Now that Don Imus has been sent to media purgatory – permanently banished from CBS and MSNBC so he can think about his disgraceful utterances - other journalists who appeared on his program might also take this opportunity to think about their own roles and reputations. The news organizations that employ them might also think about their responsibility in this mess too.
This media flirtation between mainstream and tabloid journalism is not a new phenomenon. Journalists who make a living from serious and sober reportage, suddenly find themselves all a-twitter when the junior producer from Imus or Bill O’Reilly calls to ask if they might appear on the show to engage in politically incorrect banter and ribaldry. Too often, the answer is automatically, “yes.”
Boys Will Be Boys?
Some of this behavior might be explained by the power of Imus and others like him. Their programs attract a large audience. And there may also be some appeal for a serious journalist to sit next to a “bad boy.” Most news organizations have high standards and would not allow the Imus’ of this world to write or broadcast for them. So this may be a way for journalists to show they too have “what it takes.”
News organizations have implicitly tolerated this kind of journalism by allowing their reporters to appear on these shows even though they may officially and publicly claim that sort of behavior doesn’t happen inside their organizations. And many news organizations claim to have high standards for their own journalism and their employees.
Some even post their own internal ethics guides on their websites for all to see. What they claim for themselves is lofty and high minded.
For example, the New York Times’ Ethics Guide, section 42 states that
“The Times freely acknowledges that outside appearances can enhance the reputation of its bylines and serve the paper’s interest. Nevertheless, no staff member may appear before an outside group if the appearance could reasonably create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine the public’s trust in the paper’s impartiality…”
Section 102 is even more precise: “In deciding whether to make a radio, television of Internet appearance, a staff member should consider its probable tone and content to make sure they are consistent with Times’ standards. Staff members should avoid strident, theatrical forums that emphasize punditry and reckless opinion-mongering…a staff member should not say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her own byline.”
NPR has a similar ethics guide that also enjoins employees from appearing in other media:
Approval will not be unreasonably denied if the proposed work will not discredit NPR, conflict with NPR's interests, create a conflict of interest for the employee or interfere with the employee's ability to perform NPR duties. NPR News Code of Ethics and Practice, V.2.
NBC News also has a similar internal guide and an ethics czar to enforce it. All employees have to sign a statement every year that states they are familiar with the guidelines. NBC also has periodic mandatory in-person reviews of the key standards. These standards cover everything from editorial practices to "the appearance of impropriety.” Fulltime standards people on staff review many of the scripts and reports before they air. Employees are also required to sign an "integrity" statement, in which they agree to abide by company-wide standards of ethics.
Good Values Poorly Practiced
So if the principles are there, why do so many journalists seem to ignore them?
Too often, news organizations appear to fail to enforce their own standards, especially when its employees appear in other media simply because the temptations for self-promotion (as opposed to legitimate journalistic reasons) are everywhere. The rewards can also be great especially by amplifying journalistic reputations among one’s peers or on occasion taking an honorarium for the appearance.
With the advent of new media, blogging and the heightened intensity of commercial pressures, news organizations look the other way when their employees appear on programs like Imus’ or Bill O’Reilly’s. The thinking seems to be that any publicity is better than no publicity. And management inadvertently gets support for this whenever journalists claim (as I have heard them do) that they have a First Amendment right which trumps any loyalty to the news organization that pays them! The result is a form of logrolling along with a sense of confusion for journalists who see their colleagues breaking the rules. The public is also ill-served who see the media as increasingly distant from their own concerns and values.
“Just Say No”
Imus’ hateful and statements about the Rutgers women’s basketball team were bad enough, but any cursory listening to talk radio would reveal much worse. Accusations of calumny against elected officials that poorly disguise racism, sexism and xenophobia. Increasingly outrageous statements are a reflection of the desperation that competition has now defined our media culture. The failure of corporate owners and government to denounce these excesses of free speech have deeply coarsened and damaged all journalism and our national life along with it.
Lest you think this is just sour grapes from one who doesn’t get asked, well, I have been, but I won’t anymore. When I did appear, even on so-called “serious” TV programs, I invariably had a producer speaking into my earpiece, urging me to “Get mad! Yell!” When I didn’t, I usually wasn’t asked back. Other less-serious shoutfests have asked me to appear. I’ve declined.
Of course, journalists have a First Amendment right to say what they think. But they don’t have a First Amendment right to work for the New York Times, or NPR or even NBC. A sense of obligation to the higher values of the news organization and to the public that they serve seems to be a better motive.
So perhaps the proper response when the producer calls is to “just say no.”