Week 2 musings and some election melodrama

We read and chatted plenty this week about a journalist’s responsibility to society. It struck me as ironic that the very week we do this, there emerges yet another election drama centered on the role of the journalist.

Donald Trump has announced he will not participate in Thursday’s GOP debate. The Republican front-runner has apparently not forgiven Fox News’ Megyn Kelly for asking what he believed were one-sided questions the last time the two squared off in a debate forum.

Let’s forget for a moment a few things about Trump: 1) that does he not owe the voters of Iowa an appearance? 2) that can he be expected to stand up to Putin when he’s running from a reporter? and 3) does his newfound embrace of evangelicalism not include the “turn the other cheek” philosophy espoused by Jesus?

Instead, let’s distance ourselves from the politics and consider this from a media perspective primarily. Megyn Kelly, who did not have a great performance in Fox’s initial debate, is apparently all gung-ho to tee it up again. She has refused to back down from Trump’s misogynistic attacks, insisting that no candidate for the presidency has the right to manipulate the terms of a debate, nor decide which reporters are worth his or her time.

Forgive me for this, but what self-serving nonsense. To begin with, candidates have been manipulating the terms of debates since the days of William Henry Harrison. Remember, how in 1980 the theatrical Ronald Reagan debated an empty chair when incumbent Jimmy Carter decided he had better things to do that night?

But more to the heart of the matter, at what point does Kelly —a highly educated woman with a presumed grasp of journalistic priorities —grow weary of being the story? At what point does the cult of celebrity news personality collide tragically with the public’s right to hear from the potential Republican nominee?

We know Trump is a blow hard. But forgive me for wondering if Kelly and the folks at Fox propping her up aren’t loving every ounce of this. Thing is, this clash of egos is a real threat to the electoral process and hardly what we news professionals would call a “fair and balanced” exchange of ideas.

On to other things ….

“The Elements of Journalism” presented an interesting, if irritating, issue in the anecdote of Jack Nelson, the Atlanta bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times from back in the days when newspapers still had out-of-market bureaus.

While following up on the deaths of three students in South Carolina, Nelson ambiguously identified himself to hospital personnel as being from “the Atlanta bureau.” Undoubtedly, the staff took that to mean the Atlanta bureau of the FBI and turned over to Nelson vital medical records that advanced his story.

Kovach and Rosenstiel seem to celebrate his resourcefulness. I’d be embarrassed for the fraud I committed.

In fact, I almost can guarantee that for all the details Nelson’s ambiguity brought to the story, had I attempted as much at Newsday I’d find myself in a most unpleasant HR conversation.

Newsday’s ethics guide insists on full disclosure on the part of its journalists unless such disclosure would jeopardize the well-being of the reporter or his source(s). I can’t imagine the LA Times has less exacting standards.

Nelson knowingly duped innocent people. And while it may have turned the direction of the investigation, we never hear if, say, his duplicity cost hospital personnel their jobs. I can’t celebrate that; perhaps that’s why I don’t get this book.

Not Charlie Hebdo
One reason I enjoy David Brooks is I consider him a conservative with sanity. His NY Times column “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” shines a stadium-size light on the hypocrisy of both the uber-left and ultra-defensive right on the matter of satire.

It is indeed chilling that there are those who would kill in defense of a caricature. But also, there are those who find nothing satirically off-limits. Great line from Brooks: “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”

If I understand Brooks, the folks at Charlie Hebdo took political satire to a near irresponsible level. It might be deserving of constitutional protection, but the social value of its target-rich, low-brow humor, that’s another matter. Civility should be a journalistic priority as well.

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Are Kovach and Rosenstiel overreactive

So last semester, those of us in Ethics were introduced to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s treatise on The Elements of Journalism. Much of it was to be treasured, but rethinking it now for Social Role, I’m inclined to wonder if they’re weren’t howling at the moon just a bit too much.

As John writes in his class intro, Kovach and Rosenstiel argue the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. To them, journalism exists to offer up the  “independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.”

It’s State of the Union-type language – flowery and high-minded, and were it delivered live it would certainly generate the applause track every president looks for when he pushes for, say, enhanced funding for cancer research. Who doesn’t want to cure cancer, and who doesn’t want better journalism?

The thing is, I don’t believe the industry needs the course correction the authors seem to imply is required to remain relevant in the 21st century. Kovach and Rosenstiel are obsessed with wondering when and from where the next Walter Cronkite will emerge. But I see new Cronkites all over the media landscape, including a few in this class and in Kent’s program.

This semester we’re studying the media’s relationship with the society it serves.  My experience in print spans — Lord help me — nearly three decades. I say honestly, it is harder to be a responsible journalist now than when I was covering zoning meetings in Greenwich, Conn. in the late-1980s.

Competition was limited, standards were enforced and the morning-after glow from a great Watergate victory lingered. If not wholly respected, print media was at least considered alongside mosquito repellant as one of those things essential to everyday survival.

As I read Kovach and Rosenstiel, I came away convinced that their primary observation was, that somehow it all went very wrong. I didn’t buy it then, and I ain’t buying it now.

Perhaps you all as full-time educators had a different reaction to the book than I did. Perhaps the Malbec I’m sipping has elevated my sensitivities. But I just can’t get past the notion that these guys seem rather smug in asserting journalism’s need for redefinition.

In 30 years, I’ve never once been in a news meeting where the subject of “will this sell papers” or “will that generate web traffic” has been mentioned. And were it, I assure you we editors would vote with our feet and walk out of the meeting.

Because it’s not some half-baked idea of what the public wants in its newspaper that led my colleagues and I to spend winter days measuring railroad platforms in New York City for code violations; or interviewing survivors of the Hudson River miracle. Nor did it lead us to investigate concussion protocols in high school athletics years before the Will Smith film saw the editing room.

We did it because we all have a bit of Cronkite in us, and no matter what aggrandizements Brian Williams might pull off or fabrications Jayson Blair might concoct, this remains an industry populated by people determined to do right by the readership.