The light is blinking red. Media crises and controversies seem to be reaching a tipping point. Dissatisfaction with the media ranges from disgust and outrage to general suspicion. This sensibility is spreading like a virus via the blogosphere, media watchdogs, and books written by media insiders. Opinions differ on sources of the problems. Some cite liberal bias, while new left-leaning watchdogs cite conservative bias. Other noted factors include inappropriate influence by political figures, use of unreliable anonymous sources, use of non-existent sources, laziness, general dishonesty, corporate bean-counters, corporate influence on content, pressure to not displease advertisers, infotainment mentality, staff cutbacks, loss of morale in the newsroom, payola, lack of opportunity for enterprise reporting or the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle. Most cite a combination of the aforementioned. Whatever your view though, the public and honest journalists are hungry for change.
The headlines say it all. Headlines like “Press is Doing its Worst to Erode Trust” (Robert L. Jamieson Jr., Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 18, 2005), “Press in a Mess” (Ric Bohy, Detroit Metro Times, May 18, 2005), “‘Freep’ Editor: Lack of Attribution is My Fault,” (Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, May 16, 2005), and “Courier-Post articles lacked proper attribution,” (Editorial, Courier-Post, May 19, 2005).
Veteran journalists are speaking out boldly and courageously. “No more conning the public,” wrote award-winning journalist and author Bonnie M. Anderson in her groundbreaking book “Newsflash.” “We must begin with honesty,” she says. “…No more pretending to be fair and balanced when there is a political agenda.” Tom Fenton, a veteran CBS reporter, published his own expos? of broadcast news this year: “Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All.” CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour told Anderson, “More times than I care to remember I have sympathized with too many [reporters], assigned, like myself, to some of the world’s bad places. They would go through hell to do their pieces, only to frequently find them killed back in New York because of some fascinating new twist on ‘killer Twinkies’ or Fergie getting fatter, or something.”
Consider other recent media fallout:
The latest scandal-plagued columnist, Pulitzer prize-winner Diana Griego Erwin of the Sacramento Bee, resigned after the newspaper found it was unable to authenticate numerous sources in her work. It is alleged the very popular Ms. Erwin had succumbed to an overactive imagination which cultivated the many colorful imaginary friends peopling her articles. The latest apparition conjured up by Ms. Erwin’s imagination seems to be the bedeviling forces of an alleged “witch hunt.”
Staff writer Cynthia R. Nelson of the Courier-Post is no longer employed following that paper’s announcement that she had used “passages from bylined stories from Gannett News Service and other Gannett-owned newspapers, including USA Today, without properly crediting the source.” Executive Editor Derek Osenenko said “Our investigation demonstrated several breaches of our Codes of Ethical Conduct.” Nelson had been employed there for 10 months.
Popular sports writer Mitch Albom, of the Detroit Free Press, was guilty of the same journalistic crime as Nelson, but the golden boy received markedly different treatment.
Albom was the subject of an in-house investigation prompted by the discovery he had reported on a basketball game before it had occurred. It was subsequently discovered that he had been lifting quotes from others, without attribution and sometimes jazzing up the quotes to boot. The Free Press announced no pattern of deception had been found. A victorious Albom said “I am glad this long investigation has validated my hard work and my reputation.” Other journalists cried foul. “There’s a sports metaphor for this. It’s called pulling a punch” said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, in an interview with the Detroit News. She said it sounded like the Free Press’ loyalties were with their “own” not with the readers. The News reported David Zeman of the Free Press, who was on the team conducting the investigation, complained that the editors stacked the deck, choosing to emphasize “what we didn’t find instead of what we did find.”
Albom is a best-selling author, has made movie deals, is a panelist on ESPN’s “Sports Reporters,” has his own radio show, and has received a closet full of awards. In other words, he’s hot property. So the ethical rules will be bent for him. Ron French and David Shepardson of the Detroit News wrote that the issues mattered to more than concerned journalists. “At a time when public trust in the media is low, credibility is a treasured commodity.” Robert L. Jamieson Jr. of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer made reference to Albom’s book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” “Makes me wonder whether the five folks at the pearly gates were quoted first by The Associated Press,” he quipped.
The Albom and Nelson cases show what’s good for the golden goose can kill the rookie gander. And press credibility is the casualty in the end.
“We, I believe are in the fight of our lives to save this profession which we love,” Christiane Amanpour says in “Newsflash.” ” I believe we can do it, and I believe we can win this battle.”
“We must,” says Anderson.