The Fourth Estate: Media Ethics Disappear
Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the New York Times, wrote a lengthy open letter to readers expounding on a rule a past Washington bureau chief, Phillip Taubman, taught her: “Always err on the side of publishing.”
And that rule is paramount in a country that values democracy above all else. The founders included the press among the short list of our basic freedoms in the Bill of Rights because, as New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson put it, the founders’ thought press freedom was “a crucial bulwark” against centralized government power. Also known as the fourth estate, the fourth branch, and the government’s watchdog, it’s important to uphold ethical standards. But this job isn’t always easy.
The Supreme Court does its job of “checking” the legislative branch, which has overextended its power lately in order to “check” the executive branch. But all three branches go up in arms when the fourth branch tries to check that the other three are not deceiving their citizens. And that is even more reason to ensure that the media doesn’t censor itself for any reason, because doing so makes it impossible for democracy to properly function.
A few recent media scandals come to mind, namely Benghazi and the American FBI agent who went missing while working for the CIA. This is why Edward Snowden carefully selected Glenn Greenwald as his media contact: he did his research to ensure the documents didn’t sit on a desk in a newsroom while the media organization pandered to different agencies trying to avoid publication.
At the end of the day news organizations are largely in the business of making money. But should quality be compromised? How can the people regulate their government without an unbiased fourth branch to balance the other three?
Time Inc. Breaking Ethics
The problem is that news organizations are breaking these basic tenants left and right. The most basic example is illustrated by recent moves at Time Inc. Most magazines and newspapers operate with the editorial department residing in a separate space—often on a separate floor of a New York skyscraper—than the business and advertising departments so that there is no conflict of interest. The goal is to ensure that money doesn’t impact editorial content and integrity.
But Time Inc., which is working towards a spinoff from its parent company, Time Warner, recently decided the editorial side of the business will now report directly to the business executives. This erodes credibility, integrity, and trust of the readership in the product. So how is it a good idea, even if the company is suffering financially? Smart readers, which many readers of TIME, Fortune, and the company’s other brands are, will see through the ruse and switch to other options like Businessweek or The New Yorker (once upon it would have been Newsweek, but RIP).
Delaying the News
Or consider the FBI agent story. In March 2007 Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran. Levinson, a former FBI agent who was an expert on Russian organized crime, was on a trip as a contractor for the CIA to meet an American fugitive on an island off the Iranian coast to discuss Iranian governmental corruption.
For years the government claimed publicly that he was a private citizen on a business trip, but as soon as his disappearance came to light so did his true mission. Three CIA officials lost their jobs for using Levinson in an unauthorized spying operation in a part of the agency that isn’t supposed to work covertly. It’s believed that he’s being held by a group tied to religious leaders in the country because he’s viewed as a spy. In late 2010 his family was sent a proof of life video that showed Levinson as a prisoner begging for his life. That’s the last information on his whereabouts.
The Associated Press was the first to publish the story. The report says the organization first confirmed the story in 2010, but delayed publishing three times at the government’s request because there were supposedly “promising leads” to bring Levinson home. The AP story goes on to say that the government hasn’t received a sign of life since early 2011, causing the organization to decide that publishing wouldn’t derail efforts to rescue the operative because his captors “almost certainly” know he was working for the CIA.
A public letter from The Times’ Sullivan said that publication had “known about the situation since 2007.” The paper’s executive editor, Jill Abramson, said the decision to not publish was “in deference to Mr. Levinson’s family,” not because of government claims of a risk to national security. This is fair, especially since the article’s author agreed with the decision to withhold publishing because his article wouldn’t have come to be if it weren’t for the trust he had built up with Levinson’s family. The issue is how long it took for any publication to change course.
The scary part to consider is whether or not The Times would have made the same decision as the AP, at some point, that enough time had passed to warrant publishing.
Media Working For the White House?
Also look at the Benghazi situation. CBS News appeared to assist the administration in promoting the lie that they thought the attack on the consulate was due to an anti-Islam YouTube video. On September 12, 2012, the day after the attack in which four Americans died, 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft did an interview with President Barack Obama in which he “suggests clearly that the attack on the US consulate was premeditated” and not a response to the video, according to Breitbart. The clip was omitted from the showing of the interview on September 23, and wasn’t released until the end of October, two weeks before the presidential election.
What was so damning? Kroft asked the president why the attackers “were heavily armed with grenades” if it was just a normal demonstration, and the president responded that it was his “suspicion” that “there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start.” Was the airing of the clip delayed for appearances for the upcoming election? Was it CBS’ choice not to air it, or did the White House pressure them to hold the clip?
A recent Senate Intelligence Committee report debunked many myths surrounding the tragedy, including that the talking points in the days after the attack blaming the demonstrations and video for the attacks were made knowing the true cause of the attack. The report says that the intelligence analysts didn’t have enough information or eyewitness statements to make an informed call on the causes, though it did blame the community for taking too long to correct the error to the public. So it’s hard to parse Obama’s statement to CBS, or why the clip went unaired for so long.
Criticizing the Media
The result of the breakdown in ethics among news organizations is that American citizens must continue to reflect on and criticize the media when a screw up occurs. It’s important to hold organizations accountable not only for telling the truth, but also for telling it in a timely manner.
The Levinson report is just one example—and an ethically muddled one at that—of journalist AJ Liebling’s quote that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own it.” We have a biased media. And that’s okay. It’s great that different outlets analyze the news in different ways so that all sides are presented. But pandering to corporate interests and government control is not the way to go about publishing the news, and that’s the change that needs to be made. (Samantha Schoenfeld – VNN) (Image: Flickr | tenioman)