The Press and Tyco
Once again, the self-serving journalist mantra of “the public has a right to know” has allowed a group of newspaper editors to cause trouble for the rest of us, all the while claiming that they were acting “ethically.” The six-month trial of key culprits in the executive office looting of Tyco came to an abrupt end when one of the jurors, the 79 year old woman who had apparently been the defense’s staunchest supporter in the jury room, received a threatening note. She would not have received such a note if the Wall Street Journal and The New York Post had not printed her name, in violation of the well-recognized newspaper practice of not publicizing the identities of jurors during trials. The Post did an especially nice job of stirring the pot, referring to the woman as a “batty blueblood” and a “holdout granny.” This, naturally, got the internet abuzz, and sure enough, she began receiving crank calls at her home and finally, a death threat.
It was an entirely predictable sequence, and the complete vindication of the wisdom of the long-standing policy the papers ignored. The Post and the Journal have argued that the juror crossed the line when she allegedly gave a signal of approval to the defense table in open court, kicking in the hoary “right to know” rationalization. The right of a jury to do its civic duty without pressure or harassment? Never mind. The right of the legal system to try corporate criminals and protect investors and the public? Not relevant. The right of taxpayers not to have millions of their dollars wasted in futile trials? Tell in to the marines.
The Journal and the Post wanted to sell papers. There was no legitimate ethical consideration in their calculations. They knew it might cause problems for the jury, and they didn’t care.
It is time for the public and the responsible media to hold journalists responsible for their actions. Yes: this country owes much to its free press, and the courageous journalists who have time and time again brought to light and to print vital information. But the past year has seen a profession fraying at the edges: false and stolen stories from Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and others; sloppy reporting and lax analysis; blatant bias. Robert Novak callously printed the name of a CIA operative, and has sat smugly on the sidelines as the government spends millions to track down his source. There is too much arrogance and not enough ethical analysis in the newsrooms.
One place to start is the recent report of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an institute affiliated with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Entitled “The State of the News Media 2004,” it is a perceptive and unblinking look at trends, attitudes, and problems in the profession. The public needs to read it, and journalists need to know that the public has done so. It can be found at http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/index.asp.
The Tyco mistrial is just a sample of the harm an ethically irresponsible media can accomplish, and there have been too many such samples. More than anything else, the public has a right to ethical journalism.
Link: The State
of the News Media 2004