Accuracy in Media

Reporters are famed for poking their finger in the eye of hypocrisy, especially when it occurs among the political class. Recently ABC 7 news reporter Steve Wilson has become the bane of Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick after reporting the mayor charged flashy personal perks to the city even as he led a public campaign for financial “sacrifice” to start at the very top of the city ranks. But what happens when journalism establishments engage in the same sort of hypocrisy? The public begins to suspect little distinguishes journalists from the politicians they target. As a result, honest journalists suffer.

Those contradictions can occur within or without the editorial departments. AIM recently reported on one such contradiction involving the investigation of popular sports writer Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press. Albom first was subject to an investigation after it became publicly known that he had reported on a basketball game before it occurred. During the course of the investigation it was discovered that Albom had lifted quotes from other company-owned newspapers without attribution, sometimes even “jazzing” up the quotes, presumably for dramatic effect. Despite the fact a similar incident at the Courier-Post cost a new reporter her job, the Free Press found no pattern of deception and Albom claimed victory. One staff member assigned to the investigation complained the powers that be simply chose to emphasize what wasn’t found rather than what was found. Golden boy Albom, practically a franchise in and of himself, got favorable treatment.

Writing in this month’s American Journalism Review, senior writer Susan Paterno tells of a similar case related to Gary Webb’s notorious 1996 San Jose Mercury series “Dark Alliance.” Webb made great speculative leaps of logic in his series which alleged the CIA sold crack in South Central Los Angeles as part of an effort to support the Reagan administration’s attempts to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  In this case, mainstream media shredded the credibility of the series, leading to defensive maneuvers on the part of the newspaper. The New York Times reported staff members demanded to know if the editors “would be disciplined.”

While Webb was left holding the bag-he later committed suicide-the editors were promoted. Paterno reports Scott Herhold, a Mercury News editor in the late 80’s and a present columnist there, as saying the paper “did a mea culpa, [the] editors got promoted, and Gary bore the burden of the damage.” In an example of what one may call the selective application of journalistic ethics, the editors escaped unscathed and saw their careers flourish. Reports Paterno: “David Yarnold was promoted to executive editor (he later became editorial page editor and recently left the paper to become an executive with an environmental organization); Paul Van Slambrouck became executive editor of the Christian Science Monitor (he is now a senior editor); Jerry Ceppos is vice president for news at Knight Ridder; and Dawn Garcia is deputy director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University.” All four declined to be interviewed by Paterno.

The contradiction in newspapers making a living from targeting the ethical lapses of others while engaging in their own sometimes occurs outside editorial as well. Months after hearing about the exaggerated circulation figures produced by the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday and Dallas Morning News, comes news the Morning News may have known about their pumped-up numbers long before it became public. The News is owned by Belo Corporation, and stockholders have filed a lawsuit claiming News executives knew about the problem as early as January 2003, and only admitted to it because they perceived they were in danger of being exposed. Charles Layton of American Journalism Review reports that an amended complaint filed in April says the shareholders have evidence the newspaper was cheating. That evidence includes statements and tape recordings made by a newspaper distributor, who alleges his superiors tried to force him and others to sign documents that contained fraudulent circulation figures. In addition the complaint alleges executives “begged the distributor to turn over the tape recordings” because they were in a “frenzy” to “destroy this damning evidence.” While the company line is the lawsuit is without merit, Layton found other News circulation officials and independent contractors confirmed that falsification of circulation figures was “very widely known among employees and managers alike.” Layton says his interviews indicate “cheating was systemic and pervasive.”

These examples give the public the impression that journalism doesn’t always have higher standards than the self-serving politicians they love to eviscerate. Like the political and corporate worlds, journalism is shown to favor a pecking order where the powerful and popular need not ascribe to the same code of ethics as underlings. In these scenarios it’s power, not truth or fairness that prevails. Incidents like these are remembered by a public that is increasingly suspicious of the sometimes opaque practice of ethics in journalism itself and in media companies.

The pervasive disrespect for the press is what allows individuals like Mayor Kilpatrick to so confidently go on the offensive against the media in the case against reporter Steve Wilson, whom he has publicly derided as a “sleazeball” and a “fat ass.” Media reports Wilson was manhandled and sucker-punched by mayoral security amid a crowd that clearly couldn’t care less how the reporter was treated. It seems the mayor’s supporters figure the reporter didn’t show due respect to the mayor, so why should the mayor show any to the reporter. Now the city’s cable commission has produced a 12-minute documentary mocking Wilson called “Steve Wilson: The Inventive Reporter.” The New York Times reported on the controversial spot, saying it is running three times a day in Detroit. Kilpatrick made a bold and strategic, albeit cynical, move in posturing his administration offensively against reporter Wilson. A public before whom the press has lost credibility will be more credulous of such maneuvering by politicians. Why? Because when it comes to the credibility of politicians vs. media, the public increasingly sees journalists as having no advantage.

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