The following dialogue on media ethics is an excerpt from the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom, taken from the name of an Internet-based talk radio show I did in times past. The topic of chapter fifteen is entitled “The Ethics and Function of the Media” My accomplished and adroit partners in dialogue are Daniel Hallin, Ph.D. and Fred Brown. Their answers to my questions are indicated by the initials D.H. and F.B., and I am symbolized by the initials J.M. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type.
JM: I was arguing with an individual today about the moves Donald Trump is making in regard to the media and so on. He speaks of media ethics when he says that his detractors work for “fake news” agencies. Quick to point out the flaws in the media, but loathe to accept any responsibility for errors and usurpations he and his team are responsible for, one would assume that journalists and news reporting agencies are completely corporatized, bereft of responsibility, and woefully short on media ethics. I pointed out that Thomas Jefferson said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.” Of course, news is more sensationalized and ratings-driven now – we brought it on ourselves by cozying up to corporations, trusts and the like. Gutting PBS funding and the public support of the National Endowment for the Arts are two of the most foolish, myopic, and patently money-driven decisions a Republican Congress has ever made (which is saying a LOT).
Well, my friend thought it was silly to compare modern media and the American populace to those of 1765. There is a point, I admit. Robert L. Lloyd said: “Broadcast media has one motive – ratings. Ratings convert to dollars. We are at the beginning of big changes in information exchange. It will be a big rough ride for a while, but it will work out. Social media and the Internet are threatening established media purveyors, desperately trying to hang on to the power they once had. Large corporate media outlets see themselves as ‘king-makers’ – and king-breakers. For the most part there were, uneducated, disinterested ‘sheeple’ easily herded in any direction with sound bites and media clips. In the days of Jefferson, people studied current events in depth; they didn’t have 24/7 satellite communication, but they did have fewer distractions (TV, internet, YouTube, Kardashians, Nintendo, etc.). They cared to learn about issues more in-depth because it was their entertainment/distraction from farming and surviving. Perhaps, and this is me being optimistic, we will get back to that in a new way, technologically-speaking.”
The following is Chapter 15 from Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom, entitled “Media Ethics and Function.” In light of the issues with the newspapers, blogs, television broadcasts, and the 24-hour news cycle, it is incumbent upon each of us to analyze the issues. On the one hand, it is possible that Trump and his team of n’er-do-wells are trying to undercut a flow of information that cannot easily be controlled; in that sense, we the people should be happy that journalists have media that support them – albeit a dubious patronage because of media conglomeration and big money in advertising and lawyers and such. But on the other hand, if there is no interpreter or purveyor of news in the modern age, will not the people be bombarded by news – but also fake news, infotainment, distraction, misinformation, propaganda, and disinformation? Remember the role of the media in 1938 Germany: not really that effective. The people were obviously more easily under the influence of government. Taken to the extreme, Nazi Germany was the result, and George Orwell’s 1984 could be ours.
So, without further ado, the chapter entitled “Media Ethics and Function.” I also welcome you to listen to it in audio form here.
The media play[s]an extremely important role in our society. Jefferson idealized them as being “the fourth estate” – a critical institution in the nascent and dubious governance scheme. I am looking forward to my two guests assisting me in determining what the status and function of the media are, and what ethical standards the media ought to uphold.
I am pleased to interview Dan Hallin, Ph.D., Professor of Communication at UC-San Diego. He received his Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley in 1980. Since then, his research interests have included journalism, political communication, and the comparative analysis of media systems. He has written on the media and war, including Vietnam, Central America, and the Gulf War; television coverage of elections, analysis of the nature and meaning of the “shrinking sound bite;” and the rise and decline of journalistic professionalism in the United States. In recent years, this expert on media ethics has turned his attention to the comparative analysis of media systems, focusing on Western Europe and Latin America. Dr. Hallin’s book, Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, co-authored with Paolo Mancini, has won Outstanding Book awards of the International Communication and National Communication Associations, and the Goldsmith Book Award of the Shorenstein Center on Press and Politics. It has been translated into nine languages. He has also written many articles and book chapters, as well as the books The “Uncensored War”: The Media and Vietnam, and We Keep America on Top of the World: Television Journalism and the Public Sphere.
I’m happy to welcome Daniel Hallin to Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom. In journalism parlance, I’m going to ask tough questions that get to the real story 🙂 Hello, Dr. Hallin. Do you prefer that, or Daniel?
DH: Dan is fine.
