Major Ethics Alarm: American Journalism Is Crumbling Before Our Eyes [Part 2: Sounding The Alarm]


The analysis below was preceded by Part I: Signature Significance. I suggest reading it first. After listing and commenting on several recent examples of news media bias and incompetence, the post ends with the Ethics Alarms starting point for ethical analysis:

What’s going on here?

What’s going on is pretty terrifying. There is literally no major news media outlet that isn’t biased and untrustworthy, and the profession does not appear to care. Is it denial? Is it terrible training? Is it a misguided sense of mission? Arrogance? Whatever it is, it is res ipsa loquitur–it speaks for itself.

Don’t argue that the news media isn’t always wrong or constantly allowing partisan bias to skew its reporting: the point is the same as what Ethics Alarms explained in its Snopes post.  Once bias is manifest, the reliable reporting must occuring spite of that pollution, and there is no way for the public to know when it is being informed according to proper journalism ethics, and when it is being manipulated. The examples above are egregious. They would not have been permitted even 20 years ago, and yet now they are.

This doesn’t require much acumen to spot the problem, or elaborate measures to address. Look at the examples in Part I. How hard is it to figure out that once a reporter has been shown to be colluding with one party over another, it’s “Bye-bye and welcome to the baby zoo animal beat!” If it is so impossible for a Sunday news show to find four expert commentators who aren’t in Trump-freak-out mode, it’s time to upgrade the potential guest pundit list. When an anchor wildly mistates a fact like the McConnell quote that has been repeatedly debunked, 1) correct it, 2) apologize, and 3) give her a few days off without pay. How hard is that? It’s not hard, unless the entire profession is so devoid of ethical training and habits that it literally doesn’t know how to be honest, objective, fair, competent and responsible…you know, as in trustworthy.

Professions are obligated to police themselves. It shouldn’t be a conservative media watchdog site like Newsbusters that reveals Camerota’s unconscionable repetition of the long-debunked claim that Republicans vowed to obstruct Obama “from Day One”, it should be CNN’s competitors, or CNN. Brian Stelter, CNN’s own media watchdog, didn’t report on any of these episodes, because he has been dedicated to playing defense for his network, denying that news media bias exists. On October 16, just before another Wikileaks dump showed how many mainstream media journalists were regarded by the Clinton campaign as allies, Stelter engaged in a long sneerfest mocking the idea, which he attributed to Trump, that the news media was biased against Trump and trying to elect Clinton, beginning with…

Corrupt media. In Trump’s world, journalists are really just Clinton campaign workers in disguise collaborating with her in an attempt to rig the election. This is not just false, it’s ludicrous and it’s damaging. But you know what, his current conspiracy theory is ripped from these pages, the pages of the right wing website of Breitbart News. It says right there, the press is colluding to elect Hillary… what do we even say? How do we prove that we are not all conspiring?

Within a few days, we learned that CNN’s Donna Brazile leaked questions to Hillary Clinton. It reminded me of when George Will wrote a column ridiculing “The China Syndrome” as Hollywood anti-nuke hysteria, and The Three-Mile Island disaster occurred the same week. The difference? Will admitted that he had been proven spectacularly wrong. But here’s a sample of how Stelter summarized the year in journalism in an essay in CNN’s book on the 2016 election,  “Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything”:

“[Donald Trump] was a one-person driver of ratings and readership and a serious menace to press freedom…What do journalists really care about? What makes us tick? Contrary to Trump’s public claims, it’s not a desire to elect Democrats … And, at least in the mainstream press, it’s not ideological. While many reporters lean-to the left in their personal politics, they are by and large driven by a desire to cover a great “story,” to get scoops, to beat the competition.”

No, you unforgivable hack, the threat to freedom of the press is you and your colleagues who abuse it and betray their duty as professionals.

