Journalism Badly Needs Self-Correction
As we consider the state of things in America today, we see important areas of American life that have weakened as the years have passed. Among them are the nuclear family, public education, higher education, and the general sense of what America is all about.
This devolution has also affected news journalism. Today, quite a few of those practitioners are persons who are not committed to professional ethics but instead pay allegiance to their personal inclinations. And generally they seem to be in some of the most visible and influential news outlets in the country.
Following the dramatic dustup in the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room last week, Al Jazeera’s Jeffrey Ballou said President Donald Trump’s remarks to CNN’s Jim Acosta and others “may be free speech, but beyond the pale of respecting the constitutionally enshrined role of journalists.”
That statement brought this from a longtime news journalist, Wesley Pruden, editor emeritus of The Washington Times: “That was a new one to me, though I have been in this business, man and boy, for a lot of years. I never knew I was someone so grand as to be ‘constitutionally enshrined.’”
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press, and that might be seen as enshrinement of journalism’s role, but the amendment does not enshrine any person or set of individuals. Not even reporters.
Watching the behavior of some media personalities in the Brady Briefing Room of late clearly demonstrates that some reporters believe they are personally enshrined. And this fit of egomania explains how someone can cast off the restraints of professional ethics in favor of one’s own political agenda when doing the hard and important work of reporting what is really happening in the country and its government.
News journalists defend an important element in America. They are to provide true, accurate, timely, and important information so that we are properly informed and able to make intelligent decisions.
“The Journalists Creed” is a statement of “the principles, values and standards of journalists throughout the world,” as described by Fourth Estate, and is displayed in the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The creed is the product of Walter Williams, the first dean of the Missouri School of Journalism in 1914.
It reads, in part: “I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.”
The failures of news journalism have been termed “fake news” by the president. That includes which topics are presented or not, taking things out of context, exaggeration, and outright falsities.
The existence of “fake news” and the episode in the Brady Press Room last week are evidence of the waning of professionalism and the advancement of ego among the big names in news.
With television and now the Internet, the face of journalism has changed. Network news personalities are sometimes viewed as stars, and some have egos to match their celebrity status.
Pruden weighs in on this aspect. “The real reporter is happy to answer to ‘reporter,’” he wrote, and “knows better than to try to make himself more important than he is by becoming part of the story.”
“Newspapermen never aspire to celebrity, even the cheesy celebrity accorded by television,” Pruden commented, “and are willing to abide rebuke and worse, even by a president, if that’s what it takes to get the story.”
Tough questions are fair and expected from reporters in all areas of news media. What is not expected or acceptable is what happened that day.
CNN White House reporter Jim Acosta became not just part of the story but its star with his statement challenging Trump’s characterization of the alien caravan as an invasion. Making matters worse, he refused to cease and desist his flurry of questions as instructed by the president, who was trying to move on to other reporters.
As he kept shouting follow-ups after being dismissed by Trump, a White House intern, whose job is to get the microphone from one reporter and deliver it to another, found Acosta refusing to let her have it.
He and others either forgot or have not learned that the White House person who is providing the information and answers to questions is in charge of the event, not the reporters. They are not above the rules of good conduct, even as they press for answers.
Freedom of the press is a critical element in our country and must not be infringed. That does not mean, however, that reporters and other news people can do anything they please without being called out for it and/or disciplined.
Continued breaches of the important duty of reporting news will bring about responses that journalists will not like. Therefore, some serious self-correction is advised — the sooner the better.