The Times Deception: There Ought To Be a Law!
I'm still waiting for the editorials. You know, every time a scandal hits some industry, virtually every newspaper in the country thumps its chest demanding that state and federal regulators, the attorney general, legislators and trial lawyers do something to assure that Corporate Evil Doers can't do their evil deeds again.
Yet when it comes to Jayson Blair, the corrupt New York Times reporter who engaged in a pattern of journalistic lies and deceptions, the editorial boards are silent. Sure, there's that normal, hilarious-to-read hand-wringing that journalists do every so often. But no calls for government commissions and official investigators and new regulations.
I wonder why.
Usually, with any other industry — whether it is electricity generators, accounting firms, or banks — my compatriots at other editorial boards are in high dither. These corporations cannot be expected to get their own house in order. That's like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Said industry is so thoroughly corrupt — just look at the outrageous salaries of the CEOs! — that it will do anything to protect its market share. Only the government can sort out the mess.
I've got some ideas. How about a law, written with the support of the trial bar, that makes it easier to sue newspapers for damages when irresponsible journalism takes place? Readers and advertisers surely have been bilked out of millions of dollars because of the deceptions. Those sound like damages to me.
How about a code of conduct, written by Congress or perhaps federal regulators, establishing how journalists ought to conduct themselves? Breaking the code, which preferably will be long and difficult to understand, will land journalists, their editors and newspaper CEOs in jail for long periods. TV stations can show footage of cops hauling them off in handcuffs, in order to send a message to others.
How about surprise inspections by government journalistic officials to make sure journalists aren't endangering their readers?
I've got to say this, lest my editor come across this article. I am kidding. I am making a simple point. What if the solutions journalists propose for other industries would be imposed on them each time a scandal erupts in the industry? There would be no free press. Just as there is no longer much economic freedom in this country.
Some people in the newspaper business cannot understand the obsessive focus (it's not obsessive when one is talking about Enron) on the Blair scandal. One reporter does not reflect the profession. Even though Times management overlooked, say, 60 or so corrected errors and a host of other warning signs, it still doesn't mean that the situation is reflective of the industry as a whole.
Have you ever heard that excuse applied to any other industry? Probably not, except perhaps by sportswriters making excuses for the latest football player to beat up his girlfriend.
The long excuse-making by the New York Times, in its mea culpa, is entertaining in its unwillingness to confront the real issues. Bill Anderson did a fabulous job on LewRockwell recently explaining the role of affirmative action in this scandal. We've all seen it — bad writers promoted above their abilities because of their skin color or ethnicity, along with the unfair tarnishing of excellent minority reporters who must live with the assumption that they got where they are because of special privileges.
But most journalistic hand-wringers refuse to admit the affirmative action angle. It's just the story of one deceptive man with deep personal problems, they say. That response is indicative of the real problem with the journalistic profession. As one critic explained, the New York Times will carefully correct every tiny error, yet refuse to deal with stories based on major misconceptions.
Spell the name of Nigeria's foreign minister incorrectly and expect it to get corrected. Write a front-page story with a wrong and thoroughly biased premise, and that will get a pass.
The funniest article on the entire Blair scandal was in the Los Angeles Times. A front-page article interviewed people who were victimized by Blair's lies, such as the story about a wounded Marine and his girlfriend. He didn't have a girlfriend. Few people complained. "[T]he embellishments — and even the outright fiction — they saw in Blair's work seemed hardly worth squawking about. It was more or less what they had anticipated."
This is the real scandal for journalists — the lack of trust the public has placed in us.
Mistakes aren't the real problem. We all make them. Excuse a little excuse-making, but writing in-depth stories on complex subjects on crushing deadlines is not an exact science. I remember one caller complaining about my bias because I didn't cover an event I didn't even know was happening. "Why didn't you call me before the event?" I asked her. These kinds of criticisms occur all the time, and the silliness of some of them makes us unwilling to consider the legitimate ones.
The real problem is a fundamental unwillingness in journalism to deal seriously with the issues of bias, political correctness and a host of other institutional problems. These problems are not lost on readers, who then become overly sensitive and see the bogeyman even in the fairest, most skillful pieces of writing.
For instance, many news reports in California no longer use the word "illegal" before the word "immigrants" even when they are writing about foreigners who are not in this country legally. That makes it difficult to understand, say, what the fuss is all about over a new bill giving driver's licenses to "immigrants." Why shouldn't immigrants drive? My dad, who moved here from Germany, was allowed to drive. Of course, the key issue is that the bill wants to give California driver's licenses to people who aren't allowed to even live here.
Readers see the deception, and we lose credibility.
On a bigger level, the diversity issue is paramount. Everything in the journalism world today revolves around diversity. Check out the different journalism web sites and one will see something approaching an obsession. By diversity, journalists don't mean hiring people with a diversity of views. There are no affirmative action programs to hire, say, devout Christians or believers in free markets. What they want are newsrooms filled with people who think the same but look different.
One major newspaper chain reportedly insists that its reporters quote a minority person in every article, even if the article is about topics that have nothing to do with race or ethnicity. The likely result, especially in small towns, is the handful of minorities are constantly quoted on topics they know little about.
Then there are the many big stories never covered, all the stories with premises that lead to bigger government. It's so typical we don't even notice. There are those bean-counting stories in which any disparity among groups is trumpeted as discrimination, such as "Blacks underrepresented as neurosurgeons; Discrimination alleged." Check out the Onion for the best parodies of this stuff. There are the glowing puff pieces on environmentalists, but have you ever seen one on a property rights group?
How about those associations of minority journalists, such as the ones representing gays and lesbians, Latinos, blacks? Check out the seminars given by these groups. Are they promoting fair journalism or group-based activist reporting? You know the answer.
Yet you won't see much concern about these realities in the nation's journalism schools. Heck, they won't even admit that a liberal bias exists.
A lot of conservatives, however, are mistaken. Editors don't conspire to influence the news to the left. Most reporters and writers are hard-working, honorable people who strive to be fair. The problem is groupthink. Put a bunch of people together who share the same left/liberal assumptions and you'll get what we have today.
There are a lot of reasons for the problem, but a lack of competition certainly plays a role. As an editorial writer rather than reporter, I much prefer the British style of journalism, in which different papers reflect different views. Instead of hiding behind some hypocritical facade of objectivity, writers forcefully cover the news in their own biased way. Readers buy the papers expressing the views they prefer to read.
Don't expect any such debate at the newspaper conventions. Nor any editorials calling on the government to impose a "solution" on the nation's media companies.
May 23, 2003
Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif.
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