ETHICS AND THE OLD JOURNALISM
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- New ethics guidelines for the Los Angeles Times have been handed down. They are an affirmation of starchy old rules that make for honorable, old fashioned journalism even as they promise dull reading. What's missing is recognition that reasoned judgment should be a part of journalism, just as it is in every other part of life.
LAobserved.com was the first to break the story, with Marccooper.com close behind. Links to the full text as well as excerpts can be found on each of those blogs. The guidelines, attributed to Times Editor John Carroll, go on for several pages. They encompass all manner of subjects ranging from objectivity to conflicts of interest to the requirements for Times staffers to get permission before doing a blog. One paragraph that is getting heavy play is this:
A fair-minded reader of Times news coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage, or to infer that the newspaper is promoting any agenda. A crucial goal of our news and feature reporting -- apart from editorials, columns, criticism and other content that is expressly opinionated -- is to be nonideological. This is a tall order. It requires us to recognize our own biases and stand apart from them. It also requires us to examine the ideological environment in which we work, for the biases of our sources, our colleagues and our communities can distort our sense of objectivity.
To argue that it is even possible to be nonideological is to take a very narrow view of ideology. I, for one, am staunchly opposed to returning rule over the Americas to the British royal family. As ideology, it doesn't come up for discussion very often, but it is part of the bedrock (admittedly the deepest bedrock) underlying our public discourse. There are lots of other bedrock ideologies that are assumed implicitly in American newspaper writing: the right to have a lawyer and have a trial, the right to speak out in a public meeting, the right to fight a traffic ticket and so forth. But reading our daily newspapers, it is obvious that the ideologies are drawn a lot narrower than defending traditional American values.
For example, newspapers give short shrift to the concept of tenants' rights, in spite of the fact that there are lots more tenants than there are landlords. This ideological bias towards the privilege of property ownership is real, even if it isn't stated explicitly in John Carroll's latest. Likewise, newspaper writing is generally accepting of the huge loss in Fourth Amendment protections against government searches that successive Supreme Courts have handed down (watch any reality tv show about cops on patrol to see how far this has gone). Most (but not all) newspapers in this area are unsympathetic to a more expanded view of 2nd Amendment rights argued by many of our fellow citizens.
Success in business is generally treated as a good thing in newspaper stories. Mass layoffs by giant corporations are treated as unfortunate but not criminal.
Any casual reading of the Times will inevitably reveal that there are powerful ideologies at work. Let's consider one example of how the Times handled a story about medical care, compared with how it was treated on a local blog. "Prices Cited in Health Cost Gap" (Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2005) was written by Lisa Girion and details the results of a study comparing how much money different countries spend on healthcare. Girion explains that the studies, published in the journal "Health Affairs," show that the U.S. spends considerably more than other modern countries both per capita and as a percentage of GDP.
In spite of the higher spending, patients in the U.S. get less in return. We have fewer hospital beds per capita, fewer doctors, fewer nurses and even fewer CT scanners. The Swiss paid $3,446 per person for healthcare on the average in 2002, compared with the $5,267 paid by Americans. Canadians paid $2,931. (In spite of all the propaganda to the contrary, the study reports that malpractice costs were not a significant part of the difference.) When all of the 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development were taken into account, their average per capita spending, at $2,193, was less than half what we pay.
What was most interesting to your humble media critic was the placement of this Times story. It was halfway buried on page C3, that is, on an inside page of the business section.
Here was hard data on how a significant fraction of the more-than-trillion dollar U.S. healthcare bill is wasted. More than that, it is spending that makes for inadequate or nonexistent services to millions of our fellow citizens.
It should be a major scandal. Why did it end up on C3 instead of the front page?
The story caught my eye because a local blogger had already done the same story better. Kevin Drum on the Washington Monthly web site had long since published the equivalent data, then gone on to explore the subject further. Here is just one example of that continuing discussion: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2004_05/003972.php
What's the difference between the way Drum and the Times handled the story? The main thing is that Drum completed the job by evaluating the data in order to draw important conclusions. I think it is pretty clear that Drum not only has a point of view, he doesn't fear to state it. He is not afraid of polluting his story or his personal credibility by revealing his judgment on the issue.
And despite the Economist's scary headline, which proclaims that "crisis looms," the French system provides this service to everyone in the country and does it for less than half the cost per person of the U.S. Even if they decide to raise taxes to cover a growing deficit in their healthcare fund (the subject of the Economist's article) their costs will still be less than half ours, per person.
Ignoring Drum's sarcastic finish, which is intended to inoculate the reader against misuse of the term socialism, there is a point he makes that fossil journalism might consider: Consideration of the data leads us to a reasoned judgment. Perhaps you might even call it an obligatory conclusion. Why not say it overtly?
Critics of this approach might argue that this is editorializing, and opinions should be rigorously segregated from factual reporting. There is a certain germ of truth in this argument, but it tends to fail on closer inspection. Simply to write down the health cost data is to inspire obvious questions. This is not the same as the daily crime statistic story. The editors obviously thought this story was worth printing, so why not take it that one step further and explain why it is important?
For what it's worth, I found Drum's series of columns vastly more interesting to read than this Times article. The Times article lived up to John Carroll's list of ethical guidelines: I don't know what personal views, if any, the writer actually has about the subject. It is a triumph of the old objective journalism. It's not exactly a triumph of the intellect though, because it fails to analyze the data and present the results of that analysis.
There is lots more to be said on this subject, but Marc Cooper has already said much of it on his blog (cited above). He treats the Times guidelines and the "objective" journalism they represent as the description of something akin to a priesthood in which reporters are required to stay above earthly temptations. The guidelines actually provide fodder for this argument: reporters are not to put political bumper stickers on their cars or political signs on their lawns, nor are they allowed to join in political campaigns. Neither are they to be members of environmental organizations if they write on the environment. (There seems to be an exception for financial columnists who write about companies they own stock in. For them, disclosure is acceptable. The double standard between the environment and the business sector is obvious, but perhaps no set of priestly rules can be entirely consistent.)
This should not be taken as dismissal of the ethical guidelines in their entirety. Much of the text is an admirable summary of what should be obvious in the first place: credibility is critical to preserve, reporters shouldn't take free meals from the people they write about, don't accept a free vacation from the company you write about, that sort of thing. In addition, the guidelines make clear in this week of the Karl Rove scandal that promising anonymity to sources is not to be given lightly, but once given, the promise is to be kept.
Most of the Times' ethical material is fine. It's the other part, where the reporter has to stop writing halfway through, right at the part where intelligent judgment would come into the story, that is bothersome. In this sense, I tend to disagree with Marc Cooper about the proper medieval metaphor for the modern reporter. It's not so much about being the priest as about being the intellectual eunuch.