Why Journalists Can’t Shoot Straight

George probably wasn’t lying, but Bill sure was.

The issue in the Washington Post’s weekly Outlook section concerned the virtues and dangers of honesty in a Presidential campaign, a matter that interests me from the perspective of ethics, presidential history, and citizenship. Two Post reporters were given the assignment of creating sidebars to the main article, one on candidates who told the truth and were punished for it, the other on campaign lies that came back to haunt the Presidents involved.

These are not difficult assignments, by any means. Either would be a legitimate term paper topic for a high school senior’s history class; both would be rejected as a history major’s thesis topic as overly simplistic. Yet both Rachel Weiner and Aaron Blake botched their tasks, and would have earned D’s at best in high school history, and that’s only because of grade inflation. The reasons for their failures exemplify the inadequacy of the mainstream media for the job we need it to do during a Presidential election.

  • Incompetence or lack of basic education and analytical ability. Since the issue is telling the truth, competent handling of the assignment requires an understanding of the difference between lies, broken promises, opinions and flubs. Alas, neither reporter possessed this basic information.

 – Weiner’s three examples of “truth-tellers” (Her sidebar was entitled, “Truth in politics, not always a winner”) were President Carter, in his famous “malaise” speech; Micheel Dukakis, for  his infamous debate reply to Bernie Shaw’s “if your wife were raped and murdered” question,” and Barry Goldwater’s signature line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” None of the three incidents are germane to the issue of candidates and Presidents being penalized for “telling the truth.” Carter’s speech was unpopular because it seemed whiny and defeatist, and because it blamed the public for the natural results of his own ineffective, sanctimonious and weak leadership. Dukakis’s robotic and passionless response to Shaw’s question, a softball designed to let Dukakis empathize with the victims of crime, did him in not because it was a truthful response, but because his demeanor while giving the answer showed him displaying as much concern over the violent death of his wife as he would over breaking a shoelace. As for Goldwater, his intentionally edgy motto wasn’t “truth-telling,” but a statement of personal and political philosophy.

Blake’s “political whopper hall of shame” was arguably better: at least one of his three, President Johnson, was arguably lying when he said, in 1964, that he would “seek no wider involvement in Vietnam.” The other two admittees to the “hall”? Sen. McCain was not lying when he said, as the stock market was in freefall,  that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” The statement was impolitic in the middle of a meltdown. and it is the conservative, anti-regulation capitalist’s argument (“let the government get out of the way and the labor, innovation, resources and spirit of the America work force will succeed, as it always has”), which many disagree with. This makes it a gaffe, a mistake or a rejected opinion, not a “whopper”; McCain’s statement better qualifies him for Wiener’s list than Blake’s. As for President George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips: No new taxes!” pledge, that was a stupid promise and turned out to be a broken promise, but no commentator has ever suggested that Bush intended to break his word when he said it. It wasn’t “a whopper” by any definition.

It’s unethical to accept responsibility to analyze an issue for the public when you lack the understanding of the subject necessary to do so. Since the misuse of the term “lies” has become epidemic in public discourse, this is an especially damaging topic to mishandle.

  • Lack of diligence and integrity. The choices by both reporters suggest that they did little or no research, or just made random choices—poor ones—to meet a deadline. How else can one explain the omission of the most obvious example of a Presidential candidate wrecking his chances of being elected by telling the truth: Democrat Walter Mondale’s open admission that he would raise taxes if he won the 1984 election? Or the absence of Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” lie as a ticket to the “whopper hall of shame”?
  • Bias and conflict of interest. I swear: before I checked the columns, I guessed that the “truth-tellers” would be predominantly Democratic, and the “liars” would be mostly Republicans, and so they were. Well, of course. This is the most likely explanation for the Clinton omission, but it is the only way to explain including George H.W. Bush’s failure to keep a campaign promise while omitting the multiple campaign pledges President Obama rode to election that were equally violated, and are far more relevant to the current election: transparency, no lobbyists in the White House, no tolerance toward ethics violations, no tax hikes on the middle class, bi-partisanship, Guantanamo, obeying international standards of warfare, super-pacs, and more.

Why can’t journalists shoot straight? Why do they make the public dumber and less well-informed when they are tasked with enlightening them? Journalists can’t can’t shoot straight because they are too often generalists engaging in disciplines, such as history, in which they are not qualified; because they either don’t have the time or don’t take the time to do their research, and because they lack the integrity and discipline to keep their biases and personal political preferences out of  the process.

That’s why.



Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.


1 Comment

Filed under Character, Government & Politics, History, Journalism & Media, Leadership, Professions

One response to “Why Journalists Can’t Shoot Straight

  1. Arthur in Maine

    Journalists can’t can’t shoot straight because they are too often generalists engaging in disciplines, such as history, in which they are not qualified; because they either don’t have the time or don’t take the time to do their research, and because they lack the integrity and discipline to keep their biases and personal political preferences out of the process.

    This implies (but does not specifically state) one additional reason and overlooks another.

    The reason implied is LAZINESS. Columnists have a pretty sweet deal: twice a week, they’re expected to bang out 750 words. The pay is good, the hours splendid, the party invitations gratifying, and all this comes, at least in theory, after spending years in the trenches on a specific news beat (or in a field in which they allegedly gained the expertise to write their column – think Paul Krugman). This could be considered to fal under your “don’t take the time” parameter, but let’s not sugarcoat things: if you’ve survived in the news business, being a columnist is the best possible place to be a slacker.

    The overlooked item amounts to the fact that these guys and gals tend to live in an echo chamber. Sure, even the New York Times has (an alleged) “conservative” columnist or two, but the simple fact is that columnists are selected for their points of view. In essence, columnists are given license for bias – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, I’d argue it’s a GOOD thing). They are also surrounded by colleagues and managers who usually share and reinforce their points of view (which probably has much to do with their assignments in the first place – it’s the rare employer who actively seeks out subordinates who hold opinions radically different from their own).

    Thus the real problem isn’t that columnists are biased, but rather that their employers are. The columnist is doing his/her job based on his/her voice. The media outlet is failing in ITS responsibility (such as it is – you know my belief that media can never be objective, and shouldn’t be expected to be) to provide alternative points of view.

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