--Press critic A.J. Liebling
Idealistic students at the University of Nevada, Reno, have developed an ethical pledge that all journalism graduates will be asked to sign. The key part of the oath is to “uphold and apply the highest standards of integrity and ethics.”
Fine idea, noble idea, but wth one enormous problem: Media bosses themselves often do not have ethics.
Journalism history abounds with ethical bounders. Hearst and Pulitzer indulged in gross sensationalism and wild fakery during the Spanish-American War.
Will Irwin began a 15-part series for Collier’s in 1911 taking an in-depth look at American newspapers. Irwin’s muckraking series denounced yellow journalism, revealed that advertisers exerted baleful pressure on the press and found the Hearst papers guilty of running articles boosting their advertisers.
Over the years there have been a spate of articles in journalism reviews, newsletters and books detailing ethical shortcomings of the media.
The great press critic George Seldes noted as long ago as 1938 the unholy alliance between advertisers and editors to keep articles linking smoking and cancer out of magazines.
A.J. Liebling, another great press critic in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote two memorable truths: 1) “The function of the press in society is to inform but its role is to make money.” 2) “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
In recent decades we have had many outstanding media critics. Among them: A.E. Rowse (“Slanted News”), Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, Robert McChesney, Norman Solomon, Michael Parenti and Richard McCord (“The Chain Gang,” a devasting exposé of Gannett).
The classic case of ethical blinders locally concerned the conflict of interest that Sue Clark-Johnson brazenly displayed in 1994. She served on the board of directors of Harrah’s while she was publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal. She was badly compromised although she refused to admit it.
Her case shows why ethics classes in journalism schools are worthless unless publishers and station managers have ethics. Media bosses should be like Caesar’s wife: above suspicion. They should not serve on community boards or work with any organization they cover no matter how worthy.
The UNR students who proposed the oath mean well. One of the leaders of the ethical movement, Cortney Maddock, is an earnest young woman. She is engrained with the highest ethical standards. She wants to engender her spirit in all journalism graduates.
Although she will not be a media problem, her bosses may be. The day may come when she will discover an ethical lapse in her boss. She may be faced with the dilemma that so many journalists face: resign on principle or continue to work for an unethical boss.
Journalism graduates, fueled by the idealism of youth, will one day discover sadly the truth of the dictum of the 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast: “Policy strangles individuals.”
The New York Times repeatedly killed the columns of Sydney Schanberg for not hewing to the paper’s editorial policy. It sent reporter Ray Bonner to Coventry because he told the truth about a massacre in El Salvador. It fired reporter Sydney Gruson at the behest of the CIA. It sat for one year on a story about spying on citizens ordered by President Bush. Then, it allowed the White House to edit the final version.
The Portland Oregonian suppressed a story about financial problems of one of its key advertisers. A column by Rollie Melton was killed by the Reno Gazette-Journal because it criticized a city council decision to demolish the Mapes hotel. The Washington Post fired columnist Colman McCarthy because he refused to honor the “sacredness” of the marketplace.
These are just few of the many examples of media lack of ethics.
“J” students will also discover another truth: Wall Street comes before Main Street, newspapering a distant second to commerce. Worship of mammon has long since supplanted Pulitzer’s reverence for newspapers. (The gargantuan profits of the Gannett chain is a profound ethical question. It should have been the first thing journalism students discussed in ethics class.)
“J” students will also learn of the self-censorship of the media. They will learn of the cheerleading of Fox’s so-called newscasts, which once sanitized, distorted and slanted a story about Monsanto chemical. They will learn about media deference to power, the general gutlessness of newspapers.
Their glorious vision of newspapering will vanish into cynicism and despair.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.