JM: As an amateur consumer of media – not a scientist studying media or an investigative journalist – I am looking for fairly digestible insight into the breadth and depth of the media’s function, importance, and challenges. Naturally, I would like to keep an eye on ethics in regard to the media. Questions I want to “get the scoop on” include: are they doing a good job fulfilling their proper role in a democracy or Republic; to what degree is the media really influenced by advertisers, politicians, and dwindling readership; does the media have an obligation to utilize the principles of investigative journalism to shine the light of publicity into the dark corners of various other institutions in America, such as politics, business, and science?
To start, let’s talk about the proper role of the media – ideally, and in practice. I know Jefferson termed it “The Fourth Estate,” which says to me he thought reporting truth was paramount.
“The news media’s silence, particularly television news, is reprehensible. If we knew as much about Darfur as we do about Michael Jackson, we might be able to stop these things from continuing.” ~ Nicholas D. Kristof
DH: There are different roles to some extent; in our society, we primarily think of the news media here as a means of information for citizens so as to facilitate their participation in society and, especially, to make decisions about what policies to support, and so on.
The other important role that the media plays that in some other countries is even more critical than here is the role of being a forum for debate. In other words, providing a platform in which different groups in society express their opinions.
JM: Did I hear you say facilitating debate is not typically the role of the American/North American media? That gets clearly at the concept of media ethics.
DH: Well, in other societies the role of the media as a forum for debate is more important than it is here. It’s still an important role here, but I would say it’s less emphasized. It also takes place differently in other countries. For example, the media are often themselves participants in debate more so than here. The American ideal is that media are supposed to be neutral and balanced and so on, but in Europe, say, most news organizations have some kind of political orientation, and part of their role is to express their opinions and participate in the debate about important issues.
JM: I think that’s a great place for us to dig down a little; do you think it’s appropriate for the media to have a bias or to try to influence public opinion one way or another? Under what conditions are media ethics upheld in that regard?
“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” ~ Noam Chomsky
DH: I think it’s not an illegitimate thing for media to have a distinct perspective (and is the way many media systems in the world are organized). We have, over the last several decades taken the view that they should not, but should be neutral.
I would say that partisan media are starting to reemerge in the U.S. and probably will continue – and that’s alright; I think that there are ethical standards that apply in those cases. One is that the value of accuracy has to be preserved, even with partisan media. In other words, standards that have to do with providing people with complete and correct information. So, it’s okay for the media to include a point of view; not alright to distort the news in the service of that point of view; not alright to suppress opposing views or to mischaracterize them; not alright to omit facts that do not support their particular orientation. In many societies, they’ve actually managed to come up with a reasonably good balance and have journalistic ethics agreed upon regardless of political points of view, and a kind of plurality regarding different points of view.
JM: I’m fan of Howard Zinn, and although I don’t think he would probably call himself a true journalist (though he often writes opinion pieces for The Progressive magazine, The Nation, and so on), he said something that I think is apropos of what we’re speaking about here and I’d like to hear what you have to say about it. He noted that the more he studied history, the clearer it became that it was not possible to be objective, because he believes that every historian comes to study history with some sort of bias – they believe certain things and have particular values. And although it might change over time, he thinks that objectivity ought not to be claimed or attempted. Rather, there should be transparency – thus the writer would offer: “This is where I’m coming from, so here is my take on this particular story…” Zinn notes that for generations or centuries, writers have been putting a spin on stories and reports. He wrote of media ethics and function when he said, aptly:
“I never believed that I was imposing my views on blank slates, on innocent minds. My students had a long period of political indoctrination before they arrived in my class – in the family, in high school, in the mass media. Into a marketplace long-dominated by orthodoxy, I wanted only to wheel my little pushcart, offering my wares along with the others, leaving students to make their own choices.”
DH: That is a legitimate form of journalism – the kind that involves reporters giving their point of view in an honest way. I think, though, that other forms of reporting that are less opinionated and more about transmission of information also have an important place.
It’s absolutely true that objectivity is impossible in the selection of facts and the construction of the story, and so on; there’s always some kind of point of view. But, I also think that it’s not impossible for journalists to put aside their personal opinions to a large extent, and indicate what other people are saying and what information they have. That’s the tradition we’ve developed over the last generation. I don’t think that it’s going to continue to be the only tradition in American journalism, and I think there is room for others. I don’t know that we want to go to the sort of place where journalists are always telling us their opinions. I think that probably wouldn’t work in our political culture.
