Newsrooms need honest leaders to better their political coverage

When I was younger and more naive, I wondered what kind of person could do PR for a tobacco company - an enterprise selling a product that, when used according to standard practices, leaves a trail of sickness and death in its wake.

When I was younger and more naive, I wondered what kind of person could do PR for a tobacco company – an enterprise selling a product that, when used according to standard practices, leaves a trail of sickness and death in its wake. How could they so boldly mislead, dissemble, and lie outright as a routine part of their work lives?

During every major election cycle, I wonder about a related question. Although I expect politicians to show contempt for truth, how can their representatives live with themselves after parking their consciences at the door of the campaign headquarters?

They do it for money, or power, or because they actually believe the ends justify the means. Or they are simply the kind who believe honor is a word with no meaning.

But what's the journalist's excuse for enabling and supporting such rancid behavior? It's the lazy, bogus, and ultimately dangerous insistence on telling “both sides” of every story.

It's lazy because political journalists have turned for the most part into stenographers who write down what one major-party candidate (or spokesperson) says, then write down what the other major-party candidate (or spokesperson) says, and publish the result.

It's bogus because there are rarely just two sides to anything; because one side often is telling the truth while the other is being deceptive or lying; and because that utterly misleads the consumer of the journalism.

It's dangerous for several reasons. First, a misled public can make poor decisions. Second, journalists who mislead in this way are helping to systematically wreck their own craft at a time when we need it more than ever.

The 2008 presidential campaign hasn't been the worst ever for journalism. The 2000 campaign set a low standard, while 2004 wasn't much better. Fact checking has become a more popular activity this time.

But when it really mattered this fall – when the McCain-Palin campaign went pure negative and allowed or even encouraged nativist, willfully ignorant supporters to think of Obama as a terrorist sympathizer or even a terrorist, thus injecting the kind of poison into the public air that will be almost impossible to remove – far too many in the traditional press abdicated their responsibility.

What we saw, in many cases, was equivalence. Journalists found it too tough to recognize that one side was being vastly more ugly than the other – and sought refuge in bogus “they're both being mean” coverage. At least a few journalists, to their credit, told the truth, that what one side was doing went far, far beyond the pale.

These are frightening times. We need honest leadership more than ever, including from those who lead news organizations. Please, journalists, do your jobs.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mails to dan@gillmor.com.

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