One year ago, in our cover story "Why Journalism Sucks: Ten Reasons Why People Hate the Media" (Eastsideweek, 6/25/97), Watchdogs identified prevailing assumptions—or "media mantras"—that many journalists share:
1. We know the truth, and we're here to impart it to you.
2. Business, profits, and the free market are bad, even if we're a little fuzzy on how it all works.
3. We are not—not, not, not!--racist.
4. We are ethical, compassionate, and sensitive, and our motives are pure.
5. In getting the story, the ends justify the means because we represent the "public interest."
6. We ensure the "people's right to know" and slay giants to do it—even if the people don't understand or appreciate that.
7. We're smarter than you; we can become experts in any subject.
8. We are storytellers, the new literati.
9. We are members of an enlightened profession that transcends labels such as "liberal" or "politically correct," unlike our right-wing Neanderthal Nazi critics.
10. Everyone has an agenda and can't be trusted—except journalists.
Recent events in journalism have made our case, point by point.
CNN/Time: CNN and Time reported that US forces used sarin nerve gas to kill Vietnam War defectors, which proves mantras no. 1, 5, 6, 7, and 10. Although the network and magazine retracted the story, and CNN fired the two main producers, April Oliver and Jack Smith, those two remain unrepentant. Peter Arnett, CNN's on-air correspondent, got off with a reprimand after claiming that he read the script but wasn't responsible for the reporting. The story's premise was an ideologically driven version of the "truth" that producers longed to substantiate, regardless of facts. They quoted out of context, ignored contrary evidence, and violated journalistic standards, all for the "public interest" and "people's right to know." They feigned expertise and disparaged others' motives. As Eugene Patterson, former editor at the St. Petersburg Times and Washington Post, wrote in The Wall Street Journal (7/8): "Journalists used falsehoods to advance their politically correct positions."
Cincinnati Enquirer/Chiquita Brands: Reporter Michael Gallagher allegedly stole Chiquita employees' voice-mail messages and used them in stories criticizing the company's business practices, which proves mantras no. 2, 4, and 5. We wrote last year, "Journalists are often (and rightly) accused of a liberal bias, but even worse is their near-universal disdain for corporate America, which they see as rife with greedy executives, mercenary stockholders, and unconscionable profits." Gallagher was fired for his ends-justify-the-means tactics, and the Enquirer agreed to pay more than $10 million to Chiquita. But Gallagher still claims that his motives were pure, the story was accurate, and the newspaper caved to Chiquita's pressure— which also proves mantra no. 10.
The Boston Globe/The New Republic: Patricia Smith of the Globe and Stephen Glass of The New Republic helped prove mantra no. 8. They wanted so much to tell good stories that they just made them up. Smith, who won the 1998 Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, resigned after admitting that she fabricated quotes in four columns this year. Glass was fired after confessing he had invented all or part of 27 different articles. Our story last year described a "national writers workshop," attended by several hundred Pacific Northwest journalists, that stressed good writing more than accurate reporting. We wrote: "How they tell the story, the art of writing, the right turn of phrase, the lyrical grace of their prose—is for many journalists seemingly more important than any other component of their profession."
Seattle Times/ Houston: Michelle Malkin, Seattle Times editorial columnist, wins our "Honorary Watchdog" award for her column last week, "Big News from Houston Fell Through the Cracks" (7/7), which helps prove mantras no. 3 and 9. (Kudos to the Times for running it without, according to Malkin, changing a single word.) Malkin recalled the Times' repeated news stories last fall on a Houston referendum to uphold the city's affirmative-action programs. But when a Texas judge last month threw out results of the vote and ordered a new election, the Times and other papers statewide ignored the story. The decision—which said referendum sponsors used deliberately misleading language by asking if the city should "end the use of affirmative action for women and minorities"—should have been front-page news in the Times. It wasn't. Why not? Maybe it was just an oversight. However, the Times opposes Initiative 200 in this state, which would end preferential treatment based on race or gender in hiring, contracts, and admissions. Journalists are terrified of being called racist—a label they readily ascribe to I-200. As we wrote last year: "If [journalists] are afraid of anything, it's that someone will discover, lurking deep inside them, a vestige of racism, their own personal Fuzzy Zoeller waiting to pop out at a particularly dreadful time, like some victim of a Tourette's syndrome of insensitivity."
So journalists themselves have proved all 10 of our mantras. Again. As Patterson wrote: "Journalism is in a rough patch." That's an understatement.
Journalists desperately need to find new ways to restore their badly damaged credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.
(Copies of 'Why Journalism Sucks' are available for $5 to cover printing, postage, and handling from CounterPoint Center, PO Box 3672, Seattle, WA 98124.)
John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.