Friday, November 4, 2016

A Dinner Invitation That Lifted the Skirts of Main Stream News Reporting

I do not know whether enough hay has yet been made of certain email exchanges that have come to light as Wikileaks conducts a successful campaign of turning some parts of the Obama Administration into the most transparent (involuntarily) one in history. Amongst the trove of treasure found in the John Podesta Wikileaks database is a series of emails showing an unwholesome, and, frankly, deliberately hidden political, incestuous relationship between journalists and the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign and its staff.

I welcome the work of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The effort of the man and the site to bring openness to government – to maximize the power of individuals to understand and to act – can only benefit our Republic. And now, as part of that effort, we should take a closer look at Wikileaks’ unmasking of news media as partisan hacks for their preferred causes.

It is time that folks stopped thinking that Lester Holt or Chris Wallace or Chris Cuomo or Katie Couric or Norah O'Donnell, or any other one of the crew are neutral presenters of the news. Ditto for the writers who publish the "hard" news of the day in papers like the NY Times and the Washington Post, or the Jacksonville Daily News right here in my town.

It was ALWAYS a farce that was sustained by a "willing suspension of disbelief" that news in print and news on television was unbiased. The choice of the story to tell, the choice of when to tell the story, the choice of verb and adverb, noun and adjective, these are not the products of some soulless Artificial Intelligence.

What goes on paper, or onto the teleprompter to be read to us, is not, "just what came out" when a sanitarily attired lab worker fed the bias-free ingredients of who, what, where, when, why, and how. It never has been. And we are all better off for the Wikileaks  insights that the John Podesta emails have given us into the intimate relations between major elements of the LAP DANCE MEDIA and the Clinton campaign.

In my junior high school, high school, and college history classes we learned bits and scraps about things like America and its wars. We learned “Remember the Maine” as the successor war cry to Texas battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!” The Maine, a US warship, exploded and was lost in Havana harbor, Cuba, in 1898. A Naval Board of Inquiry determined that the cause of its explosion and loss was likely a submarine mine. The Board of Inquiry was unable to determine the party responsible for the attack.
Frederic Remington's Illustration of a Claimed Strip Search
of an American Woman Aboard a Steamship
The Shameful Behavior of Newspaper Magnates: It Seems As Likely As Not
That Competition Between Pulitzer and Hearst Was the Fount That Birthed
The Spanish American War

Today we have to ask ourselves, however, would we tolerate naked aggression such as we did in the 1898 Spanish American War, on the flimsiest threads of profitable propaganda. Unfortunately, the answer is likely “yes” as our 2003 excursion into Iraq suggests. One contributor to the comfortable collapse of American opinion against what would otherwise be seen as naked acts of colonial aggression is the constant refrain of interest journalism disguised as, or at least confused for, objective reporting.

The language of formal dinner invitations often goes like this: “The favor of your attendance at dinner is requested.” And, among the hundreds of political reporters, news producers, and opinion leaders, why are you accepting the special treatment of an early access ticket to the front seat of a campaign’s “brain trust”? 
Compromise integrity? Well, let’s see what your writing and reporting looks like? No doubt that your credibility has been raped by this revelation, though, since you consented, is it really reputational rape?

Those emails include: “heads up” emails from Donna Brazile (a CNN contributor), advancing to the Clinton campaign questions that would be asked in Town Hall and debate events during the Democratic Primaries; an endless trail of emails back and forth from Brent Budowsky, who writes for The Hill, the Huffington Post, the LA Progressive, among other outlets, offering helpful hints on how Hillary should handle Bernie Sanders so as not to alienate his supporters in the coming general election; and, the “off the record” dinners for selected, sympathetic news reporters and producers at the homes of John Podesta in Washington, and Joel Berenson in Manhattan.

People who get involved in journalism are opinionated folks. And they have the right to be opinionated.

Of course, there are schools of journalism and courses in journalistic ethics. The School of Journalism at Columbia University is probably the most well-regarded (and is also the knock down winner of the best books on bad headlines ever, "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim"). In fact, a code of ethics exists for journalists, which you can find here.

In the imagined world in which the great newspapers, and small, of America serve, essentially, as an exterior, fourth, branch of American governance, this independence is essential to honesty in government and news coverage of it. A couple of examples show why this independence is essential, one out of the relatively recent history of the Bush Administration, one out of the longer history of the American press.

If No Child Left Behind Was Such A Great Idea, Why Did the Government Hire A Cheerleader in the Press?

Early in the administration of George W. Bush, the would-be centerpiece of the President's domestic agenda was "No Child Left Behind." To gin up support for the legislation, the Department of Education spent $ 1,000,000.00, that many, when they learned of the expenditures, called propaganda spending. In just one instance, the Dep't of Education paid a noted African American news commentator, Armstrong Williams, nearly $250,000 to promote the NCLB Act in his television program, and to encourage other African American opinion leaders to do likewise.

