Arthur in Maine, who has kindly featured me on his radio show and actually given me sufficient time to explain things without being cut off, submitted the following discourse focusing on my embarrassingly slow-to-form realization that all investigative reporting into political matters had to be considered as manipulated to serve some political agenda by the news organization.
I’ll have some observations at the end, but first, here is AIM’s Comment of the Day on Comment Of The Day: ‘“The Popeye,” From The Ethics Alarms Ethics Estoppel Files: I Can Say The Republican Party Is Rotting…”, And My Epiphany About Investigative Reporting:
…Why are any of you – including Jack – surprised? Media is, first and foremost, a BUSINESS. It doesn’t sell news – it provides news as a mechanism for generating advertising (in the case of NPR, underwriting and/or listener) support.
The United States is one of the only so-called free nations that embraces the concept of objective media. In fact, the whole concept started in this nation – with Joseph Pulitzer (recognize the name?). In other words, the concept of objective media is an American conceit.
Pulitzer’s drive towards so-called “objective” media certainly raised standards, but it wasn’t due to the noble idea that newspapers – pretty much the only game in town at his time – should be objective. Pulitzer was the visionary who recognized that the way news was being reported was scaring off the advertisers, and the advertisers were way more important than the folks who plunked down a penny or two to buy a copy at the news stand.
American media at the dawn of the 20th century wasn’t dissimilar to the way it is today – and much like it has ALWAYS been in nations in which the media isn’t state-controlled. It’s rambunctious. It’s partisan. It wears its beliefs on its sleeve – both with regard to what it covers and the way it covers it.
As an aside, did you know that three of the top-20 news websites in the US are actually British? They are, in order, the Daily Mail (downscale female-skewing libertarian), the BBC (benevolent government with a left-ish twinge) and The Guardian (left wing)..You can credit Drudge for at least part of their popularity, but that’s beside the point: Brit news media outlets understand to whom they’re selling and provides content accordingly.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. If one is sufficiently curious, one can peruse a variety of British media sources and find vastly different takes on the same story. Given that journalists are human, and humans have biases, I’d actually argue that this is more honest than the way we do it here. One can see numerous different takes on the same story, from different perspectives, and make up one’s own mind – if, and it IS an if, one is sufficiently curious.
Many people are not. The risk lies in the fact that people select their news sources based upon confirmation bias. But I would argue that this is actually healthier for free discourse. One can not lead a horse to water and demand that it drinks. But one CAN provide a variety of hydrating liquids and offer the horse a choice. From there, it’s up to the horse to determine whether or not to keel over in hypovolemic shock.
A big part of our current problem as a nation lies in the fact that so many Americans don’t question the validity of its press. Heck, many journos don’t get it. We will all be better off once we learn that NO news source can be trusted, and that even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while. We must all be skeptical of what we read.
Might take a generation or two, but as an optimist by nature, I suspect we’ll get there.
Here’s why I’m not just surprised, I’m really angry about it, it being the near complete abandonment by journalists of the principles journalists have agreed upon as necessary to for journalism to do its job.
Journalists were given special privileges in the Constitution, literally a license to be irresponsible, incompetent and corrupt, because the Founders realized that a free and open society depended on an informed public protected from attempts from those in power to constrain what it knew or could know. Lawyers who do a bad job get sued for malpractice. Doctors who do a bad job lose their licenses. Priests who molest children get sent to prison. But bad journalists can just keep pumping out false, misleading or incomplete reporting, and nobody can stop them. Even if they get fired, they can find a job, or start a blog: Dan Rather should be selling hot chestnuts, but he’s still a working “journalist.” He even has the gall to lecture about the importance of integrity, if he has a mic loud enough to drown out the sounds of retching from the audience.
Journalism is a profession, which means it has to be self-policing, and because a profession only exists to serve society, it cannot be allowed to fall back on the “it’s just a business” excuse, or the “it’s always been this way” rationalization. It isn’t just a business, because if journalism isn’t trusted, it has no business. Look: lawyers are in business too, and many make a lot of money. But the profession will not tolerate any lawyer who reveals a client’s confidences, or who screws a client over, because society will not tolerate it. If lawyers so routinely harmed their clients as journalists betray the public trust, there would be no more lawyers. Similarly, if doctors just routinely did harm to patients, and kept charging a fortune for their services, we’d have a return to amateurs, versatile barbers and faith-healers pretty quickly. In short, there would be accountability. Right now, there is no accountability for journalists, and the mainstream news media denies that any is warranted. This is why, as uncomfortable as I am with a President attacking news organizations, I applaud the fact that being routinely unethical is being called out by someone with something close to the press’s power. The field of journalism is supposed to be self-policing, like all professions, and it is not. It is an arrogant, dangerous force distorting our democracy, and a President is perhaps the only authority who can stand up to it.
I teach legal ethics more than any other kind, and I can conservatively state that most of the ethics rules governing the law are followed by the vast majority of lawyers almost all of the time. Now let’s look at Wikipedia’s summary of what are supposed to be the core ethics principles of journalism:
- Reporters are expected to be as accurate as possible given the time allotted to story preparation and the space available, and to seek reliable sources.
- Events with a single eyewitness are reported with attribution. Events with two or more independent eyewitnesses may be reported as fact. Controversial facts are reported with attribution.
- Independent fact-checking by another employee of the publisher is desirable.
- Corrections are published when errors are discovered.
- Defendants at trial are treated only as having “allegedly” committed crimes, until conviction, when their crimes are generally reported as fact (unless, that is, there is serious controversy about wrongful conviction).
- Opinion surveys and statistical information deserve special treatment to communicate in precise terms any conclusions, to contextualize the results, and to specify accuracy, including estimated error and methodological criticism or flaws.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
- Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
- Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. The Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
- Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
- Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
- Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
- Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
- Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
- Avoid biased reporting
- Avoid conflicts of interest.
- Avoid news manipulation, spiking, and double standards.
I do not observe that most journalists and journalism organizations in the political sphere observe the vast majority of these principles almost of the time—the provisions in red are routinely ignored— nor is there any genuine remorse or regret about this.
There was a story in Mediaite today about Sean Hannity using an altered videotape to slam CNN over its false reporting of the date of an email from WikiLeaks to the Trump campaign. Colby Hall, the author, is a reliable mainstream news media-defending flack: he says that CNN issued a correction, but as we have discussed on Ethic Alarms, it was defensive and arrogant, astoundingly blaming CNN’s anonymous source rather than taking responsibility for not checking the source. Hall reserves much of his article to condemn the use of the term “fake news” to describe what CNN, or even Hannity did, saying that this has “redefined a phrase originally used as a synonym for propaganda to mean biased coverage or journalistic faux-pas.”
No, Colby, “fake news’ is properly used as a synonym for fake news, as in “a story that isn’t true, substantially misleading, or not fairly treated as news.” Such false stories, like CNN’s effort to manufacture a smoking gun to show Trump campaign “collusion” with Russia is propaganda. Anti-Trump propaganda is constant in broadcast journalism. Only by calling untrustworthy reporting what it deserves to be called will the public become aware that, as Arthur says, “that NO news source can be trusted, and that even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while. We must all be skeptical of what we read.” Maybe, at that point, journalism will have to get serious about self-policing.
Ethics Alarms calls it fake news, because such news is easily avoided: follow the ethics guidelines of the profession. Check sources. Avoid bias. Then when there is a mistake, it can legitimately be called an honest mistake, not a mistake driven by incompetence and political agendas. Then a mistake will be followed by a correction, an explanation, an apology, and as with any trustworthy profession, consequences severe enough that similar errors will be avoided in the future.