A housecleaning in the mainstream media

Posted: Jan 12, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

I've worked at five newspapers through the years and can remember when the rules were less well-defined than now. But I can't remember a time in recent years when I wasn't required to sign an ethics policy that clearly outlines what one can or can't do. Most of it is common sense. You're always Caesar's wife.

To Williams' credit, he didn't whine, but admitted his "bad judgment" and apologized after USA Today broke the story about his cozy relationship with the Department of Education. Education officials, and not the White House, orchestrated the arrangement with a public relations company.

The deal was that Williams would devote some airtime to promoting the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" education-reform program on his syndicated television show and interview Education Department officials from time to time. The rub came when Williams also promoted the program in his syndicated column, which, given its play in the journalism arena, is perceived as an independent voice.

What happened with Williams affects all of us in the business, as we share the same precious real estate and public trust. To readers seeing columnists clustered together on a page, we appear to be members of the same club. Increasingly, however, commentators are products of think tanks or politics - or renegade blond prosecutors - which can be problematic, but not always bad.

Many of these people, including Williams, can bring unique insights and experiences to the debate. The same is true of the new media genre known as blogs, in which citizen journalists who post news links and commentary on the Web, often shadowing the mainstream media, challenging and fact-checking, as well as influencing outcomes in politics and government.

They are a formidable and welcome force, but as non-journalists in the institutional sense, they're accountable to no one. Therein shines the little light we can find among these dark tales of the fallen.

For all their flaws, mainstream (institutional) journalists are accountable where others are not. When they mess up, consequences are real and ruthless, as Williams and the CBS folks can attest. That much consumers can rely upon.