Repairing Journalism

Plamegate made some major flaws transparent. Time for a transparent solution.

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Village Voice, November 8th, 2005

There never was a golden age of journalism — just as there has never been a golden age of medicine, law, education, or any other craft, calling, or profession. But in all such pursuits, there are times when it becomes clear that serious reforms are necessary.

With the Plamegate story having exposed nearly all the weaknesses of the press (just as it has exposed the failures of an American presidency), this is one of those overhaul times for journalism. My thoughts focus almost entirely on newspaper reporting, since that’s where I’ve spent my nearly 50 years as a journalist and that’s what I know about. But it’s fairly obvious that television news, radio, blogging, and government information services suffer from similar, or worse, ills. 

Journalism’s most serious failure, probably, is its reluctance to explain how reporters go about putting together a news story. A large percentage of news stories, for example, begin with a public relations announcement from a government agency, private advocacy group, politician, corporation, celebrity, or other publicity seeker. Sometimes the finished products that appear in a paper are little more than slightly tweaked rewrites of the original press releases. That is known as bad journalism. But we don’t talk about it. Even superior newspapers don’t write about such things, out of fear that their critics, or the general public, will use this candor against them.

This lack of openness about our tradecraft — this non-transparency — is really the mother of most of the press’s troubles. Consider the Plamegate saga. It cried out for major news stories explaining in detail how reporters in Washington and elsewhere deal with confidential sources and why they give them confidentiality and what the pitfalls are.

It’s my guess that if this candor were displayed on a regular basis, reporters would automatically reduce the frequency of the confidentiality grant. We know that in some stories, such as national security  matters, confidentiality is crucial if the reporter is to protect a genuine whistle-blower and get the information to the public. But we also know that often it is granted when government officials simply want to spread self-serving accusations of dirt.

For example, in the ongoing Plamegate investigation, Tim Russert, the prominent host of NBC’s Meet the Press, says, in effect, that no national security or classified information was discussed in his July 2003 phone conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, who is now indicted. Then why did Russert grant him confidentiality? And why doesn’t Russert clear up the matter now by making public a transcript of the deposition he gave to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald? Russert is under no legal obligation to keep his testimony secret, and it will come out anyway if the case goes to trial.

Robert Novak, the columnist who set off the scandal by identifying a CIA operative by name in an article shortly after the Russert-Libby conversation, has also refused to explain his reporting process. Novak is assumed to be cooperating with the prosecutor to avoid a contempt proceeding, but he has left the public in the dark. He says he will discuss his role when the case is concluded.

Here’s the conflict in such situations. The press calls for transparency by government, corporations, and everyone else. But here the reporters reject transparency for themselves, and yet they say they are practicing good journalism. The public needs a fuller explanation, and that can only come from the reporters themselves.

And reporters can describe their methods in detail without identifying their confidential sources. Just tell the public, whose “right to know” we are forever invoking, how we go about our work. Again, candor would probably lead the news community to tighten up its methods and become more professional. We wield a lot of power, so there’s something out of whack if we go around demanding accountability from others and don’t impose the same level of accountability on ourselves. Our mantra could be this: What do we know and how do we know it?

What gives me the right to demand this? Am I so pure? Absolutely not. I’ve made some whopper mistakes in the past (and will almost certainly make a few more). That’s how I learned — from that hollow feeling in the gut when you acknowledge to yourself that you had stretch the meaning of some facts in a story or pumped extra air into your lead paragraph — what the right path for me was. The reader can usually tell the difference between a clean, candid story and a jazzed-up one. More to the point, the reporter always knows.

There are a lot of ways for reporters to professionalize their craft. Admit your goofs quickly. When writing a complex story where a lot of information is still missing, put a paragraph high up in the piece telling the reader all the things that are still unknown to you. That way, you avoid the “voice of God” syndrome were are so often justifiably criticized for. 

The press’s honesty and credibility have become even more important to an informed public now, as the American presidency has grown increasingly imperial and secretive. The present administration has taken secrecy to new heights, wildly overclassifying documents to control information when no security issue is involved. This White House has actually developed systems for creating its own news and delivery systems, ignoring the traditional press.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that the press seems to be grasping that it’s in its own war, one that is important to the electorate. All the more reason for reporters to, among other steps, drop out of the race for personal celebrityhood and develop the willpower to resist competing with gossip or rumors that circulate breathlessly on the Internet if they can’t be confirmed — even though it might look as if you’ve been scooped. Better to be scooped than to be embarrassed by writing junk.

Transparency is the overarching issue. And confronting the problem of anonymous sources, because they are anything but transparent, is a key. While in Indochina during the Vietnam War, after endless off-the-record briefings where half-truths and lies were told, I came to a new view of government disinformation. And this is it: When reporters agree with government officials not to disclose their identity, both sides are making a compact. Reporters are agreeing not to reveal who the sources are or even what government or agency they work for. And the sources, in return, are agreeing to tell reporter, yes, the truth.

What that meant to me was that if they told lies and I could demonstrate through solid reporting that they knew they had lied, then they had broken the compact and I was freed from my grant of confidentiality. And in one instance, in Cambodia, I concluded the compact had been broken and I wrote a story exposing the falsehoods. Not all my press colleagues agreed with my decision. One said that I should have told him and the other reporters at the briefing that I was going to write such a story. In retrospect, I think perhaps he was right. But my regrets are small, because it was my readers who had claim to my first loyalty. 

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