JM: Okay. Let’s talk about bias in regard to media ethics. There has been a lot of talk from folks like Fox News on this side and, say, Al Franken or Stephen Colbert on the other, where they claim that the other side is “biased.” Al Franken said, for example: “The members of the right-wing media are not interested in conveying the truth— that’s not what they are there for. They are an indispensable component of the right-wing machine that has taken over our country.” So, he’s asserting that the political and journalistic Right is claiming that there’s a “liberal bias” (Bernard Goldberg and Ann Coulter famously wrote books coming from just that angle).
I don’t think that there is a significant liberal bias, overall. I do think that many journalists and commentators are left of center – as are many professors in the humanities and social sciences and liberal arts. On the contrary, I do think that people like Rush Limbaugh, most at Fox News, and Alex Jones do show a significant conservative bias. Even major publicans as allegedly vaunted as the New York Times or the Washington Post have a minor conservative bent because they can’t get too far afield of the status quo, lest they turn high-dollar advertisers away. What do you think about this whole debate?
“The average TV commercial of sixty seconds has one hundred and twenty half-second clips in it, or one-third of a second. We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking.” ~ Ray Bradbury
DH: I think that for many, many years the bias in American media has been essentially a centrist bias. Above all, it’s a bias toward sort of “the mainstream” opinion. It’s a center that lies between the Republican and the Democratic parties. You have some kind of variation, but it’s mostly anchored to that.
Where that center is, I think, kind of shifts from time to time. In 1965, I think it might have made sense to say that there was a kind of liberal bias in the media because liberals were dominant politically. Today, I would say that it’s more of a conservative bias in the mainstream media because the conservatives are dominant.
Now, Fox News is a different matter. Fox does not have a centrist bias, it has a clearly conservative bias. That reflects a new thing that’s happening in America: media are starting to emerge that are not dedicatedly centrist. It has to do with the fact that in electronic media, we went from having essentially three channels to a situation where we have many. In that kind of a media market, there is room for product differentiation, if you want to put it that way. You have news channels that appeal to people on the basis of their politics in a way that they didn’t before. Fox pioneered that, and the Left is trying to join in.
We have “monopoly newspapers” in each city— normally one newspaper which tries to avoid being identified with a particular political orientation and takes a centrist position. The three television networks reflected the same centrist point of view, but with cable-television and the Internet we are starting to have a lot more partisan media and much greater variety and plurality of different orientations.
JM: Speaking of monopolies, PBS.org reports that:
“The trend of media conglomeration has been steady. In 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media, including magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, radio and television. By 1992 that number had dropped by half. By 2000, six corporations had ownership of most media, and today five dominate the industry: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom.”
“Originally, the Internet was the champion of free thinkers, embraced as a liberating force from corporate owned media. But over time even online news sites joined radio, television, newspapers and magazines as properties of the small handful of media conglomerates. In raw numbers, 80 percent of the top 20 online news sites are owned by the 100 largest media companies. Time Warner owns two of the most visited sites: CNN.com and AOL News, while Gannett, which is the twelfth largest media company, owns USAToday.com along with many local online newspapers.”
JM: It’s hard to imagine that those corporations, with their lawyers and PR experts and shareholders, want anything too sensationalistic or unorthodox to be attached to their outlets. They just want to interest viewers, sell papers, and court advertiser dollars. Well, not solely, but it is a top concern. Reputation is important, but it’s not as important as the bottom line. The Edward R. Murrows or Woodwards/Bernsteins of the journalistic world will surely encounter difficulty trying to get stories that would “rock the boat” on air (or on the front page). This is squarely in the category of media ethics.
Let’s talk about the power that the owners of media outlets have, versus those who do the reporting. Dan Rather said the following: “Look, when the President of the United States – Republican or Democrat – says, ‘These are the facts,’ there is a heavy prejudice…to give him the benefit of any doubt. For that I don’t apologize.” Judith Miller at the New York Times had a lot of clout (and one can see where it landed her). But typically, reporters take orders from editors and editors follow the will of the owners. There is some room for mavericks online to do great reporting. Someone with the stature of a Christopher Hitchens when he was at Vanity Fair can call some shots, but typically one “toes the line,” or they are said to be a danger to the reputation of the paper.
