“Oh The Humanity!”

Today is the anniversary of one of the most vividly recalled disasters in U.S. history.  On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg, a flying equivalent of The Titanic,  burst into flames while trying to dock with its mooring mast at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The conflagration was captured in spectacular and now iconic newsreel footage, as well as in dozens of photographs.

Many  are surprised to learn that there were only were 35 fatalities in the explosion, 13 passengers and 22 crewmen,  among the 36 passengers and 61 crewmen on board (There was one fatality on the ground). The accident looked far more horrible than it was.

The appearance of the accident was so spectacular that it ended the passenger airship business That’s a  classic example of the Barn Door Fallacy, in which the reaction to  predictable and often inevitable disasters leads to  emotional over-reactions, as if by retroactively making an event impossible it can be reversed. Airships were a safe mode of travel (and a luxurious one: remember “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”?) in good weather when they were filled with Helium. The Hindenburg and other German Zeppelins used highly flammable hydrogen, making them flying tinderboxes, just waiting for a spark. But once the fireball that the ship became was gasped at world wide, no  explanations could make the visceral image recede. Nobody wanted to get on those things again. Continue reading

Visual Bias Ethics

Let’s see: Hack, hack, probably a hack, and hack.

One aspect of broadcast journalism ethics that the Old Guard—Murrow, Cronkite, Brinkley, Huntley, Thomas and the rest— observed and respected was a neutral demeanor. They knew (and today’s hacks know as well, but with different results), that tone of delivery, body language and facial expressions can convey a journalist’s personal views and biases as clearly as a direct statement. Their practice, therefore, was to maintain a poker face and a matter-of-fact delivery. When Walter Cronkite brushed away a tear while announcing JFK’s death in 1963, it was considered newsworthy because Walter did not bring his own feelings into the news. The consensus was that hee could be forgiven this one time.

If that professional practice is taught in journalism classes any more, it is ignored. Now broadcast journalists and reporters deliberately use every tool at their disposal to signal to viewers what they think, and thus what the viewers should think as well. The election of Donald Trump represented a full-on, industry wide rejection of objectivity by the broadcast media, as many reporters allowed themselves to appear in mourning, or close to tears.  Unlike the assassination of JFK, however, this  was not an excusable exception, or, as we have learned, an exception at all.

Look at the faces of last night’s CNN panel reporting on what had been built up as a bellweather election in North Carolina that, should a Democrat have won, would be string sign that President Trump and Republicans were in trouble nationwide. Is there any doubt who they were rooting for?

This is not only unethical journalism, it’s incompetent journalism.

But that’s the way it is.

All Right, I Can’t Let This Pass: Reading Comprehension At The Chicago Tribune, Or Why Do We Rely On People Like This?

THINK, Jack---if the best of the breed was a biased dimwit, why do you still want to trust these people?

THINK, Jack—if the best of the breed was a biased dimwit, why do you still want to trust these people?

I am grateful for the Chicago Tribune website readers who have followed blogger Eric Zorn’s link to the Ethics Alarms Noah post, but is it too much to expect a major newspaper’s  columnist to read and comprehend the plain meaning of a post before criticizing it? Zorn, who authors the Trib’s Change of Subject blog, was cheering on Bill Maher’s atheistic take on God, the Bible and the Noah story, and then quoted me, writing…

I found this refutation of Maher particularly unconvincing and circular:

“God makes the rules, he is literally incapable of being immoral; it is a contradiction in terms. If God kills, it is by definition right and good, because God himself defines right and good. Does Bill really not get this? … If you don’t believe that God “works in mysterious ways” and that everything he does in the Old Testament is justifiable as part of some greater plan, Maher is indisputably right. God is a mass murderer.”

How more wrong could Zorn be?

1. I wasn’t refuting Maher, but defending his anti-God statement as completely accurate from his narrow and biased point of view, which includes a basic misunderstanding of what morality is and what it means to believe in an infallible deity. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Month: Howard Kurtz

“Brinkley’s book will undoubtedly tarnish the Cronkite legacy. But my admiration for the man is only partly diminished. Perhaps it is too easy to judge him by today’s standards, any more than we should condemn Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves. Perhaps he simply reflected his times, when some journalists and politicians quietly collaborated, when conflicts of interest were routinely tolerated, when a powerful media establishment could sweep its embarrassments under the rug. Cronkite thrived as television came of age, always protecting what we would now call his brand. That’s just the way it was.”

