Apr 262004
 
Authors: Brent Ables

Like just about every other literate American, I receive the

vast majority of my knowledge about the world through reading the

newspapers or occasionally watching CSPAN or MSNBC; like every

other American, everything I think I know about President Bush and

Martha Stewart was conveyed to me at one time or another through

one of these media. The entirety of public discourse is built

around information, and we primarily receive information from these

newspapers and television shows that we collectively call “the

news.”

All of this information, in all its variety, can in the end be

traced back to individuals who act as the gatekeepers for what we

know and what we do not. We know and love these individuals as

journalists. So long as we consider ourselves informed and

knowledgeable citizens, we are all dependent on these relatively

few people.

Why is it, then, that most of us think so little about who these

people are and whether they are trustworthy? The most obvious

answer is that it doesn’t matter who these people are as long as

they get the facts rights; when I read a report from Israel, I’m

more interested in what Ariel Sharon had to say than the opinions

of the reporter covering his speech. Our trust, so we assume, is

justified by the system of checks and editorial oversight that

assures the truthfulness of what goes in print or on the air.

So what are we supposed to think when we hear about esteemed

reporters being caught in the act of creating or “embellishing”

reports that are presented as news? This question, I’m sure, has

been around since the first printing press, but after three major

scandals at three respected publications in the last six years, I’m

starting to wonder whether our blind faith in the integrity of

journalists is something we can afford to maintain.

To get an idea of how this sort of thing happens, it would be

helpful to review these three situations briefly:

In 1998, a young and talented reporter named Stephen Glass

worked as an associate editor at the prestigious The New Republic

magazine – “The In-flight Magazine of Air Force One.” Glass was a

popular and charming individual, and was in fact so charming that

he was able to get over 30 articles published that were partially

or entirely made up (incidentally, a great movie about Glass’s

downfall called “Shattered Glass” just hit the movie stores). Glass

was fired upon being discovered and later wrote a novel about the

experience.

In 2003, the New York Times admitted that a field reporter named

Jayson Blair had made up sources, situations and facts in numerous

articles, and Blair was also fired. In response to massive (and

justified, I think) criticism against the paper, the top editors at

the Times resigned. Just last week, this situation was mirrored

when the top editor at the nation’s most widely read newspaper –

USA Today – resigned after foreign correspondent Jack Kelly was

fired for fabrications, etc.

It is important to notice that all three of these publications

are respected and widely read, and thus we can not answer the

question of how it is legitimate to rely upon journalistic

integrity by saying that the problem is limited to less important

texts. After all, if the editors of the New York Times cannot be

trusted to detect fabrications then who can?

This is not to say that the editors were to blame in these

cases; certainly, the pressures of publishing a daily (or weekly)

newspaper with interesting, relevant and factual content is a

challenging enough task as it is. Even fact-checkers must, when

they cannot independently verify something in a reporter’s piece,

place their faith in the reporter’s word and notes (which can also

be fabricated). So once again, the responsibility falls back on a

few individuals. To solve the problem of their trustworthiness, it

would seem, the first step would be to discover why these

journalists felt the need to fabricate facts and stories at

all.

I think the best answer to this problem lies in the fact that

journalists are businessmen (and women), and reporting is a

business much like any other, where there are incentives for

interesting pieces and facts and penalties for not coming up with

material. Glass, for instance, stated in an interview after his

discovery that he was addicted to the attention and praise he would

receive for his pieces, and thus felt he would let everyone down to

write anything less. Blair wrote a book in which he charged that

his methods were not only common, but also the tip of the iceberg

in reporter corruptness.

The downside of capitalism, as we all know, is that people will

and do go to any length to get ahead, to get promoted, etc. Thus, I

see what these reporters did as just another (and more disturbing)

manifestation of what the Enron executives or Martha Stewart did –

they used their wits to manipulate the business to their advantage.

Whereas Kenneth Lay cost people money, these journalists damaged

the credibility of an entire occupation.

This is a gross simplification of the issue, of course.

Furthermore, it doesn’t really solve anything. Recognizing the

dangers of competitive journalism is helpful, but I don’t see a

mass media socialist revolution on the horizon nor do I think

anyone desires one. So instead of making up an answer to please the

readers, I can only ask the questions and hope someone will restore

my ailing faith in the bearers of our news.

Brent is a freshman studying philosophy. His column runs every

Tuesday.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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