So, even though some folks would say Dan Rather is too “left-leaning,” is it not true that there are these centers of power in corporate-owned media and if they had it their way, there wouldn’t be anything but the most obvious scandals reported to the public? Think of the way the Bush White House managed the flow of information and fed stories to the media, who often just rolled over. Note how the attorneys and the “suits” at CBS in times past kowtowed to pressure – political, financial, or what have you. This is quite relevant to media ethics, I say.
“Power can be very addictive…it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.” ~ George W. Bush
DH: You’re talking about two different centers of power: the government and the owners of the media. There is a long tradition in American media that started, I would say, particularly with World War II, and then the Cold War, and is especially strong in foreign policy reporting (but not exclusively), whereby journalists defer to the government. It comes and goes, but I would say since September 11th, it’s been pretty strong, which is why we’ve had some very bad (in my opinion) reporting of the “weapons of mass destruction situation.”
Now, that’s a little bit different from the issue of the corporate owners, though the two are not unrelated. The corporate owners have other kinds of interests. You’re not going to see a lot of coverage on television news of some of the regulatory issues that are being discussed— television station ownership, or whether the network should have to pay for the airwaves. This is because it’s not in the interests of the owners to have a full, public discussion of that.
“An editor is a person employed by a newspaper whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.” ~ Elbert Hubbard
JM: This idea of primarily corporations owning the media and how that affects media ethics is a great topic to delve further into. I’m your host, Jason Merchey. I’m talking today with Professor Dan Hallin of UC-San Diego about media ethics and the role of the media in modern America. Soon I will welcome Fred Brown to the program. Thanks for bearing with that pause, Dan. What’s on your mind?
DH: Sure. One thing that should be said about the American media is that actually there is a pretty strong ethical culture that’s developed over the years, and I would say that most editors certainly have the intent of separating the wheat from the chaff and printing the wheat; they are pretty sincerely committed to that.
There are pressures that journalists feel, I think, and that in a lot of news organizations today it’s a tension. Journalists go to journalism school and they learn this vision of what a journalist is supposed to be— serving the public, giving people information about what’s really going on in the world, etc.— and then once they get into a real news organization, there are a lot of things that stand in their way.
Sometimes it’s just budgetary; they don’t have the resources to cover the news as seriously as they would like. Other times, it’s commercial pressures— and this is what really inclines them to print the chaff rather than the wheat. You can see this most dramatically in local TV news. Sometimes it’s political pressure, which is not that common in our media— though it is becoming more common than it used to be.
“Everybody wrings their hands about Fox News. You know, ‘fair and balanced; why, that’s snide!’ Yeah, okay, maybe they’re not fair and balanced, but CNN used to have the slogan ‘You Can Depend on CNN’. Guess what? I watch it, no you can’t.” ~ Jon Stewart
JM: Okay, well those are some good things for folks like me to keep in mind— those of us who have never held a position at a newspaper or news station or been a fly on the wall in the newsrooms where the editors (and perhaps the owner and the journalists) discuss the decisions at hand.
Now might be a good time to ask you: What do you think about the fact that it seems as though a lot of Americans are getting their news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, or Facebook? It’s ironic, I would think, that a comedy show often tells more truth, more courageously, than does the CBS Nightly News. Facebook probably mixes up legitimate and superficial news – and often only the most “popular” stories “rise to the top.” Infotainment is what it is referred to as. Discomfiting as that may be.
DH: I think The Daily Show is a pretty serious forum for discussing news. Along with the comedy, it does give you some real news in the sense that it shows a lot of clips of newsmakers and so on. But also, the audience of The Daily Show is a well-educated and aware audience and has access to other sources of information; you can’t really get the jokes unless you’re fairly well aware of what’s going on. I actually think it’s a myth that there is a large group out there getting its news solely from The Daily Show.
Did you happen to see Jon Stewart talk with the folks from Crossfire?
“It’s always difficult with any publication or broadcaster to take on a subject or an institution that is as big as you are, or bigger, that has some commercial link – especially to your organization…. What has been adjudicated and established in the wake of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement is the ability of the press to basically write or broadcast almost anything about the government. There are very few restrictions. That’s not true when we’re talking about private power, especially major Fortune 500 corporations, or people worth more than, say, a billion dollars.” ~ Lowell Bergman
DH: Yeah, I did, and I think it was a really interesting thing— that you have somebody from a show that’s ostensibly an entertainment show who is upholding some sense of journalistic professionalism against a new class of pundits.
To go back to journalistic professionalism, I think that a lot of the more traditional journalistic professionals that you find in regular news programs and television, one of the things they really hate is the turn toward punditry. It’s viewed as a kind of betrayal of the journalistic ethics they learned.