—-CNN good journalism watchdog Howard Kurtz, closing his review of the new Douglas Brinkley biography of Walter Cronkite, which shows that the legendary paragon of broadcast journalism was biased, often dishonest, and frequently conflicted.

No, no, no, no.

And that’s the way it wasn’t…

The “things were different then” excuse won’t fly as a defense of Cronkite, and shame on Howard Kurtz, who is supposed to stand for ethical journalism, for trying to rationalize the obvious conclusion demanded by Brinkley’s biography. That conclusion is that there was no Golden Age of TV journalism, and that rampant liberal bias infected the nightly broadcasts then as now, but we were too trusting and unsophisticated to realize it. Kurtz spends an entire book review extracting information Brinkley uncovered that proves Walter Cronkite’s image as an objective, incorruptible truth-teller was a lie, and then attempts to make the case that we shouldn’t judge him harshly.

Why? Because he was one of Kurtz’s heroes? Perry Mason made me want to be a lawyer, and it wasn’t until I became one that I realized that the fictional defense attorney was the sleaziest criminal lawyer this side “The Practice.” Tarnished heroes are part of growing up, Howard. Don’t pretend that journalistic ethics were different then…journalism schools were teaching objectivity, transparency, fairness, honesty and avoidance of conflicts of interest when Walter was saying “And that’s the way it is!” in a high soprano. Yet Brinkley shows that he… Continue reading

“Professionalism?” What’s THAT? Julie Chen, CBS and the Descent of Broadcast Journalism

Walter could keep it together. Not Julie Chen.

The Casey Anthony verdict is doing some good: it is exposing the awful deficit in objectivity and professionalism in the broadcast media.

The latest example: while CBS’ “The View” rip-off, “The Talk,” was underway,  viewers saw co-host Julie Chen break down as she tried to read the news that Casey  Anthony had been found not guilty of killing her daughter Caylee. Chen attempted to read the verdict, but was overcome with emotion  and was unable to continue, asking her co-hosts,  “Help me out here.”

In 1937, radio broadcaster Herbert Morrison was correctly criticized for being unable to keep his composure and report the flaming destruction of the zeppelin The Hindenburg without weeping and becoming unintelligible. In 2011, a woman described in her official bio as a “news anchor; reporter; and journalist” couldn’t compose herself to read the news of a not guilty verdict. Continue reading

Botching Big News: CNN and Fox Show How Far Their Profession Has Fallen

It was nearly 11 PM, E.S.T., and the sudden announcement that President Obama was about to make an important announcement “related to national security” had been hanging in the air for almost a half hour, as TV reporters, hosts and anchors speculated and waited. I was jumping back and forth between two networks when the news began leaking out about what the announcement would be: Osama bin Laden had been killed in a U.S. operation. The professional ethics on both networks promptly evaporated, as Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Howard K. Smith looked down from news anchor heaven and retched. Continue reading

Fired for Applauding: The Warped Ethics of Sports Reporters

I missed this story, because I regard auto racing as interesting as beetle mating, but it is an important one.

"Yeah, I report on it, but I really don't give a damn."

Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 last month, and the unexpected victory of the youngest Daytona champion ever provoked audible glee in the press box. One of the reporters on the scene, Sports Illustrated freelancer Tom Bowles, explained on Twitter and his blog why his applauding for a sporting result, considered a cardinal sin in the sportswriting profession, was not a sin after all.

He was fired. Continue reading

Flunking the Keith Olbermann Test

Every so often there is a news story that exposes the serious deficiencies in the ethics comprehension in the public and the media. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was one such story; Major League Baseball’s steroid controversy was another. I confess: I didn’t see the Keith Olbermann suspension for making political donations as having the potential to be another test of ethical competence, but it is. And almost everyone is flunking it.

The facts of the Olbermann incident are deceptively simple. The rant-prone, self-annointed champion of the Angry Left violated an NBC ethics policy that forbade its reporters and commentators from making political contributions, on the theory, absurd when applied to Olbermann,  that it compromises their reputation for objectivity. Olbermann has no objectivity, or reputation for it either. Nonetheless, he intentionally and flagrantly violated his employer’s policy. That alone justifies his suspension, whether or not the policy is idiotic. And it is.

But Olbermann’s fans and critics alike are all over the internet attaching rationalizations and flawed ethical reasoning to the episode. Such as: Continue reading