September 14, 2004

Journalism, standards, power, and the CBS / 60 minutes documents scandal

Ernest Miller writes

The credibility and integrity of anyone directly involved in this CBS story is lost, I believe. They have been complicit in the stonewall as well as tarring the integrity of those who pointed out discrepancies in their reporting. ...
Furthermore, the credibility and integrity of every other journalist at CBS News is in question. ...
Moreover, the entire journalistic profession is threatened by the actions of a rogue CBS. ...
I am serious when I say that this has become a crisis for journalism.

Sadly, I think "the crisis in journalism" is an evergreen topic, right up there with "the trouble with kids today" and "the negativity of political campaigning". The forged memos events are a "scandal". Not a "crisis".

What we have here is akin to the story of the mugger whose target turns out to be a heavyweight boxer, or a police beating caught on national TV. It's extremely embarrassing for the particular individuals involved, possibly even career-ending for them. But the systematic problem (crime, corruption) doesn't change.

Journalism, as a profession, is a very arrogant and abusive institution (no offense to any of my journalist-friends reading this - the fact that you're my friend means you're an exception to the rule :-)). Organizationally, when covering stories, there's a very small number of covered people who are generally granted the minimum of fairness - these are, e.g. people in political power. They aren't granted this respect out of the kindness of the journalist's heart. But rather, because those people have the power to fight back. Anyone else outside the magic circle is fair game for just about any abuse, character-assassination, lies, "being used", and so on.

It's like being a "made member" of the Mafia. That wiseguy status doesn't mean you can't be killed. It just means there's some due process, some consultation, before the decision can be undertaken within the organization to kill you.

Part of the "standards" argument between journalists and non-journalists, is actually about who belongs in this magic circle of respect. Journalists are passionately concerned about this topic, since their professional lives depend on it. Who is prey, and who is a pack-member? It's similar to the Mafia rules about who you can steal from. In this case, a don tried to ripoff a godfather. Bad move. Very bad move. Someone is going to hurt for it. But after the dust settles, nothing will change.

Remember, if you're not at least connected, and a journalist does a hit-job on you, then what you hear (if you are so lucky to even get a reply) is generally just:

1) "We stand by our story"

2) A variant of: we're the journalists and you're not (and you're not objective)

Sound familiar? Now, the understandable anger generated at this cavalier treatment typically leads to all sort of blather about emergent revolutions, power to the working class, routing around Big Media, etc. But we just get a new boss in place of the old boss.

And it doesn't change because the structure of the situation doesn't change, the exponential distribution of power. There are those who have a great deal of power, and those who have much less power, and generally nobody cares when the powerful abuse the powerless.

Ernest, look at an example within our "community", recall how few consequences there have been for Slashdot "journalist" Michael Sims' domain hijacking of the original Censorware Project website. Attorney-member Jonathan Wallace wrote (emphasis added)

I was naively astonished by [the reactions of moral equivalence]. If the ACLU's webmaster had trashed the organization's site, I think everyone would pretty well recognize he was a Bad Character and Not To Be Trusted. As much more minor players, despite the significant contributions we had made in revealing what censorware actually blocked, no-one could be bothered to take a stand for us. There was nothing to be gained.

And Bennett Haselton (Peacefire) said (not me)

The fact that Slashdot hired Michael should be deeply embarrassing to them, ... But Slashdot is apparently too deeply wedded that decision to reconsider, and comments from [Michael Sims' direct supervisor] have been more of the same along the lines of "They should work out their differences" ...

Now, note the journalistic aspect here. All along, I've maintained various actions can be explained from pure power. The most public trivializing, sneering, dismissive remark came exactly from the person within Slashdot who had the most professional journalism experience, and was hired specifically for that sort of background. And rationally, it made complete sense in terms of his job. Whatever he thought in private, whatever was morally right or wrong, in public he made a calculation as to whether the outsiders had any power, merited any respect. And if not, protect the insider (see above, no support as "There was nothing to be gained").

And it didn't matter at all.

So, CBS will fire someone, find a scapegoat (I suspect the internal argument there right now is whether it's going to be Dan Rather himself, or the story's producer, or whether they can get away with just a flunky). The basic line will then be that the scandal is "old news", changes have been made, all is right in the world again. They will say "We've moved on, and so should you". And nothing will change. Since they reach the same large number of people they did beforehand, who have the same small concern for accuracy they did beforehand.

"Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for the rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge." - Erwin Knoll

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo | on September 14, 2004 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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