Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Times flunks Journalism Ethics 101

For all their equivocating, the reporters, supervisors and public editor of The New York Times know better. Or at least they should.

Certain guidelines are standard in journalism ethics codes.
1. Plagiarism, the lifting of someone else's words without crediting them, is a cardinal journalistic sin, one that The Times own ethics' code suggests can result in dismissal.
2. Reporters should never take gifts from or be paid by those they cover. (The implication, if they do, is that the news and opinion can be bought. For readers, the appearance of conflict is self-evident whether or not the journalist has actually been influenced.)
3, It's a clear conflict of interest for reporters to cover an issue in which they are deeply enmeshed.

So what happened in the last couple of weeks? A prominent Times reporter and two star columnists violated all three. That's breathtaking at a newspaper that positions itself as the standard bearer of journalistic integrity, as the brand that cradles credibility instead of celebrity, the broadsheet that stands for T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N and standards in the face of a blogosphere it views as filled with poseurs and shoot-from-the-hip opinion mongers.

And how did The Times handle these three blatant infractions of journalistic ethics? Again, it equivocated.

Let's take them one at a time. The plagiarism reportedly led to a correction and the late addition of web attribution in a column Maureen Dowd wrote about Dick Cheney and torture. She told Times public editor Clark Hoyt that she lifted a paragraph nearly verbatim from the blog of Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo repute because -- get this -- she was in Hoyt's words "talking with a friend who suggested the wording without telling her where it came from."

Pardon me. But as they said in the Long Island neighborhood in which I grew up, "Get real." First it turns out the "conversation" with Dowd's friend was an email message. Secondly, since when do columnists turn to friends not merely for inspiration but for the actual wording of their columns? Does Dowd write columns by committee? I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that this is horse manure.

How Dowd picked up Marshall's wording is unclear. The fact that she did is unequivocal. If The Times really gives a hoot about the dozens of pages of ethics codes it prints, Dowd at minimum should be required to give a credible explanation, should publicly apologize to Marshall and her readers, should be suspended from the column without pay for a significant period of time and should be directly questioned about whether this ever happened before.

Case No. 2 centers on a $75,000 speaker's fee that Times columnist Thomas Friedman accepted, according to Hoyt, from a "regional government agency" in Oakland, Calif. Now one might wonder how and why, in the midst of a recession that has nearly bankrupted the state of California, any government agency in that state has an extra 75K to hand out for a speech. Friedman told Hoyt that his agent had presented him with an opportunity to talk at a "climate protection summit," a subject about which Friedman has developed much passion in his columns over the last year or so.

Friedman, at least, returned the speaking fee -- considerably more than the average annual U.S. individual income -- without dispute. But then, he can afford to. Hoyt reports that Friedman gives "15 or more" paid lectures a year and that he charges $75,000 as his standard fee. If you quickly do the math, that means Thomas Friedman makes more than $1 million a year in speaker's fees.

One has to wonder: Does that influence the choice of topics he covers? Should journalists be making that kind of money to make public speeches? Hoyt reports that The Times has a policy that requires staff members earning more than $5,000 a year in such fees to file an itemized annual accounting of their appearances. (He does not explain why, but one might surmise it is to guard against influence and potential conflict of interest). But Hoyt further notes that "almost no one has been doing so." This policy, it turns out, is not enforced.

Case No. 3 is perhaps the most complex. It has to do with economics writer Edmund Andrews.
It turns out that Andrews, who offers Times readers expert information and analysis about the pressing economic issues of our time, was himself so careless about his finances that he risks losing his home. He wrote a book (after informing his editors, according to Hoyt) that tells the story of how he took out sub-prime mortgages that he had no hope of repaying. Hoyt reports that Andrews is still seven months behind in his mortgage payments. He also says Andrews best bet for getting out of economic quicksand is to make lots of money on that book.

The Times helped a bit last week by running a excerpt in its Sunday Magazine. But that's not the big problem here. The problem is that Times editors have continued to allow Andrews to cover stories that deal with America's sub-prime mortgage mess. That is simply inexcusable. Why? Because clearly Edmund Andrews has an enormous vested interest in the outcome of any governmental action on sub-prime mortages. As a result, every word he writes about the subject has to be suspect to readers -- or would be if in fact they were told of his conflict.

Power, it is said, corrupts. It does so by breeding arrogance -- the kind that allows The New York Times to allow a man who can't pay his own mortgage to continue reporting on government action on the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the kind that allows one high-profile columnist to take a sizable speaking fee from a public agency and another to at the very least carelessly use someone else's words off an email from an unidentified friend.

