Fun With Rationalizations: Considering Salon’s Attack On The New York Post

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Let me dispense with the outrage over The New York Post’s brilliant (from their perspective, which is selling newspapers) and tasteless front page covering the death of Menachem Stark, a Hasidic real estate developer ( a.k.a. “slumlord”) who was found murdered and burned in a dumpster last Friday in Long Island.

The operative principle is not, as the reader who flagged the issue suggested, the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule does not often apply to the press, which is supposed to be truthful, not kind and diplomatic. There are provisions of most journalistic codes about avoiding unnecessary harm to third parties, which is pretty much a universal ethics rule in every field, from law to the military. When, however, you operate a tabloid, and not just any tabloid but a tabloid whose brand is defined by intentionally shocking, outrageous, assaultive and controversial headlines and photos, “Unnecessary harm to third parties” is almost an impossible principle to apply.

The headline is a perfect example of the Julie Principle, which I explained back in May. The Julie Principle comes into play when an undesirable or annoying  characteristic or behavior pattern in a person or organization appears to be hard-wired and part of their essence.  In judging such a person or entity, it is useful to keep the lyrics of Julie’s song from “Show Boat” (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein Jr., music by Jerome Kern) firmly in mind, when she sings…

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…

I’ve gotta love that man til I die

Can’t help lovin’ that man of mine! 

In such cases, it makes no sense to keep expressing indignation and shock about what is completely predictable and cannot be changed. You either resolve to tolerate the flaw ( and accept responsibility for the consequences of doing so), or decide that it is too much to endure, meaning that the relationship has to end. Bill Clinton’s going to lie. Rush Limbaugh is going to be politically incorrect. Ann Coulter is going to use absurd hyperbole that insults Democrats and progressive. The Daily Kos is going to dwell in an alternate reality where leftist policies are working swimmingly, the news media is wildly biased to the right, and President Obama is too conservative. The Chicago Cubs are going to lose. “Gambling is going on in this establishment!”

The complaint at issue, echoed in many places but most trenchantly phrased in Salon, is that the New York Post has a tasteless front page. Well, lick me all over so I gleam like a trout!* How is this even newsworthy?

Ah, but says Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, the headline “exceeded the bounds of tastelessness for a New York Post cover.” Well, as far as I can see, there are no such bounds. The Post creates and sells tasteless headlines and front page photos, and does it better, or worse, if you prefer, than anyone. Should anyone do it at all? Fascinating question. It’s a newspaper, it employs people, it contributes to the economy, it sort of reports news, and the people who buy it, like it. And sometimes, it comes up with a classic, like…

a-headlesspost

Which, you have to admit, makes up for a lot.
 
Applying the Julie Principle and considering the source and context, I don’t think the front page about the murdered slum lord is especially shocking, or even unusually bad tabloid journalism….or even, by the abysmal standards now being followed by the rest of American journalism, worse journalism than we see and hear every day. By all accounts, Stark was a controversial figure, with a lot of enemies. Columbo would have a hard time tracking down all of the possible suspects: that’s the message of the headline, edgily presented. If the Post had covered the famous shooting of J.R. Ewing (rest in peace, Larry Hagman), an equivalent headline would have been a natural.
 
I find the Salon story to be a rationalizations trap, because it begs for one to use a bushel of the little lies we like to tell ourselves to show how strange its full-throated protest is. If the Post headline really were some kind of offense against tabloid journalism decency (and how’s that for an oxymoron!), it would still pale in significance to the kind of pieces Salon runs on a regular basis, pieces like, say, this one. But that’s the trap, you see. The fact that Salon  publishes unethical and sensational essays frequently doesn’t justify an unethical headline by the Post, if unethical it is. Nor does Salon’s hypocrisy necessarily undermine the legitimacy of its criticism. This is Ratioanalization #2, The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse.
 
Another rationalization that comes to mind is Numero Uno, “Everybody Does It.” Most news media products try to sell themselves by attention-grabbing teasers, headlines and photos; the Post is just unusually bold.  Still, wrong is wrong, and how many others do wrong is no mitigation. But is the Post headline really wrong? Salon and other critics argue that it is hurtful to the murder victim’s family. When, in the entire history of U.S. journalism, has that ever been a consistently applied consideration?  One name: Sarah Palin. Here’s another: Mitt Romney. Oh, all right: Bill Clinton. Families are collateral damage in news reporting.  The criticism has no merit.
 