What about Fox News, whose name was notably absent from the accounts in the first part of this post? We know Fox news is biased; it tries to be biased. It exists because the rest of the mainstream news media was biased and has become more so. If the rest of the news media was fair and competent, Fox would be a laughingstock, but although laughing is part of the way the left-biased news media tries to bury news it finds inconvenient, it doesn’t work any more.We know that the other sources are just as biased, but don’t admit it.

Fox had a great last quarter in 2016, and it should be obvious why. More of the country is conservative than liberal, half the nation voted for Trump, and if the left-biased sham news organizations irritated members of that half, they had but one echo chamber to go to. The other half of the country divided itself up among the more numerous echo chambers trying to elect Clinton and cover for Obama. I won’t watch Fox News. It is untrustworthy. No news network that gives a forum to people like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly is trustworthy. (Replace those names with Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell, and that’s MSNBC.) No network run as a personal harem like Fox News was under founder and CEO Roger Aisles is trustworthy. Every time I see one of those exploited bleached blondes tarted up as if news show is the equivalent of an escort service, my gorge rises.

Normal Americans with typical responsibilities and lives cannot be informed enough to be competent citizens the way the ethical standards of journalism have been allowed to deteriorate. My job requires me to try to keep informed, and that means relying on partisan internet sources to check biased stories from the other side, then checking on the checkers. It’s exhausting, and still no guarantee of getting the facts. Nevertheless, journalists, except for a rare few with integrity, deny that a problem exists. (So do many of you, and that doesn’t help.) No wonder so many rely on comedy commentators, who employ no ethical standards whatsoever, and the sewer of social media for their news.

The solution is straightforward, but elusive. It requires major, respected, non-partisan figures in the journalism field to declare in shockingly clear terms how far the profession has fallen, and the urgency of journalists returning to core principles. The profession needs to agree on affirmative steps that will encourage trust no matter what a citizen’s own biases are. Those steps must begin with a condemnation of past practices and breaches of professionalism and fairness, such as the New York Times declaring last Fall that it would slant its coverage to defeat Donald Trump; the Boston Globe publishing a fake front page describing a dystopian future under a President Trump; and allowing journalists who collude with elected officials to keep their jobs. The process would include strict policies about misinformation, with accountability, transparency, and fearless self-criticism. The solution would involve an admission that an organization that is 95% progressive /Democrat cannot possibly function objectively as reliable reporters, and that news room diversity requires more than EEOC categories. It would require independent, non-conflicted, proactive and fearless ombudspersons—we HAVE to come up with a better gender-neutral word that that—who have no fealty to the organizations they are charged with overseeing.

It would require firing fake and biased “watchdogs” like Brian Stelter.

And much more. I’ll be happy to develop a comprehensive process for any news organization that asks me and pays me for it. Journalists should be able to come up with the steps themselves; after all, its their profession. Why haven’t they? They haven’t because they are arrogant, insulated, frightened of the changing media scene, not close to as smart as they think they are,  ignorant of the ethics of their own profession, under the delusion that their function is to control events rather than report on them, and in denial.

The result is that this culture and government by the people is at risk being dominated by citizens who have lost the ability to understand the world around them, because the beating heart of the democracy envisioned by our Founders, a free and honest “press,” is rotten with incompetence and bias.

21 thoughts on “Major Ethics Alarm: American Journalism Is Crumbling Before Our Eyes [Part 2: Sounding The Alarm]

  1. Jack, I believe you have raised the bar in 2017 well above even your ability to consistently top it with this series of posts 🙂

    Great analysis!

    However, your interview skills may need some, uhm, polish. You said “I’ll be happy to develop a comprehensive process for any news organization that asks me and pays me for it

    Then followed by “…they are arrogant, insulated, frightened of the changing media scene, not close to as smart as they think they are, ignorant of the ethics of their own profession, under the delusion that their function is to control events rather than report on them, and in denial.