JM: Could you define punditry, to make sure we’re thinking of the same phenomenon?
DH: Punditry is this kind of “opinion-based journalism” that has become so common, especially on cable television. I think Jon Stewart was right that it’s a pretty bad version of opinion-based journalism. There is such a thing as quality opinion-based journalism, but this is more “opinion as spectacle” and relies a lot more on exaggeration and the personalities of the pundits than it does on substantive ideas.
JM: Mm-hmm, Stewart said, “The absurdity of ‘the system’ provides us most of the material for the jokes that we make on The Daily Show.”
DH: Yeah, one other thing about those pundit shows like Crossfire and so on is that they claim strong opinions, but they’re so conventional in the views they include and the ideas they represent.
JM: “…So, conventional”?
DH: Conventional in the sense that they absolutely stick to the conventional wisdom, that other points of view are not included. They stick to the dominant perspectives and the dominant players in American politics. One would think that if they were going to go beyond traditional, “reporting the facts,” one of the things that they would want to do is to broaden the discussion a little bit, but those shows don’t.
“Our capacity as human beings for imagination and storytelling makes us exquisitely vulnerable to exploitation by those who understand the properties of ideological power.” ~ David Smail
JM: Is having, say, James Carville on conventional?
DH: Yeah. All of these “Washington insiders” who represent the mainstream of the Democratic and Republican Parties and the issues the two are fighting about. There have always been a lot of issues in American society that aren’t reflected in those debates between Republicans and Democrats, and those sorts of things often get excluded.
JM: Indeed. I think the case of Noam Chomsky is an interesting one. I’ve been wanting to ask an observer what they think about his perspective. I think he’s only been published like one time in the Opinion section of the New York Times. I could have that wrong. But the sense is that he is rebuffed by a lot of mainstream news outlets and publications because he’s “too far out there.” Even though he believes that he is telling the truth, he says that the New York Times with its reliance on numbers and prominent advertisers is not interested in printing somebody as incendiary or iconoclastic as he. What say you?
“Mass communication – wonder as it may be technologically, and something to be appreciated and valued – presents us with a serious danger: the danger of conformity due to the fact that we all view the same things at the same time in all the cities of the country.” ~ Rollo May
DH: I think that’s right. As far as I know, he’s almost completely excluded – not just from the New York Times, but from all of the dominant American media. I think he’s a perfect example of somebody who has a lot to say, who we ought to listen to, but who gets excluded by the filters of the media.
Part, I think, is that the dominant media are concerned that his points of view are just going to be too unpopular; I think you’re right that it’s partly with advertisers and owners, and partly with the public at large. I think they’re worried that he’s going to come across as essentially “anti-American” and bother peoples’ sense of patriotism. But he represents a point of view that – for one thing – is widely-held across the world. They do listen to Chomsky and he is quoted in many other countries.
JM: It’s interesting (or absurd) that he is an American speaking about American issues and American media outlets are afraid to tell Americans what he thinks. I think it either points to the fact that he’s incorrect and Joe American is right – “there’s nothing to see here,” or perhaps he’s lying for a nefarious purpose.
I think we have evidence and some good reason to believe that Jon Stewart is correct and “the system” is censoring him. In speaking of the national, agenda-setting media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the major television networks, Chomsky notes that “…they determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in society,” I tend to think he’s got their number. He – and many others – sure tarred and feathered them with the whole Iraq W.M.D. thing…
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
…As merely one of fifty examples, Franklin Foer wrote in the New York Magazine (2004): “During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Judith Miller [reporter for the New York Times] produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein’s ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by [the now-disgraced] Ahmed Chalabi and his allies—almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.” This is media ethics on display, it would seem.
Since then: “For the past year, the Times has done much to correct that coverage…. But never once in the course of its coverage—or in any public comments from its editors—did the Times acknowledge Chalabi’s central role in some of its biggest scoops, scoops that not only garnered attention but which the Bush Administration specifically cited to buttress its case for war.”