Now, suppose everything about No Child Left Behind was objectively sound, sensible policy. Why would the government want or need to spend money buying a talking head to promote its agenda? More importantly, why would the Department of Education and the talking head keep that pay for play hush hush? One reason might be the distrust of bureaucrats by Congress. It is clear that, when Congress authorized the Smith Mundt Act, under which programs like Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America began broadcasting American-sourced news and information programming to the Communist Bloc, Congress specifically prohibited internal dissemination of such programming in the United States. While the terms of the anti-propaganda law have been updated, the basics for distrust continue, and, frankly, seem healthy to this observer. When all the organs of government line up to set the tone and policy of government, skepticism serves like a natural tonic to less thoughtful resolutions.

In any event, with NCLB, Armstrong Williams claimed to support strongly the goals and methods of the law. In fact, had Williams had strong feelings about the program GWBush was pushing, it just seems that his feelings would be more validated by his voluntary use of his time and resources to promote the program, rather than needing a big bucks infusion to do so. Perhaps the concern was that, if we knew Williams’ advocacy came at the tip of a check for $241,000, it might have colored our perceptions of his arguments?

The Spanish American War, The Bastard Child of Yellow Journalism’s Bedding with Uncle Sam

The lack of evidence of a responsible party did not stop American newspaper owners from beating the war drums. An oft repeated anecdote illustrates the drum beat and its suspect justification. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, hired Frederic Remington, the artist, to travel to Cuba, there to provide illustrations to cover Hearst’s newspapers’ stories from Cuba. Remington sought to be relieved of the task because Cuba was not the hotbed of protest, revolution, or repression that it was portrayed by Hearst in his publications. 

He wrote, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst’s telling and terse response speaks to the intentions of the newspaperman, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war.”

Ultimately, with the Sinking of the Maine, Hearst got the impetus he required, and the entry of the United States into a state of war with Spain boosted Hearst’s newspaper circulation (and wealth) accordingly. Now, what was undeniable then and now is that Hearst’s yearning for a good war to cover with words and illustrations matched well with a long-expressed desire of the USA to have Cuba (and other Spanish territories, including the Philippines). 

In fact, the US government had been rebuffed in an offer of $100 million to the Spanish government for the island of Cuba. But, the Spanish American War not only boosted the circulation of war-mongering papers, it also landed Cuba in America’s “protective custody” and Puerto Rico and two Pacific Ocean possessions, Guam and the Philippines, in America’s colonial collection. Tidy bit that, an American print media conglomerate lining its pockets with sales while endorsing and, provoking, America’s military expansionism.

But let's go back to those ethical precepts for journalists. In particular, I have in mind two adjacent sections addressing journalistic independence and transparency.

Here are those provisions, in full:

Act Independently
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

Journalists should:

– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
– Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
– Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
– Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
– Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.

Be Accountable and Transparent

            Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

            Journalists should:

– Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
– Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
– Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
– Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
– Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.

What would be the outcome of an introspective examination of these points of journalistic ethics by the news reporters that accepted the dinner invitation to an “off the record” dinner with the top staff of an election campaign? What should it have been?
Well, let’s start with conflicts of interest.

When one develops a close and personal relationship with a subject of one’s journalistic coverage, there is the real risk that a preference may be given for the version of “where, when, who, what, why, and how” that spares your friend pain and embarrassment. Now your friendship or relationship threatens candor in your reporting.

Then there’s the straightforward, “Refuse … favors … and special treatment, and avoid … activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.

How about this precept? “Deny favored treatment to … any other special interests, and resist … external pressure to influence coverage.” You gave the Clinton campaign the undisclosed favor or your time and agreed to an off the record gathering of decidedly progressive left-leaning news gatherers and reporters. Did you resist the external pressure that such access must have applied to you? Did your reporting of primary and general election news suffer tilting as a result?

Given what seems to be an unseemly gaming of the news reporting industry by the Hillary for America campaign, did you take the time to let your readers know that your thirty pieces of silver was an evening dinner of early access to the top guns of the Clinton campaign? Was there disclosure of the relationship?

That leads, of course, to responsibility and transparency.

Now that we all have learned of your dinner date with Hillary for America, that it was an off-the-record affair, and that the coterie was a hard-left progressive slant seemingly designed to position natural allies of a Hillary Candidacy as early foot soldiers for her run, it is time and past it to own what you did.

Have you admitted the truth of the events?

Have you acknowledged how the events could cause uncertainty, confusion, and distrust in those who read your news reporting?

Have you acknowledged that you went too far? That your close alignment with the Clinton campaign was a mistake in judgment, leading to a betrayal of the trust of your readers?

These questions are all provoked by the confluence of the Code of Journalistic Ethics and the real-world activities of politicians and journalists. Unlike some, I have no sense of betrayal directed to the Lester Holts or Candy Crawleys, the Katie Courics or the Brian Williamses. All along, what they have done is what folks have the absolute right to do … exercise their liberty of association, even association with the failed programs and premises of Progressivism, and exercise their freedom of speech and press, even when engaged in a dark demagoguery designed to crown their preferred candidate.

If you have felt betrayed by the newsreaders and LAP DANCE MEDIA, I am sorry that you misunderstood reality. It is time for every one of us to take responsibility for what we know, and how we know it, from whom we hear and what we hear. The informed electorate is one that searches and sees what things are, or are not, true.