That high-minded principle is enshrined by the Society of Professional Journalists, which is dedicated to "stimulating high standards of ethical behavior." Yet, this hallowed organization refused to live up to its own ideals until it was sued. SPJ and two other high and mighty media institutions were forced this week to admit fabricating facts; acknowledge harming the reputation of an individual and his family; and apologize for causing him public embarrassment.
It's a textbook case of media do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do-ism.
Mike Snyder, a veteran TV news anchor in Fort Worth, Texas, took on the Indiana-based SPJ, Florida-based Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and New York-based Viacom, Inc., when they published reckless falsehoods about his appearance at a Republican women's picnic. In a settlement of his defamation suit announced Monday, the defendants admitted they printed "facts that do not exist," statements that were "not correct" and "untrue," and references to interviews with Snyder when "no such interviews exist."
The organizations will pay nearly $18,000 for Snyder's legal costs. But as Snyder told me this week, "it was never about the money. It was about principles. This was about challenging a profession which pretends it can police itself, but was incapable of doing so" without being ordered to in court.
As I reported in April, Snyder began receiving phone calls last year from student journalists who had read about him in a textbook titled "Doing Ethics in Journalism." The handbook, a joint project of SPJ and Poynter, was billed as a "one-of-a-kind resource" that "no serious journalist should be without." In case study No. 12 of the handbook, media ethicists Jay Black, Bob Steele, and Ralph Barney singled out Snyder and two other news anchors who contributed money to Republicans.
The authors claimed that Snyder "acted as master of ceremonies during rallies for" then-gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush in 1994 "at several campaign stops." Snyder "often introduced Bush as 'the next governor of Texas,'" the book said. "In interviews," the authors wrote, "Snyder said since he's an anchor who doesn't actively report on campaign issues, he should be allowed to do as he pleases during his time off. Snyder also said the Bush campaign never paid him for his work. He was a volunteer."
Snyder had attended a single Republican women's picnic at which Bush made an appearance. Unlike his critics, he admitted immediately it was a mistake to introduce House Majority Leader Dick Armey at the event, apologized at once for creating the appearance of a conflict of interest, and accepted punishment (two weeks' suspension without pay) gracefully. He did not act as emcee at any rally or campaign stop, as the case study claimed; he never introduced Bush; never volunteered for the Bush campaign; and never told anyone he "should be allowed to do as he pleases during his time off."
According to settlement documents, the "paraphrased quotes were never spoken by Mr. Snyder," but were instead "mistakenly" cobbled together by SPJ researcher Rebecca Tallent from a newspaper reader poll about Snyder's suspension. Neither she nor Black, Steele, or Barney had ever interviewed Snyder. Mistake? Printing fake quotes from non-existent interviews isn't a boo-boo. It's a cardinal sin. No serious journalist would still have a job if he allowed such conduct under his watch.
Yet, ethics professors Black, Steele, and Barney remain highly respected and widely quoted by their colleagues on everything from TV violence to plagiarism. Tallent, who provided the bogus "research," remains an active member of the SPJ Ethics Committee and wrote an authoritative piece on media ethics in 1997 for The Quill, a leading journalism trade magazine. The headline: "Without trust, credibility, news media has nothing."
Steele told the St. Petersburg Times that he and his co-authors have held themselves "publicly accountable." Stonewalling, dissembling, passing the buck, forcing a wronged man to go to court. That's hardly a model of accountability. It's the height of ivory-tower hubris.