Though the editorial staff was complicit, Miller seems to be the keystone in this journalistic “SNAFU.” She is said to have been loath to run stories by editors, and for complex, institutional reasons, she was given a long leash…
“Days before the  election, The Toronto Star listed and categorized 560 lies that Trump told during the campaign. And yet when polled, Americans judged him to be more trustworthy than Clinton. It would be difficult to imagine a more damning indictment of our political media.” ~ Eric Alterman
…This is a stupendous case of a dearth of journalistic integrity (and institutional oversight) that amounted to a pretty noxious confluence of events that literally contributed to an unnecessary and ill-conceived war (that will have repercussions for years or decades). It was totally unnecessary; only a total failure to do its job could have resulted in such a fall from grace. As Mahender Goriganti put it:
“The New York Times is no different than Brian Williams of NBC or Bill O’ Reilly of Fox News. Chalabi is scapegoat in the big picture of how our media caters to friends (the government, Wall Street, corporations) based on their affiliations and interests – not facts, news reporting, or honest social service – as the “fourth estate” of democracy should.”
Pair this with now-disgraced reporter Jayson Blair and you have a dubious institution.
DH: Yeah, I think that, in general, if you compare what’s in the American media with the media in a lot of the world, there are a lot of huge “blind spots.” I consider that a really dangerous thing in a way. I think it’s very hard for Americans to understand how they are (and how American policy is) seen in much of the world; many of the points of view that are critical of American policy are simply not going to be included in our news.
JM: Well, Professor Daniel Hallin, that is the time we agreed to, and it was productive! I appreciate your steady and insightful take on the American media.
DH: You’re welcome; you bet.
“News is something someone wants suppressed. Everything else is just advertising.” ~ Alfred Harmsworth
JM: I would now like to welcome Fred Brown. He’s the co-chairperson of the media ethics committee of the Society for Professional Journalists (www.spj.org) and before that, he was at The Denver Post. Hi there, Mr. Brown.
FB: Hi; call me Fred.
JM: Great. Can you tell us a little about the purpose of the Society for Professional Journalists…
FB: Well, it started as a college fraternity for journalism students in 1909 and it evolved into a professional organization. Actually, it’s the largest membership organization for journalists in the country. SPJ’s missions are professional development, ethics, freedom of information, access to documents, access to meetings, legal defense for journalists who get into trouble, and a big diversity component (trying to bring as many viewpoints/outlooks to newsrooms as possible).
JM: Okay. So, what would be an example of a media ethics-relevant issue that you would be thinking about as an ethics committee chairperson?
FB: Well, one of the things we have thought about lately, for instance, is Newsweek’s reporting of a Qur’an being flushed down a toilet at Guantánamo – how things like that come to pass. We have a code of ethics/set of guidelines and principles for journalists.
An example is the decreased use of anonymous sources, and more “transparency journalism.” For example, the sort of thing that Newsweek, had it used those guidelines, might have avoided.
“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.” ~ Edward R. Murrow
JM: So, for example, an anonymous source is a situation where there is a reporter sitting in his or her office, taking or making a phone call to an individual they do or do not have a long-standing relationship with, and the individual would say, “I have some information I am willing to give you about a story you are going to want to publish, but you cannot use my name.” Why do they prefer anonymity? I suppose because they fear some kind of reprisal if their name were associated with the story – if they were basically discovered to be a confidential informant.
FB: Or, as often happens in Washington, there’s a briefing with a highly-placed official who says, “This is ‘on background’ and you can’t use my name.”
JM: Okay. I think a listener might imagine that if a person doesn’t want to go on record, it raises the question of why that is.
FB: That’s one of the problems with anonymous sources. The listener or reader doesn’t really have a way to determine what that person’s motivation is; if you know who the informant is, you can at least surmise without having to be told why the person is sharing what they’re sharing. When journalists start trying to tell people what motivates their sources to do the things they do – which, unfortunately, happens quite a bit covering political campaigns – it can cause resentment. I think it was Bill Clinton who said, “How can anyone know what another person’s motivation is?”
“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph, and the signs of horror are still in the air.” ~ Henry A. Grunwald
JM: Characteristically bold, Christopher Hitchens speaks of media ethics when he wrote: “I’ve noticed a strong tendency in my profession for journalists not to like to admit that they ever missed anything or ever got anything wrong.” So, do you think maybe the folks from Newsweek maybe were a little slow in…
FB: Yeah, they were slow. It’s sort of the same pattern that appeared on the CBS show 60 Minutes recently, where it took forever for Dan Rather, the producers of the show, and network executives to say: Maybe we didn’t have good documentation for this particular story we did. Unfortunately, when stuff like this happens, the focus is on the story rather than on the content of the story. I still think that there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to back up the fact that you didn’t get into the National Guard during the days of the Vietnam War when George W. Bush enlisted without having somebody in a position of power “go to bat for you.”
