Monday, October 11, 2004

Waiting for the good times

The past couple of years have not been a good time for journalism ethics. From Jayson Blair to Dan Rather, there have been far too many examples of flawed reporting and bad judgment. This damages all of journalism and reinforces the suspicions of cynics who say the media can't be trusted. CBS and Rather are the latest and one of the worst examples. They seriously damaged their credibility by using a suspect document to support a story critical of the president's National Guard service. It also affects the campaign and violates an important principle of journalism. The media should be reporting the news, not making it. One lesson good journalists should take away from this train wreck is that there is no longer any place to hide when you mess up. Weblogs and all the other media flooding the cyberworld with information will pounce on any mistake. They'll be on it like hairspray on an anchorman. In the larger picture, this is a good thing, and we should all face Seattle or San Jose and thank the people who brought us the Internet. This instantaneous scrutiny forces journalists, especially the high-profile ones, to be accurate and accountable. Still, this "gotcha" coup doesn't mean bloggers suddenly have been raised to the level of mainstream media on the credibility meter. What the blogs did is comparatively easy. Finding flaws in someone else's reporting is much easier than producing an accurate, credible, error-free report on your own initiative. There's still a lot of unsubstantiated rumor, uninformed opinion and just plain junk on the World Wide Web. The mainstream media share one weakness with the bloggers: They put too much emphasis on getting a story first. Scooping the competition is not a high priority for the public. It may impress our colleagues in the media, but readers and viewers would rather have us get it right than first. The media also use anonymous sources too much. That's at the root of this mess. CBS had an obligation to confirm the reliability - not to mention the very existence - of the original source of the apparently faked memos and letters. But it didn't. Accuracy is the prime objective of good journalism. That includes careful verification of information and telling the public who gave it to you, so readers and viewers have more information to judge the source's reliability. If the source insists on anonymity, the reporter is obliged to ask why. One of the most serious ethical blunders is that the producers of the "60 Minutes" show arranged for the supplier of the suspect documents to get a call from a top-level operative in the Kerry campaign.

That's inexcusable. Impartial news organizations shouldn't be cooperating with partisan campaign organizations. All these flaws inevitably raise doubts about the substance of the story at its heart. But they shouldn't. It would be a surprise if anyone, let alone the son of a congressman, got into the National Guard during Vietnam without some influence being exerted. The facts are still there to be examined, despite the fallibility of CBS' flawed attempt. There is also more reporting to be done to trace the origins of this apparently forged document and the motives behind it. CBS has moved in the right direction - finally - by apologizing, admitting it couldn't guarantee the documents were authentic, and then announcing the appointment of an independent panel of outsiders to find out what went wrong and why.The investigation needs to be thorough, careful and conducted in the open. If CBS had applied those standards to its original reporting, it wouldn't be in this predicament now.


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