. I interviewed for a PR firm that once said there was a newspaper they dealt with that hung up the phone on your pitches if you weren’t an advertiser. I just spoke with another newspaper editor someone else who thought that newspaper was ridiculous but also said that he gives no preferences towards coverage on who buys ad space but he also features ad buyers on his real estate profile.
“Those are the options: Your options are usually: find some short cut to sell that ad space or goodbye, newspaper.
“You know what else: There are outlets out there (you might call them journalism) like TMZ or Gawker that pay people $50 for news tips. There’s even a newspaper that I know of indirectly which is the major paper for its town and the ethics are more relaxed there. An editor explained to me that the paper wasn’t owned by any media conglomerate but just one guy and he can do whatever he wants. And he’s profiting and his readers are still buying from him. Who are you or any other media critic to tell him he’s doing his job wrong? You can blog on here all you want about how “corrupt” he is but I doubt you’ll put him out of business. At the end of the day the community gets what it wants and so does the newspaper owner.
“In the meantime, The Washington Post does absolutely none of these things. They continue to operate their business unprofitably and lose jobs because they essentially try to satisfy anyone who could possibly have an issue with extremely rigid rules of truth, equity and fairness.
“Every decision that they make when fast-dwindling profit is on the line and they’re not allowed to take any shortcut to that profit is tough. All I can say, is you try running the Post any better.”