Don't Trust Newspapers

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Polls indicate that trust in media declined from 54% in 1989 to 36% in 2003. Part of the reason, of course, are the New York Times’ Jayson Blair—type scandals — too many phony or plagiarized stories. But the unwillingness of editors to allow certain opinions to be expressed combined with a liberal bias has also harmed the credibility of newspapers. So, like many of you, my opinion of newspaper editors and journalists has severely declined over the past few years. In fact, when journalists are mentioned, I often recall the rejoinder made by football great Joe Namath.

The occasion was Namath’s first meeting with New York sportswriters after he signed a lucrative contract with the fledgling AFL team, the New York Jets. Although Joe was not a Southerner, he hailed from a small town in Pennsylvania, the New York sports writers couldn’t pass up an opportunity to intimate that academic standards were lowered for athletes at Southern colleges, especially Namath’s alma mater, the University of Alabama. A sports writer asked: "Joe, is it true that you majored in basket-weaving at Alabama?" To which Namath responded: "No. Basket-weaving was too difficult for me. I had to major in journalism."

Up until the last few decades, our opinion of the press was influenced by a mental picture of the newspaper business that we acquired from old movies. We envisioned a crusty city editor wearing a green eyeshade and chomping on a cigar butt. This blunt spoken editor and his intrepid cub reporter were not afraid to take on city hall if need be. In fact, no person, group or organization was exempt from their razor-sharp reporting. They pulled no punches and reported it straight whether above the fold on page one or in an editorial on the editorial page.

In the real world, newspapers are not as heroic as those depicted in films. Advertising revenue is the number one concern of newspaper editors and editorial integrity is often subordinated to placate advertisers. An article critical of one of the newspaper’s larger advertisers would never be printed. Also, opinions that might offend groups of readers are usually either not allowed or neutered because of the potential adverse effect on subscriptions, the criterion used by advertisers to determine where to place their ads.

However, editors in past decades were certainly not as faint-hearted as today’s editors. Today’s editors are so fearful of offending someone that they have even developed a list of words and phrases that may not be used. In our multicultural society, political correctness has become the lingua franca of newspapers. And this skittishness has also polluted schools of journalism. This reluctance to candidly address "sensitive" but crucial issues can have unintended consequences. An illustration is how an abdication of responsibilities by South Carolina newspapers is encouraging unwarranted expectations, as well as inappropriate conduct, of some state legislators.

Several of the state’s black legislators are seeking rule changes to correct what they consider to be a disproportionately small number of black judges. They argue that only 6% of judges are black whereas the state’s black population is almost 30%. For them, this statistic proves that there is bias in the selection of state judges. Amazingly, this mindset of "entitlement by reason of quota" is also being accepted by some state newspapers.

Based on the above statistic, one black legislator stated: "South Carolina has failed to be fair and equitable in allowing African Americans on the bench." Another, feeling that a change would be difficult to obtain at the state level, declared that the only way to raise the number of black judges is through a federal court order and, consequently, a lawsuit strategy is being devised.

Although blacks are 30% of the state’s population, black lawyers make up only about 6% of South Carolina lawyers. Therefore, the percentage of black judges is equal to the pool of the state’s black attorneys. However, this inconvenient statistic is dismissed as immaterial by these legislators.

Because of the "entitlement by reason of quota" mindset and the disinclination of South Carolina newspapers to resolutely address the issue, some black legislators have gone beyond the pale. One even felt justified in resorting to violent behavior. Rep. Jerry Govan, physically accosted a white legislator, Rep. Jim Harrison, who opposed changing the method for selecting judges. Before the two were separated, Govan had grabbed Harrison’s necktie and was roughly jerking him in different directions. In the scuffle Harrison’s shirt was ripped and another legislator was punched as he tried to pull Govan away from Harrison.

Normally, an incident of this magnitude would have resulted in an editorial rebuke of Govan’s behavior by one of South Carolina’s newspapers. But none of the state’s major newspapers addressed the incident editorially. In fact, The State, a newspaper located in Columbia, the capital city, seemed to imply that black legislators, Democrats, are justified in their frustration. This is the diffident statement made by one on The State’s journalists: "Mr. Govan was wrong to attack Mr. Harrison. Republicans would be wise to consider how their practice of shutting Democrats out of decision-making causes frustration to build and undermines the House’s legitimacy. But Mr. Govan was still wrong."

Can you imagine The State minimizing such an incident if it had occurred between two white legislators? And, what if a white legislator had attacked a black legislator in such a belligerent manner? I think we can safely assume that, in such a case, The State would have issued a blistering editorial calling for the legislator’s arrest for assault, censure or possible removal from office. But, in matters of race, The State, like many newspapers, uses a double standard.

However, South Carolina House Speaker, David Wilkins, stood firm unlike the jellyfish editors of The State. He removed Rep. Govan from the influential Judiciary Committee and placed him on a less important panel. Wilkins said: "The actions that took place last Thursday were totally inappropriate and cannot be tolerated." This statement, which is quite temperate under the circumstances, is stronger that any condemnation made by any newspaper.

Nor have any state newspapers addressed the long-range consequences that may result if the black legislators succeed in getting Washington to dictate how South Carolina’s judges are selected. If this happens, we can expect that the formula used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will come into play. The EEOC maintains that if the employee mix of a company deviates from the demographic mix of the local population, de facto discrimination is indicated; i.e., "entitlement by reason of quota."

However, if the federal government mandates that a fixed percentage of judgeships be set aside for blacks, what about other groups in the state? Should a fixed percentage of judgeships be set aside for females? They represent 51% of the state’s population. What about Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, and, — I almost forgot — , white males? Surely judgeships should be set aside for these groups, unless other more deserving groups are identified; i.e., groups with more political clout.

Newspaper editors must surely be aware of the harmful precedent that will be established if population quotas become a major criteria for determining judgeships. But why aren’t they speaking out? Even worse is their refusal to editorially criticize the brutish behavior of Rep. Jerry Govan. When the nation’s newspapers no longer have the gumption to condemn physical attacks by legislators, they reduce themselves to being little more than a reliable roster of births, deaths, marriages and other social events.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.

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