Jim Lehrer’s 16 Rules Of Journalism. Awww! How Quaint!

I can’t say I watched the MacNeil-Lehrer Report on PBS (and later after Robin MacNeil’s retirement in 1995,  the PBS NewsHour hosted by Jim Lehrer alone ) more than a handful of times in my life. I wish I had. (I should have: when Lehrer moderated Presidential debates, as he did eleven times, there was never any hint of bias or favoritism, unlike virtually every other debate.)   Lehrer died last week at the age of 85, and his 16 Rules of Journalism, which he often condensed to nine, were published in many news sources upon his passing.

I found myself wondering what various editors and young reporters were thinking as they read Lehrer’s tenets of his now-rotting profession’s integrity. Could they possibly think that the rules accurately reflected widely held and embraced standards of reporters today? Did they read the list with confusion, wondering what in the world this old guy was babbling about? Perhaps they regarded Lehrer’s aspirational list as an archaic and amusing reflection of a bygone era, as many regard George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility, with its exhortations like Rule #9:

“Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it; neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it.”

I wonder. I do know that Lehrer took his rules seriously, though sometimes falling short of his own standards. Below is the version of his rules that he explained in a 1997 report by The Aspen Institute. It’s an excellent, excellent list, reflecting an experienced and ethically astute professional’s keen understanding of what his profession is supposed to do for our society, and the best way to do it.

How many of them do you think motivate journalists today? Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: CNN Morning Anchor Carol Costello

“There was criticism when Jim Lehrer was initially named to be a moderator. People said: ‘oh, another white guy; he’s too old to be doing this; we live in a new world — we don’t need an old-fashioned journalist doing these things any longer.’”

—-CNN Morning host Carol Costello, communing with PBS head Paula Kerger over Mitt Romney’s (obviously correct) assertion that public support for PBS has got to go, and joining in the despicable Democratic spin that President Obama’s less-than-stellar performance in the first debate was moderator Jim Lehrer’s fault.

Worst of the worst? I mean, if you don’t count MSNBC?

Carol Costello, Soledad O’Brien; Soledad O’Brien Carol Costello. Who is the most biased, smug, unethical news host not on MSNBC? Just when I think O’Brien has locked up the prize, Costello comes roaring back with something like this.

She ought to be fired. It’s as simple as that. Her statement is racist and ageist in the worst sense or the words; her implication is an unforgivable insult to a veteran newsman infinitely her superior, and her the content of her statement is proof of a deficient mind. Fire her. The AARP should demand it; the Republican should demand it; the Democrats should demand it, and CNN should see it as essential to maintaining whatever shred of credibility and integrity it has left. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: White House Spokesperson Stephanie Cutter

“I sometimes wondered if we even needed a moderator because we had Mitt Romney.”

White House’s spokesperson Stephanie Cutter in CNN’s “spin room” following the first Presidential debate last night, in the wake of a near unanimous media verdict that challenger Mitt Romney had bested the President in style and substance. Moderator Jim Lehrer was criticized by Cutter and others in the President’s camp for being too passive and allowing Romney to control the debate.

“Hmmmm. who can we blame?”

The comment, like most of Cutter’s statements to the media this campaign season, was both unfair and dumb:

  • It was an excellent debate. I thought it was the most lively and substantive debate since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, with both candidates addressing each other directly and having sufficient time to argue complex issues without resorting to sound bites and canned responses. I moderate discussions for a living, and one rule a good moderator follows is that when the participants are engaging in valuable discourse, don’t allow rigid adherence to your plan to interfere with it. Lehrer, to his credit, let the candidates talk. The debates should not be about moderators, and his example should be followed by future debate questioners.
  • Characteristic of this White House and this President, Cutter’s immediate reaction to a perceived failure was to blame someone else and duck accountability. It may be the most exasperating ethical flaw in this administration.
  • Knowing how to work the moderator is a debating skill (as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pointed out in his lament over Obama’s performance.) Romney did not abuse the moderator (as Newt Gingrich did routinely in the GOP debates), nor did be ever seem petulant, as Obama did when he briefly groused to Lehrer that “I had five seconds before you interrupted me.”
  • Here is the dumb part of Cutter’s complaint: taking over and controlling dynamic situations is what effective leaders tend to do. Viewers saw that aspect of Mitt Romney’s experience and character last night, and it was one of the features of his performance, I think, that created a positive impression. Yes, he was commanding, and managed the situation, with the President of the United States on stage next to him. How dare he?

Personally, I was surprised at the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Obama’s performance. Yes, Romney was better, but the President hardly embarrassed himself. I think the negative reaction by the Democrats and the Obama-promoting media occurred because that they have deluded themselves into believing that Obama’s record is defensible, when it isn’t and has never been: he has an impossible task. The positive reaction of the public to Romney’s debate performance is similarly the result of a misconception. The picture of him they had been fed by attack ads and the media was of a cold-hearted, mean and venal monster prone to sticking his foot in his mouth. The reality was on display last night, and it exposed that cartoon for what it was: a grotesque misrepresentation..