    Too much truth too quickly for any mainstream media HR person, I fear. Sort of like telling the person interviewing you they smell bad and their momma dresses them funny.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. I don’t see where you can compared Bill O’Reilly with a race baiter like Al Sharpton. O’Reilly does get a little pompous from time to time but for one example, he and his staff have written some pretty decent popular U.S. History books. Take a look at *Killing the Rising Sun*. Sharpton on the other hand has done nothing but engage in divisive rhetoric and lie about people like Tawana Bradley.

  3. Back on Oct.9/2016, Glen Greenwald and Lee Fang of “The Intercept” published an article that I feel strongly should be read repeatedly by people, at least often enough that they learn the majority of the 50-75 names included on the various lists within it. At least then the person reading the article knows a little better up-front if they’re reading news or propaganda. Among these are the names (revealed by Wikileaks) of the reporters who were invited to a dinner party by the Clinton campaign to discuss her upcoming run for the Presidency over a few drinks on a Friday night. Just two paragraphs of the leaked email reads:

    “…This is an off-the-record dinner with the key national reporters, especially (though not exclusively) those that are based in New York. Much of the group includes influential reporters, anchors and editors.

    The goals of the dinner are:
    1) Give reporters their first thoughts from team HRC in advance of the announcement.
    2) Setting expectations for the announcement and launch period
    3) Framing the HRC message and framing the race
    4) Enjoy a Frida(sic) night drink before working more…”

      • I’m pretty sure it’s a case of bad grammar, but it really does sound like they don’t want the reporters getting their thoughts for themselves. That surely wouldn’t do.

  4. Skitch him spot, he’s not my dog!

    You’re right on the money Jack, and sadly the problem extends far beyond your shores.

  5. “Professions are obligated to police themselves.”

    That may be true, but it is also generally true that “professions” either do not fulfill that obligation, or, they do so with their top priority not being policing themselves, but instead PROMOTING themselves.

    “Professional” groups’ self-promotion, and their top priority of self-promotion, which are undeniable norms, become cornerstones of guaranteeing not just the survival, but the prosperous – even lucrative, even to a deliberately and methodically maximized extent – perpetuation and public *dependency* on the expertise that is commonly associated with, and deferred to (or expected to be deferred to) by the rest of the public outside the “profession.”

    Hence the proliferation of communication networks for “professions'” clients (or customers), such as (for example) Angie’s List. Maximization of such consumer-based, or “impactee-based,” self-empowerment *external* to the “professions” is necessary for effectively countering the “professions'” self-empowered non-accountability and insularity.

    But these days, a “profession” that polices itself faces self-extinction by self-discrediting. For a self-promoting “profession,” policing becomes a dilemma. A “profession” that truly holds its own members accountable necessitates shaming, severe correction, and even expulsion of certain members, or else, the group is merely a “club,” a clan, a community of doers-of-specific-things that cannot be trusted because it does not demonstrate and enforce sufficient exclusivity…but then, demonstrating and enforcing any exclusivity is also taken to mean that if any on the inside are shamed, corrected, or expelled, the “profession” is admitting weakness – admitting to including members who are not “professional,” and hence is tarnished, self-discredited, made to look like a bunch of liars for self-promoting and then nakedly failing to live up to its self-promotion – and thus, again, earns having itself and its members distrusted by the external public.

    To review and summarize the above: In these times today, a “profession” that expels no one can’t be trusted. But, a “profession” that does expel someone also can’t be trusted. What to do? I don’t know.

    Social media may indeed be a sewer, for those of us “non-professionals” who are seeking the truth about what in the actual fuck is going on in the world around us. But, the other, older media – controlled by “professionals” who have assumed for themselves the roles of superhuman oracles over masses of mere sheeple – have proved themselves to be merely the fountainheads of much of what can be found in the sewer, anyway…along with what some of us in the sewer eventually find, sort through, and discover to be actually true, useful, share-able, even widely beneficial, shit. So the choice for most of us – non-journalists, or “citizen-journalists,” or “non-professional” journalists – is between camping in a pre-selected toilet to chug-a-lug pure shit straight out of some asshole (which may be exactly the addictively tasty shit we crave), or, trolling the sewer in a diligent and sometimes desperate search for what we think might be the best shit, or the shit that matters most.

