Topic: Media

Integrity, the Swimsuit Issue, and the McCain Fiasco

One publication undressed women, and the other dressed up dubious facts. Both demonstrated a loss of basic integrity.

Integrity is a core ethical virtue, and one of the most complex. There are philosophical tomes written about it, and arcane debates over what it really is; reading some of these will make any person of normal intelligence conclude that integrity is as confounding as string theory. But in truth the concept is clear to most of us: integrity consists of living and acting according to consistent principles, even when it may become convenient or profitable to do otherwise. The core ingredient of relationships in a society is trust, and one cannot trust a person, business, government or institution that lacks integrity.

Sports Illustrated and the New York Times just traded in their integrity, one for bias, and the other for money. For one of them, it will hardly matter. For the other, it could be the beginning of the end.

It surely won’t matter much to Sports Illustrated‘s core readership that it decided to turn its annually racy swimsuit issue into a flat-out Playboy imitation, but without the cartoons, interviews and articles. It was a disgraceful decision nonetheless. For decades, young men awaited the February issue of SI, with its photos of scantily-clad athletic models like Cheryl Tiegs and Christy Brinkley. Wasn’t girl-watching a favorite sport, after all? That was the magazine’s excuse, pronounced with a wink, and the relatively wholesome bathing beauty photos were just one diverting section of an issue that still included real sports news. OK, it was a gimmick, and a money-making one, but despite the yearly letters of protest (“To the Editor: I got a year’s subscription to your magazine for my 12 year-old sports-loving son, and did not expect a porno magazine. Shame!Please cancel!” ), most objective observers would have to say that Sports Illustrated‘s yearly Victoria’s Secret imitation was restrained and in good fun.

Not anymore. This year’s issue, stuffed with enough ads to give it the thickness of Elle, contains over a hundred photos of female models in varying states of undress, with some wearing only body paint. The issue contains almost nothing about sports except its name—well, it does have a lay-out of racing star Danica Patrick in a bathing suit. The issue even contains multiple fold-outs, more than Playboy. And its models (other than Patrick) do not appear to be capable of competing in any sport that does not require C-cup breasts.

The issue screams greed: we’ll sell so many of this issue, Time-Warner is saying, and get so many ads, that we don’t need to justify it! Well then, why stop at Sports Illustrated? Why not convert Time or Fortune into a soft-porn mag once a year? They would undoubtedly sell well too. Why should any magazine actually stick to its stated subject matter? Scientific American and National Geographic could justify all naked-woman issues, right? The New Republic or Psychology Today could do one and claim that it was making a statement about America’s “obsession with beauty.” Popular Mechanics, Boys Life, Seventeen, Weekly Reader…why not? For that matter, why can’t Maxim devote an issue to, say, hydroponic farming? Why shouldn’t Rolling Stone do an issue on Gilbert and Sullivan?

There is an answer to these questions. They don’t do it because that content isn’t what those publications exist to present to readers, nor what they have promised to subscribers to deliver. They don’t do it because integrity is essential to reliance and trust, and integrity matters.

The New York Times apparently doesn’t believe this, or at least no longer comprehends what journalistic integrity is. Following the crooked path of CBS in its National Guard letter debacle that sent Dan Rather packing, the supposed role model for the country’s print news media demonstrated that its staff’s judgement has been rotted by ideological and political bias. The Times placed a story on its front page that made a mockery of the paper’s famous motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.” It wasn’t news. It wasn’t fit to print. And it didn’t meet the minimum journalistic standards of a high school newspaper.

The story, in essence, stated that eight years ago some of Senator John McCain’s aides were concerned about the apparent closeness of his relationship with an attractive young communications industry lobbyist, and urged him to be more discrete. One staff member, the only one named in the story, met with the lobbyist and told her to keep her distance from McCain. Though the story was obviously given front page status because it hinted of a sexual scandal on the part of the likely Republican presidential nominee, no hard facts were offered. So insubstantial was the story that many critics reacted by saying that there had to be more damaging proof than what the Times was releasing, because such a story couldn’t have made the front page above the fold without some deeper significance. But this shows exactly why the publishing of the story was an abuse of trust and integrity. The public and the journalistic establishment have been conditioned to believe that even a seemingly worthless story must have some validity simply because the New York Times, that icon of good journalism, decided to print it. In a case like this one, the Times is using its reputation and presumed integrity to present journalistic offal to its readers as hard news. That too is an abuse of integrity.

Let’s let the Times’ own ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, summarize, in a column published in the Times the weekend after the original story ran:

“The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap.…what the aides believed might not have been the real truth. And if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed.”

Even Hoyt’s indictment doesn’t reach the heart of the matter, however. This is a national election cycle, and the Times knows that with the development of the internet, the blogosphere, and the 24 hour news cycle stories have immediate and wide-ranging impact on public opinion, polls and fundraising. The new news environment increases the burden on responsible journalists and publications; they have a duty to be more careful than ever before. But like CBS, when it allowed the unsubstantiated attack piece on President Bush to reach the airwaves at a crucial point in a campaign, the Times appears to have been influenced by ideological bias to use rumors to raise doubts about a Republican candidate just as his nomination has become inevitable.

That means that the newspaper’s judgement can no longer be trusted to be fair, measured, or guided by ethical principles. Just as Sports Illustrated proved that it is fully capable of becoming Penthouse when the price is right, the New York Times has shown that it will comport itself like Newsmax, the Daily Kos, Move-On and other ideologically driven rumor-mongers whenever it thinks it can move public opinion toward its own world view (for the good of the nation, naturally). If this were an aberrant episode, perhaps it could be handled with an apology and a few well-aimed dismissals at the editorial level. But the Times passed that point long ago. Last September, after the paper got caught contributing to Move-On by giving it a discount and then lied about it, the Ethics Scoreboard attributed the episode to a systemic ethics break-down:

…the Times has allowed its principles and judgement to be corroded by arrogance, partisan bile and groupthink. It is darkly amusing to recall how the hoard of left-leaning columnists on the Times op-ed page all piously condemned the recent acquisition of the Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch because he couldn’t be trusted to keep the Journal’s content “independent” and free of distortion. After all, they pointed out, there are really only two prestigious national newspapers in America—the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal— and now readers can’t trust one of them. They were right about that. But it is the crumbling Times, not Murdoch’s Journal, that has proven that it can no longer be trusted.

The McCain story showed that the Scoreboard was right. The Times may be able to recapture its integrity and trustworthiness, but time is running out. Circulation is falling fast, and even liberals who admired the paper are beginning to wonder whether having a blatantly biased and incompetent ally is more of a burden than a boon.

The only positive aspect of the Times’ loss of integrity is that the paper it can now boost readership by publishing photos of busty women in bikinis.

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