What does matters is  whether a headline is truthful or misleading. The Post’s headline was not misleading—it asked a question, in a provocative way, that police investigators are asking as well. In contrast, the New York Times, the Post’s supposedly respectable and honorable counterpart, just published a highly dubious report about the Benghazi attack that many believe, with justification, is a partisan whitewash. Its editorial page also called President Obama’s Lie of the Year an “incorrect promise.” During the 2008 campaign, The Times placed on its front pages a scurrilous faux scandal of pure rumor and innuendo, hinting at an inappropriate sexual relationship between Senator McCain and female lobbyist. In the last election cycle, the Washington Post manufactured a hit piece on Governor Rick Perry, based on the former, racially-insensitive, name of a hunting lodge that he neither owned nor leased. I could go on. These were examples dishonest, unethical journalism by papers that are not tabloids, and that have not made it their practice to sensationalize the news. These and many other examples were far, far worse than the Post’s recent front page, because of their context, their intent, and their betrayal of the publications’ own published standards. This is a rationalizations trap too, though: Salon’s partisan targeting of the New York Post for being the New York Post should nonetheless be judged only by the Post’s conduct, and not in comparison to the far more unethical journalism Salon’s fellow left-leaning news organizations engage in on a regular basis without any peep from Salon.  I hate “It’s not the worst thing” as a rationalization, but Salon having vapors over a supposedly unethical New York Post front page sure makes it tempting, even for me.
 
But Salon is like that.
 
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…
 
 
* Alan Arkin’s character says this in “Grudge Match.” I’ve been dying to find a place to use it.
___________________________________
Pointer: Fred
Sources: NY Post, Salon,

14 thoughts on “Fun With Rationalizations: Considering Salon’s Attack On The New York Post

  1. I still don’t see all the kerfuffle. As you said- a provocative way of saying he had made a lot of enemies. Sure, his family may not like hearing it, but what family likes hearing somethign bad about their loved one in the press? I also don’t buy into what I’ve heard about this being “victim blaming.” The headline in no way suggests he deserved to be killed, just that he did a lot of things that could have given people motive to kill him. I hate that inversion, where if you suggest that anything a victim did might have made them a target, you are victim blaming or saying they brought it on themselves. The only thing more absurd than that, are the people protesting that it is “antisemitic.”

  2. Doesn’t that line of reasoning lead to the question of whether operating the New York Post is inherently unethical?

    Does “Who wouldn’t want him dead?” sound like an endorsement to anyone but me? “Who didn’t want him dead?” would have sounded different in my ears.

    • Sure it’s inherently unethical—it’s disgusting. It’s unethical journalism, but the rest of the field has fallen to meet it. That’s really a different question, but hardly a tough one. Hustler’s unethical, but I would snicker at a Salon piece that said “Hustler’s sexism has finally gone too far!”

      I don’t think it sounds like an endorsement much more than the other phrasing. I doubt that the Post would have gotten less flack, either way.

  3. “Who didn’t want him dead?”

    His family, friends, business associates, members of the close knit community he belongs too, and and various other people not into murder as a legitimate form of behavior. I don’t find the headline and pic Anti-Semitic though I do find it opportunistic.

  4. OK, here goes. The headline and the story are window dressing. The first professional murder in New York City under the new liberal administration, aimed at a member of a powerful class of wealthy elites. One of his enemies was actually a former NYPD officer he owed 3 million bucks.

  5. The Golden Rule does not often apply to the press, which is supposed to be truthful,

    Nope.

    During their appeal, FOX asserted that there are no written rules against distorting news in the media. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves. Fox attorneys did not dispute Akre’s claim that they pressured her to broadcast a false story, they simply maintained that it was their right to do so. After the appeal verdict WTVT general manager Bob Linger commented, “It’s vindication for WTVT, and we’re very pleased… It’s the case we’ve been making for two years. She never had a legal claim.”

    http://www.relfe.com/media_can_legally_lie.html
    But see also
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Akre

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