    The reality concerning “professions” and those whom they are supposed to serve is just a version of the story of the Little Red Hen, over and over, “profession” by “profession.” When the choice becomes one between self-help, vs. ostensibly readily available help by “professionals,” the best available help – and of course, it isn’t necessarily or always enough help, or the best help, or good help, or help at all – is at the end of one’s own arm. (A link, just in case a “professional” journalist reads this and decides to read at the link, too: )

    More generally, and not just with journalism, I am going to borrow your words, Jack: “The solution is straightforward, but elusive…[“professionals”] should be able to come up with the steps themselves; after all, it’s their profession. Why haven’t they? They haven’t because they are arrogant, insulated, frightened of the changing [culture], not close to as smart as they think they are, ignorant of the ethics of their own profession, under the delusion that their function is to control events rather than [help others through] them, and in denial.” That summarizes the sad, ethics-impoverished state of many, many “professions” in our modern world.

    Now, with Jack having been paraphrased, *who*, is going to take care of, say, global climate change monitoring and intervention? Professionals? Professional WHATs?

    The same “professionals” who have inhabited, dominated, and relentlessly and unaccountably expanded the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government for the better part of a century? Who have “taken care of:” poverty in old age? Poverty in big cities? Poverty in rural and remote areas? Poverty of people in innumerable tragic circumstances? “Education” from cradle to grave? Access to health care? And more recently, every lifestyle choice, from what tools to cut grass with, to what actions to take with cows to keep the cows’ farts from killing the planet, to how best to defend oneself against human predation (while unarmed and unauthorized to self-defend), to which sexual experiences to have (and how to have them, and at what age, and with whom, and modeled after whom)?

    The “professional” scientists and policymakers cannot be trusted to lead humanity’s response to climate change. Even the top two vote-getting U.S. presidential candidates can’t be trusted, despite each having received over 60 million votes. Nor can “professional” journalists be trusted to re-establish clean pipelines of information of importance to the general public. It’s a mad world, but there is still reason to hope that information, and access to information – particularly, access to the unvarnished truth – can be saved from tyrannical control, even if such salvation comes at a cost of even more chaos and uncertainty. But, Michelle Obama might be more right than wrong – that now, all hope may be lost (already). Interesting, the times we live in.

  6. Wonderful post Jack. It’s sometimes tough going through the media over the past year, and sadly probably going forward. I have found the best way, at least for me, is to try and follow the news from more then one location to balance out the focus they take. I try to balance following CNN/FOX, figuring somewhere between them I will get the point and facts of a story.

    I think the print media has a much tougher issue for them, which is that format is down so much. Most print media are in major cities (the only place, outside of general news print organizations like USA Today, can get enough subscribers to work). Which means most of their customers are going to be liberal based. I take that info into account when reading anything from them. If I remember they’re a business, as much as a news organization, then I can swallow their leanings in what they publish.

    In some respects, the same thing is happening with all media. Conservatives have flocked to Fox, that’s their viewers now. Naturally, they’re going to report things that conform to what their readers want, or risk losing them. Same thing with, say, MSNBC (which is laughably liberal, and the one I just can’t watch/read). Publish an article against their readership and risk losing viewers.

    Is it good, absolutely not. I’m not sure who would be the best, or at least the one who could be brave enough to do what you suggest, and clearly state the issues going on, without risking losing too many viewers to survive. My guess would be CNN, simply as they’re not as radically left as many, and considered one of the larger, and somewhat fairer, organizations compared to what’s out there. I would love Fox to do it, but honestly I think they’re so on a conservative island now it may be too tough. Though, if they did, there are not as many places for their viewers to go.

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