TERRA TERRA TERRA
READ MORE: 2006, New York Times, Karl Rove, Investigations, Dick Cheney
Adam Nagourney broke the ethics rules laid down by his professional association and his own paper in today's New York Times. He also let a shocking (and potentially damning revelation) about the White House slide by with barely a mention. It's time to call journalists out publicly on their ethical violations, whenever they commit them.
I've written before on the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and their written Code of Ethics. While I believe it should be updated and strengthened, it's still a worthwhile tool for monitoring reporters' ethical performance.
Let's take a look at Nagourney's piece, while keeping a running total of the violations he commits against his profession's ethical standard and/or the policies of his own newspaper._________________
Under the heading "Seek Truth and Report It," the Code of Ethics states that journalists must "distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context."
Nagourney's piece is placed in the news section, and is not identified as opinion or commentary.
What, then, is a reader to make of statements like this in a "news article"?
"The developments (a revealed terrorist plot) played neatly into the White House-led effort ... to cast Democrats as timid on national defense."
Do they really? Nagourney could just as plausibly have written that "developments played neatly into Democratic efforts to portray the White House at ineffective at halting terror plots."
Either statement is opinion, not fact. It's therefore a violation of journalistic ethics to inject such strongly biased opinion into a news piece.
Running total: one violation.
"Republicans (argued) that the nation needs tough Republican policies to protect Americans from threats abroad," writes Nagourney. Again, he's stating an opinion as fact: namely, that Republican policies are "tough" and, by inference, that Democratic policies aren't.
Running total: two violations.
"Republicans," writes Nagourney, "suggested that Americans might take a cue from the tougher antiterrorism statutes Britain has enacted." Nagourney fails to describe those "tougher statutes." He also fails to provide the reader with information that would help judge the accuracy of Republican Bill Bennett's statement that some GOP intelligence bills contained "the very types of programs that helped the British thwart these vicious attacks."
We'll give Nagourney a pass on ethics violations here, but note his sloppy reporting.
Nagourney's use of anonymous sourcing also violates the Code of Ethics, as well as his own paper's policy. He writes:
"A senior White House official on Air Force One, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the notion that there was anything wrong with these kinds of issues being mixed up in a political campaign."
The SPJ's code reads: "identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability. ... Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information." And the Times' own editorial policy says this about anonymity:
"We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available."
This story already has a number of named Republican sources, so why was this anonymous source used?
Running total: three violations.
Here's an especially relevant statement of policy: "We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack ... The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source."
"Assessing the source" is critical here. It's fair to assume that this anonymous source is either Karl Rove or someone else in the Administration whose credibility has been publicly damaged.
The only purpose of anonymity is to make this partisan quote more effective. Running total: four violations.
Adds the Times:
"We should avoid automatic references to sources who 'insisted on anonymity' or 'demanded anonymity'; rote phrases offer the reader no help and make our decisions appear automatic.
When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons and the source's motives."
Nagourney offers no explanation for the granting of anonymity to Rove (or Cheney, or whomever) in this case.
Altogether, that makes five ethics violations. Others may quibble with one or two, but even one violation should be grounds for immediate action from Nagourney's employer and his peers.
Right-wingers will continue to insist that the media, and especially the Times, are left-leaning. While I don't believe the press is "liberal," I would welcome critique from any source - provided that it's based on relatively objective measurements like the SPJ's. The goal is an objective press, not to ensure bias one way or the other.
I look forward to a full investigation of this article by the Times' ombudsman and/or editors, and by the Society for Professional Journalists. I await the widespread public censure that will no doubt follow. _________________
Now for the shocker. Paragraph 19 (in a 21-para piece) begins with this sentence: "The White House had been aware for weeks that Britain was moving to shut down this plot." That dramatically increases the possibility that the timing of this announcement was politically-motivated, as was most likely the case with the many terror alerts and arrest announcements during the 2004 political campaign.
Was the timing politically motivated? I don't know. It would be easier to draw our conclusions if a) this revelation were to lead the story, and b) there's was some serious investigative follow-up.
Where's the shoe leather, Mr. Nagourney? Who's out there finding out whether the timing was coincidental, or deliberately designed to enforce the GOP's "national security" PR blitz around the Lieberman defeat?
Surely that story belongs somewhere in the pages of your newspaper. Editors, we'd love to hear an explanation.
A Night Light