It is this same arrogance that ultimately undermines the powerful, that makes them blind to how they are perceived by others. As the elite news media in this country wring their hands about declining readership and their eroding advertising base, perhaps it is time for them to look at themselves as one of the prime causes of the crisis in which they find themselves.

Elite journalism has become the domain of upper-middle to upper-class reporters and editors. They are educated at America's elite institutions and they expend more ink on hedge funds, derivatives and health spas than on the erosion of health care, the exploitation of immigrant labor, and the struggles of the average working man and woman.

Perhaps when journalists rub elbows too often with the rich and powerful, they see no real problem adapting their values, their sense of entitlement or their ethics. And perhaps the American public has turned away from traditional media because they figure the people writing for those publications as well as those running them no longer cares about average people's problems, no longer do more than give lip service to "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted."

This is the overriding context of The Times ethics trifecta this month. If America's most powerful and influential paper can shrug off such shabby ethics with half-cocked explanations and a public editor's carefully parsed criticism, then our great newspapers -- and the role in democracy that they represent -- are in much deeper trouble than their sinking balance sheets suggest.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On moral issues of war, seeking consensus falls short

Although Barack Obama is barely four months into his freshman year as president, he's already proven to be a political leader of eloquence, reason and considerable adeptness.

America is still mired in a deep recession yet the near panic that seemed to mark its inception has receded. There are signs in some of the hardest-hit markets that housing prices have turned or at least hit bottom. And we've weathered to first round of swine flu without succumbing to the media hysteria that marked its onset.

"No drama, Obama" has set a tone of reasonable discourse, whether the topic be health care or abortion, which he took on at a graduation speech this week at the University of Notre Dame, calling for common ground in efforts to tackle abortion's root causes.

Yet there are signs that the calm and largely transparent course that the Obama Administration has set could be heading toward a squall on an issue that has shipwrecked more than one American presidency. Ironically, it's the very issue that first thrust him to prominence: War.
And his fiercest opposition could come from his strongest, earliest supporters: the Left.

One by one, the president has slowly backed away from positions he articulated during his campaign and even at the outset of his presidency. He extended his deadline for extricating American troops from Iraq. He reversed his position on ending military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees. And now he's backed away from a promise to release damning pictures of American abuse of prisoners.

Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward. Yet the Iraq War and the escalating conflict in Aghanistan continue to pull him backwards. He says he does not want to be mired in recrimination and investigation of the Bush years. Yet by failing to investigate and reveal American violation of international law and fundamental norms of moral behavior, he is assuring that these transgressions continue to drip out, leaving him buffeted by attacks and counterattacks between left and right.

Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and Georgia Democrat, said at Emerson's graduation dinner last night that Congress is growing restless over the open-ended cost of the Iraq war. It surpassed $1 trillion this month and it's drives America further into unsustainable debt as services to America's poor, its unemployed and its vulnerable stagger under the growing weight of recession.

This contradiction in expenditures cannot be sustained for four more years -- perhaps not even for one. I believe it has has become untenable to send desparately needed tax dollars overseas to fund a war effort that will never succeed and can at best allow us to save face by withdrawing gracefully.

If Obama seems to be waffling on his commitment to end the Iraq War, he also walking a wobbly line on his promise to bring "change you can believe in" to government in its War on Terror.

After eight years of watching the principles on which the United States of America was founded erode in the post 9/11 era, liberal Democrats quite rightly see no compromise on issues of Civil Liberties and torture.

The Obama presidency began by offering transparency on the issue of torture but rebuffed calls for accountability of those responsible. Now, it is showing signs of retreating on its promise of transparency, too.

Like most Americans, I genuinely like our president. He seems a fundamentally decent and highly intelligent man. But my support, like many others, won't sustain itself through another administration of war without end and without principles. It won't stand for another administration that equivocates on torture or once again twists5 the principles of democracy in the name of democracy. Certain issues cannot be resolved through compromise. This is one.

Perhaps we can learn from the truth commissions established in South Africa after apartheid.
They did not seek retribution, just honest disclosure. America needs at least as much.
It is time for President Obama to appoint a special commission to look at where and how the Bush Administration violated laws that are the basis of our Constitution. If such a commission were set up not to build evidence for prosecution but to provide the world and the American people with both a basis for apology and commitment to change, it could do much more to move this country forward than simply allowing the wounds of the past to ooze.

South Africa emerged stronger from its self-exploration.The United State would do the same.

Poison can't be allowed to fester in the corpse of our politics. Showing our ugly self-inflicted wounds in the War on Terror will cause pain. No country likes to admit that it broke the law. But airing the truth in the clear air of open disclosure is also the only way for the United States government and we, the people, to heal.