2005-01-13 / This Week's Attitude

Bad Apples Leave Black Mark On Reputable Media

This Week

This Week’s AttitudeBy Neil S. Friedman

A few media outlets - The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Boston Globe and, most recently, CBS - have had their credibility damaged in recent years, due to embarrassing scandals essentially resulting from careless journalism and management shortcomings.

While the humiliations mostly involved journalists who plagiarized or fabricated portions of stories, the shame was aggravated when editors or managers failed to appropriately verify the work submitted.

The incident at CBS is arguably more serious because in the network’s impetuous rush to scoop its rivals with what appeared to be a momentous story, it crossed the valued lines of objectivity and neutrality to tarnish the record of an incumbent president’s character in the midst of a heated presidential race.

With the release this week of a report, following a thorough three-month investigation, into a “60 Minutes” report last fall based on unfounded evidence of George W. Bush’s alleged shirking of National Guard duty, CBS’ trademark eye symbol was blackened even further. In the report’s immediate aftermath CBS fittingly dismissed four high level executives, but anchor Dan Rather, who previously announced his retirement in the wake of the initial scandal, and news division president Andrew Heyward, who should also be held accountable for the flawed report, escaped without any repercussions to their solid reputations, save a couple of red faces.

However, the damning independent report still leaves several unanswered questions. Foremost is why it steered clear of the issue of political bias, a flaw Rather and CBS News have been saddled with for years by some media watchers, and whether it played any part in rushing the story to air and from where the phony documents originated.

CBS News foolishly fueled the growing fire-storm last fall when it staunchly defended the “60 Minutes” report for almost two weeks before finally admitting the contents of the documents smearing the president’s National Guard service were fake.

As it continues its journalistic functions, CBS News will be hard-pressed to restore its diminished credibility.

The scathing CBS postmortem deservedly drew more scrutiny than last week’s USA Today report of a syndicated columnist who, through a public relations firm, accepted a $240,000 payment from the Department of Education (DOE) to promote its controversial “No Child Left Behind” program.

Armstrong Williams, a leading black, conservative columnist and radio and television host, essentially acted as a government flack when he began peddling the public program, which critics attack and which has yet to show tangible results, created by the Bush White House.

Despite his acknowledged support of the program, which he considers beneficial for black families, Williams crossed the boundary of ethical journalism — seemingly selling himself to the highest bidder, — when he agreed to the pact with lame duck Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Besides, wasn’t it awfully wasteful for DOE officials to pay someone who already supported their program?

With any luck, Williams will be barred from working as a journalist for any legitimate news organization.

When asked if he would return the money, he reportedly replied, “Why should I? I earned it.”

The DOE also acted reprehensibly in even approaching the journalist. Anyone connected with the agreement should be given walking papers. And the White House, which distanced itself from the incident claiming it does not get involved in government contracts, should remind federal employees that such a policy is unacceptable, not to mention an illegal use of taxpayers' money.

As a veteran of the Fourth Estate, I find it disturbing when journalists shirk their professional integrity expressly for personal gain, expedience or reprisal. Like doctors, lawyers, teachers and other specialists, there are precise standards to which reporters are expected to – and have to – adhere and monitor. Any breach of those principles is tantamount to a violation that erodes the relationship between reporters and trusting readers or viewers.

Nonetheless, though the mistakes of a few – no matter how disgraceful – might prompt jokes, jeers and derision, they should not condemn a profession that, as it exercises its adversarial relationship with the government, continually sustains the cornerstone of freedom of the press.

Return to top

Copyright© 2000 - 2017
Canarsie Courier Publications, Inc.
All Rights Reserved