Between firings at CBS for "Rathergate" and the canceling of Armstrong Williams' syndicated column for taking government money to promote a Bush administration program, it's been a rough week for journalism.
Both instances were the results of ethical breaches that further erode public trust and credibility in an institution that's increasingly viewed as biased. In the CBS case, four employees, including three executives, were fired for their part in rushing an inaccurate and potentially slanderous story that questioned President George W. Bush's National Guard service.
An independent investigating panel released a report Monday concluding that the team working on the story had failed to meet basic journalistic standards and that they were compelled by "myopic zeal" but not political bias.
There isn't space here to hit all the points covered in the 224-page report, but the guts of the story are that CBS used allegedly forged documents in its report and failed to authenticate them despite warnings from its own experts that there might be problems.
Myopic zeal surely was a factor - it always is in the news business - but I'm unconvinced about the absence of political bias. The story, if it had been true, could have changed the course of the presidential election, and CBS ran it knowing that its material was flawed. In my book, that's political.
Williams, who committed the ultimate professional sin by accepting money ($240,000) to advance a government policy, provides a case study of blurring the line between journalism and something we don't even have a word for. Propaganda seems awfully strong, but I'm not sure what else to call it when the government pays a journalist to push its policies.
Politicians may try to push ethical limits - and this administration may have some legal problems for using taxpayer money to influence policies, as several congressmen are calling for an investigation. But journalists are supposed to know better, and therein lies part of the problem. Williams isn't a journalist, by which I mean he didn't rise through the training grounds by which reporters learn the care and nourishing of public trust.
As a syndicated columnist in the same family as Williams - Tribune Media Services (TMS), which dropped Williams' column last week - I have more than a casual interest in this story. Every journalist knows that you don't take money from people or agencies you intend to cover.
That's not just an ethical understanding in the abstract; it's usually written into a contract. In fact, Williams had such a contract with TMS, which formed the grounds for canceling his column.