JM: Okay, so you’re saying that it’s possible that there is some truth to the story, however, if CBS cut a corner…
FB: I think CBS was looking for more evidence for the legitimacy of that story. It happened to me, actually: there was no way I ever would have gotten into the National Guard in that era if people in power didn’t lobby on my behalf.
“A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.” ~ Albert Camus
JM: Interesting. Let me share two quotes that I think are wonderfully opposed. Here is Bernard Goldberg: “The sophisticated media elites don’t categorize their beliefs as liberal, but simply the truth. They think that they are the middle of the road – raging moderates – while everyone else is on the fringe.” And, Clay Ramsey: “People who rely on Fox News are living in a different world from people who get their news from a variety of sources.”
Fred, let’s wrap up the Newsweek discussion as we continue to talk about media ethics. So, wow, if there is one thing that would make a Muslim detainee hit the ceiling, it would be flushing a Qur’an down the toilet! That has three levels of absurdity attached to it, which I shan’t get into for fear of running far afield of our current inquiry. I’m wondering, was that whole story mistaken or was there indeed truth to it? I know it was alleged to contribute to 17 deaths in resultant demonstrations and violence.
“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.” ~ Walter Lippmann
FB: Well, to answer your question, it’s a little more nuanced than that – the issue involved whether it was going to be in a report about what was going on in Guantánamo (about to be released), as I understand it. But, there was a whole lot of stuff here which raised questions. And Newsweek did something that is a little bit unusual, and that is to show what they were going to publish to the anonymous source, who essentially signed off on it. Journalists usually don’t like to do that sort of thing. Sometimes, I wish they would do it more often because it’s a better way to ensure accuracy.
JM: I would assume that part of the role of editor is to question the validity of the journalist’s anonymous source, and question whether they might be lying, providing misinformation or disinformation, “have an ax to grind” in some way, or is seeking attention/notoriety, and so on. This is media ethics at its core.
FB: Those are the sorts of questions that ought to be asked about anonymous sources. More news organizations are starting to do that now for the reasons we are discussing, but also as I mentioned, the public really does not like anonymous sources.
“From the United States’ founding, the best and most consequential journalism frequently involved crusading reporters, advocacy, and devotion to battling injustice. The opinion-less, color-less, soul-less template of corporate journalism has drained the practice of its worthiest attributes, rendering ‘establishment media’ inconsequential: a threat to nobody powerful – exactly as intended.” ~ Glenn Greenwald
JM: Does that lead to journalistic timidity when Newsweek or the New York Times gets singed for incompetence?
FB: You know, I think there is a myriad of forces pulling the news media toward timidity, and one of them is that no matter what happens there’s going to be a lot of criticism. Also, they are sort of pulled in two directions simultaneously: one is to hang on to [your publication’s] share of the market by not offending people, and the other is to compete in an environment where more and more media outlets have a particular point of view.
So, it’s a very difficult tightrope for the media to walk – the mainstream media especially. So many people are now choosing to get their news or information from sources that agree with them, be that Fox News, National Public Radio, or a partisan blog – as though they are looking for affirmation more than information.
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
JM: Okay, I like the way you phrased that. Well, what do you think about this quotation by the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone: “By accepting the Washington definition of ‘realistic,’ defined by a distorted pattern of power, the media denies citizens the opportunity to be empowered with knowledge and information, and to make a difference.”
FB: I think there’s a certain amount of validity to that statement, but perhaps not as much now as previously. Though, that could characterize the approach of the mainstream media: more timid, more middle-of-the-road. But, then again, the mainstream media should be as impartial as possible (in regard to media ethics). How do you achieve impartiality if you mount crusades against certain things, or badger people to admit wrongdoing? You need to do those things, but it doesn’t trumpet impartiality.
“By the end of the ‘90s, Clear Channel, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, Talk Radio Network, Salem Radio, USA Radio Network, and Radio America – as well as the proliferation of cable television networks – had created a movement that would dramatically lower the standards of American political discourse. And in general, doom prospects for progressive change.” ~ Oliver Stone, Matt Graham and Peter Kuznick
JM: Okay. So, in regard to media ethics, should a “good journalist” go after a president, Democrat or Republican, and still be able to be consistent and impartial? If he or she believes that there is a real story there— maybe something has been covered up or something immoral was done. Is that the function of a good news organization?
