Random Journalistic Ethics at CBS
With each passing day, the question of what constitutes journalistic ethics in the 21st Century appears more and more unanswerable.
For example, two journalists are currently staring down contempt of court charges for their failure to divulge the name of the Valerie Plame leaker you remember: that dastardly mystery source that Robert Novak could clear up any time he feels like it, the administration official who supposedly let the cat out of the bag about Ms. Plame being a CIA agent in order to get back at former Ambassador Joseph Smith for criticizing the intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Journalistic ethics, as I understand it, requires reporters to promise confidentiality to sources who break the law and their own duty of confidentiality by passing on classified or otherwise secret information to the media.
Why this assistance qualifies as “ethics” is a real head scratcher: logic would seem to dictate that we call it “aiding and abetting wrongful conduct.” How do those who ignore confidentiality acquire the right to have the fact of their violation of an ethical duty protected by the very same ethical principle they have themselves defied? And why would protecting the confidentiality of such individuals in defiance of the law qualify as ethical? It doesn’t, except in the fantasy land of journalism, where the completely self-serving principle of guarding the confidentiality of sources so they are encouraged to leak more confidential information in the future is camouflaged as “ethics.”
But as mysteriously self-contradictory as the principles of journalistic ethics are generally, their status at CBS (yes, CBS again) is even more bewildering. As its most destructive and reckless year draws to a close, the CBS news division seems to have decided that its ethical principles should be defined on a case-by-case, minute-to-minute basis. This takes situational ethics to a whole new level of inconstancy. Call it “Random Ethics,” or “What do we believe today?” It seems that the network’s tattered magazine show, “60 Minutes,” has decided that its story about the apparently forged documents that “showed” that Iraq had attempted to purchase nuclear material from Niger is too sensitive to broadcast so close to the election. The documents played a part in the conclusion that Iraq had nuclear capability, and thus the story is presumably critical of the Bush administration. But it is also “old news,” according to CBS sources, and thus the most ethical thing to do is to hold the analysis until after the election. Fairness and impartiality, you know.
To be succinct, huh?
CBS and “60 Minutes” has been a shill for every book critical of Bush, from Richard Clark to Joe Wilson to Paul O’Neill. It pointedly ignored the Swift Boat Kerry critics, despite the fact that their allegations merited or not, were having a major impact on the campaign. Dan Rather was so eager to impugn Bush’s National Guard record (a 35 year old story) that he relied on another forged document. How, exactly, is the decision to postpone a legitimate analysis of an issue very much at the heart of the election consistent with any of this?
The simple answer: it isn’t. Having blown its credibility to bits with cheerleading for Bush critics of varying legitimacy (Richard Clark: solid; Paul O’Neill: highly questionable; Joe Wilson: thoroughly discredited), CBS feels that it can’t do its real job without looking partisan. That may be true, but whose fault is that? Similarly, it may be uncomfortable for “60 Minutes” to critique the Bush administration for relying on a forged document, but voters and viewers shouldn’t be the ones to suffer. The truth is that CBS is hiding behind supposed journalistic ethics to avoid the fair and natural consequences of its previous lack of standards and professionalism.
The Iraq report is a good segment, according to those who have seen it. ”The idea that you would withhold journalism because you think it would have an effect on the world runs contrary to the whole idea of what journalism should be,” says Peter Hart, a media watchdog. Exactly. And if CBS hadn’t shot itself in the foot, the leg, the chest and the head with its performance during the previous four months, it could have run the Iraq piece without qualm. If the segment is fair and true and informative, Americans have a right to see it before they choose their president. But a news report critical of the Bush administration involving forged documents would subject the network to a new volley of well-earned criticism and ridicule, and it doesn’t have the guts to take its medicine.
CBS is using a fraudulent claim of ethics to dodge its responsibilities. But perhaps there is hope in this for the future of the Big Eye.
At least the network is finally using ethics for something.