There is nothing to fear except the persistent refusal to find out the truth. ~~ Dorothy Thompson
Ethics in Journalism is dead my friend. You hadn’t heard? Tragically and sadly it’s so. There was no announcement, no obituary, no funeral, no day of mourning, no closure. It just happened. Ethics you see is gone, you can be sure of that.
The Fourth Estate once stood for something. It used to be an honored profession, a free-agent, independent of outside influence. At one time a watchdog and guardian over governments and politicians gone astray, it’s now become the opposite. That once great institution stands now as a facilitator, a protector, an enabler. Journalism’s hatchet men have become manipulators and endorsers of the worse that government, and the governed, has to offer. All at the cost of ethics. What was once revered should now be feared. Journalists have become no less than secondary parties to a crime. You and I, our posterity, and our country have become — many of us — its unwitting victims.
Now in its stead we have any number and variety of empty suits, babbling pundits, hidden faces behind web sites, and handsome entertainers essentially adorning our screens flat or otherwise; all this in the name of what was once journalism. They’re the ones whom many allow to define their political and cultural agendas. No longer do we have journalists we can trust, with reputations for reporting “just the facts,” and in a selfless effort to divulge the truth. They are few and far between anyway. Walter Cronkite, along with journalism’s ethics, died a long time ago.
The demise of journalism started, as best I can tell, at least as far back as 1982 when disease first set in. That’s when CBS television and its reporter Mike Wallace were sued by the former commander of U.S. military forces in Vietnam.
In a CBS documentary it was alleged General William Westmoreland distorted estimates of the size of the guerilla forces fighting U.S. troops during the war. It was political and an attempt to shift some blame from the Johnson administration to the military brass. CBS apologized and the lawsuit was settled. The Westmoreland affair and other similar cases, like Sharon vs. Time Magazine, were turning points for journalistic ethics. But there was no treatment, no cure and sadly, it would not recover.
Twenty-two years later in 2004, in what became known as “memogate,” that same network, in a “60 Minutes” broadcast, used falsified documents to charge that then president George W. Bush received special treatment while serving in the Air National Guard during that same Vietnam War. After coming under heavy criticism the network retracted the accusations, and following an investigation several producers were fired, or asked to resign. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who reported the story, and later admitted the document’s authenticity could not be proved, was soon gone as well, “retiring” less than six months later.
It was a shameful ending for a man once at the top of journalism’s hierarchy. And again, it was political.
Despite the reassurances, the denials and the retractions by CBS, by then, it was too late. Journalistic ethic’s diseased body had been ravaged by cancerous decay, cynicism, irresponsibility, even fraud, neglect and the Internet to name just a few. Soon it would breathe it’s last and so too our society, as we know it, should we choose to look the other way.
Journalism no longer suffers the bounds of standards. There is no conscience, no morality, no mores, there are no limits. After all ethics in journalism is dead. Truth has fallen through the cracks of unnamed sources or no sources at all. Even hearsay, personal opinion and bias have taken the place of fact. Personal politics decides what is news today while shaping many of the stories and taking truth’s place. Words are powerful and matter. Innuendo, half-truth and lies have become confused with fact, truth and reality, and the consumer alarmingly sees no difference. Icons are created, presidents made, while the less powerful, less influential, the less privileged or favored are rebuked. The more conservative your views, or less politically correct you are, the less chance you have.
Journalism’s step-brother editorializing has taken big brother’s place. Mistaken as “news” it is anything but that. From the thrill up my leg commentators, to todays foul-mouthed comediennes, comedy isn’t what it used to be, nor is news. Now they sit behind desks, mocking the newsmen of old, and bloviate while their audience accepts every word as gospel. “Yep, that’s news, that’s the way it is!” When called on to account for their slander and inaccuracies they hide, both purveyor and audience, behind the cloak of “just kidding, it’s comedy!”
So, rest in peace, as they say, it was a great ride while it lasted! But be assured, journalism may go on, but its ethics are dead.
The fact is television doesn’t simply reflect society’s values. In important ways, it also legitimizes them. And more and more in recent decades it has made even the most dubious “values” and behaviors seem normal and routine.
~~ Bernard Goldberg