FB: Yes. In fact, I think that is a good definition of journalistic impartiality – we don’t care who is in power; our job is to challenge that person to make sure that they are doing the right things, that he or she is authentic and diligent. The downside of that is that you leave the impression with the public that there’s really no one who’s worthy of office— because everyone has flaws.
JM: Yeah, I tend to think it is proper for a reporter to be indefatigable when there is a real story – to keep the person honest. In the case of a President Donald Trump, it may be our saving grace. But that is only a small step from hounding someone because of what will sell. You know, as the dark side of the media is characterized: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Princess Diana was a virtual obsession with many members of the British media.
“An independent press corps would fearlessly investigate all of the impacts of war, so that the public could know what is being done in its name.” ~ Janine Jackson
FB: Yeah, nobody could really stand up to undue scrutiny without something bad being discovered.
JM: True. Gosh, anything that prevents good people from being able to become president is worthy of taking a long, hard look at.
FB: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think somehow we in the media need to occasionally emphasize the positive, too.
Yeah, well, truth is truth.
FB: Right. If the truth is good news, why don’t we report that with the same kind of enthusiasm we do the bad news?!
JM: Roger that. There actually are a number of websites that spend ink talking about good news; The Week has a weekly digest; there’s Reader’s Digest to some degree; www.DailyGood.org. I personally think we don’t want to enter a “bubble,” as Bill Maher calls it, and be ignorant to what’s really going on – what is legitimately true. However, if one only reads about the bad, the scandalous, the disappointing, it can have a negative effect on the mind. Maher said that 2016 Trump voters “live in a reality of their own choosing. It’s not even a race between ideologies anymore. It’s not Republican and Democrat or conservative and liberal. It’s reality versus alternative reality.”
FB: That’s good advice. You need thick skin to be a public official these days. Or to be a journalist. I don’t take criticism personally – emails that respond to my columns, for example. Nor should politicians take personally the scrutiny or criticism they received either during a campaign, or in office.
JM: Well, I thank you for your time discussing media ethics; I think the listeners and I benefited from your insights and information.
FB: Well it was my pleasure, thank you.
JM: Wonderful, good day to you. Now, here are a number of interesting quotes on media ethics:
“Among the core leitmotifs of conservative media is the idea of conservatives as underdogs – the notion that the real power out there rests not with the leaders of government or the captains of industry, but with a sinister cabal of liberals who somehow manage, through various techniques seldom fully revealed, to control our lives and subvert our country.” ~ Paul Waldman
“If we are to believe the media, stuff just happens. Many things are reported but few are explained. Little is said about how the social order is organized and for what purposes. Instead we are left to see the world as do mainstream pundits: as a scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance, circumstance, passing expediencies, confused intentions, bungled operations, and individual ambition – rarely a world influenced by powerful class interests.” ~ Michael Parenti
“With the country’s widest disseminators of news, commentary and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world’s wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative and narrow spectrum of politics.” ~ Ben Bagdikian
“Under Jeff Zucker, CNN has come to symbolize the collapse of journalistic standards, sacrificing its credibility daily in pursuit of high ratings and ad revenue.” ~ Eric Alterman
“A free society depends on a vigilant media. The American media, obsessed with quarterly profits and full of reporters trained to produce stories that are entertaining rather than substantive, are not doing what democracy depends on: getting the story right.” ~ Howard Dean
“The media are absolutely essential to the functioning of a democracy. It’s not our job to cozy up to power. We’re supposed to be a check and balance on the government.” ~ Amy Goodman
“If we were to do ‘the Second Coming of Christ’ in color for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western [movie] or a quiz show would be more profitable.” ~ Edward R. Murrow
“The critical importance of honest journalism and a free-flowing, respectful conversation needs to be had in our country. But it is being buried as collateral damage in a war whose battles include political correctness and ideological orthodoxy.” ~ Juan Williams
“…celebrity journalism, speed over accuracy, opinion over reporting are part of a larger dynamic that is changing journalism: the concentration of ownership in the hands of megacorporations making megamergers in search of megaprofits.” ~ Bill Moyers
To read more about media ethics, consider buying the book from which this chapter was excerpted, Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom here. Again, the podcast entitled “Media Ethics and Function” is available here.
This is but one of twenty chapters in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. An e-book is a mere $2.99.
Here is an interesting article about media ethics from the Ethical Journalism Network.
Copyright Jason Merchey, 2006-2017, media ethics; ethics of the media; function of the media