Pseudo-Journalists Betray the Public Trust
John S. Carroll is editor of the Los Angeles Times. This piece is adapted from a speech he delivered at the University of Oregon earlier this month.
One reason I was drawn to my chosen career is its informality. Unlike doctors, lawyers or even jockeys, journalists have no entrance exams, no licenses, no governing board to pass solemn judgment when they transgress. Indeed, it is the constitutional right of every citizen, no matter how ignorant or how depraved, to be a journalist. This wild liberty, this official laxity, is one of journalism’s appeals.
It is also one of its myths. I’ve come to realize that the looseness of the journalistic life, the seeming laxity of the newsroom, is an illusion. Yes, there’s informality and there’s humor, but beneath the surface lies something deadly serious. It is a code. Sometimes the code is not even written down, but it is deeply believed in. And, when violated, it is enforced with tribal ferocity.
Consider, for example, recent events at the New York Times. Even before it was discovered that the young reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated several dozen stories, the news staff of the Times was unhappy. Many members felt aggrieved at what they considered a high-handed style of editing. But until Jayson Blair came along, the rumble of discontent remained just that, a low rumble.
When the staff learned that the paper had repeatedly misled its readers, the rumble became something more formidable: an insurrection. The aggrieved party was no longer merely the staff. It was the reader, and that meant the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. Because the reader had been betrayed, the discontent acquired a moral force that could only be answered by the dismissal of the ranking editors. The Blair scandal was a terrible event, but it also said something very positive about the Times, for it demonstrated beyond question the staff’s commitment to the reader.
Several years ago at the Los Angeles Times, we too had an insurrection. The paper had published a fat edition of its Sunday magazine devoted to the opening of Staples Center. But unknown to its readers -- and to the newsroom staff -- the paper had formed a secret partnership with Staples, in which the developer helped the newspaper sell ads in the magazine in return for a cut of the proceeds. Thus was the independence of the newspaper compromised -- and the reader betrayed.
I was not working at the newspaper at the time, but I’ve heard many accounts of a confrontation in the cafeteria between the staff and the publisher. It was not a civil discussion among respectful colleagues. Several people who told me about it invoked the image of a lynch mob. The Staples episode, too, led to the departure of the newspaper’s top brass.
What does all this say about newspaper ethics? It says that certain beliefs are very deeply held. It says that a newspaper’s duty to the reader is at the core of those beliefs. And it says that those who transgress against the reader will pay dearly. Such commitment, deeply imbedded in newsroom culture, is taken for granted in the so-called traditional media. In newer forms of media, however, it is a foreign language.
All across America, there are offices that resemble newsrooms, and in those offices there are people who resemble journalists, but they are not engaged in journalism. What they do is not journalism because it does not regard the reader -- or, in the case of broadcasting, the listener or the viewer -- as a master to be served.
In this realm of pseudo-journalism, the audience is regarded as something to be manipulated. And when the audience is misled, no one in the pseudo-newsroom ever offers a peep of protest.
Last Halloween, I was stuck in freeway traffic. Punching buttons on the car radio to alleviate the boredom, I came across a rebroadcast, 65 years after the fact, of Orson Welles’ famous dramatization of “The War of the Worlds.”
This radio drama portrayed a Martian invasion so realistically that it prompted hysteria. Believing that creatures from Mars were actually invading the town of Grover’s Mill, N.J., listeners ran out into the streets, jammed police switchboards and gathered in churches to pray for deliverance. As I listened to the broadcast, it became obvious why people believed the Martians were at hand. It didn’t sound like fiction; it sounded like journalism. The actors who described the unfolding events at Grover’s Mill had the same stylized cadences and pronunciations as broadcast journalists of the time.
This is how the 23-year-old genius Orson Welles learned that journalism can be faked, and that people will invest their trust in something that sounds like journalism but isn’t.
You may have guessed by now that I’m talking about Fox News. I am, but I am also talking about a broad array of talk shows and websites that have taken on the trappings of journalism but, when studied closely, are not journalism at all. Deceptively cloaked as journalists, these marketers of opinion are playing a nasty Halloween prank on the public, and indeed on journalism itself.
I can offer some eyewitness testimony. Last fall, The Times did something rash. Alone among the media that covered the California recall election, we decided to investigate the character of candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The recall campaign lasted only two months, so we had to hurry in determining whether, as rumored, Schwarzenegger had a habit of mistreating women. It turned out that he did. By the time we nailed the story down, the campaign was almost over, and we had a very tough decision to make: whether to publish the findings a mere five days before the election.
We decided to do so, figuring that choice was better than having to explain lamely to our readers after election day why we had withheld the story. We braced for an avalanche of criticism, and we got it. What we didn’t expect was criticism for things that had never occurred.
Long before we published the story, rumors circulated that we were working on it, and the effort to discredit the newspaper began.
On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly’s program embarked on a campaign to convince its audience that the Los Angeles Times was an unethical outfit that attacked only Republicans and gave Democrats a free ride.
As evidence, O’Reilly said that the paper had overlooked Bill Clinton’s misbehavior in Arkansas. Where, he asked, was the L.A. Times on the so-called Troopergate story? Why hadn’t it sent reporters to Arkansas? How could it justify an investigation of Schwarzenegger’s misbehavior with women and not Clinton’s?
I wasn’t employed in Los Angeles at the time of Troopergate, but I do have a computer, so, unlike Fox News, I was able to learn that the Los Angeles Times actually was in Arkansas. It sent its best reporters there, and it sent them in force. At one point, it had nine reporters in Little Rock. And when two of them wrote the first Troopergate story to appear in any newspaper, they made The Times the leader on that subject. Not a leader, but the leader. Their story would be cited frequently as other newspapers tried to catch up.
The bogus Troopergate accusation on Fox was only the beginning. The worst of the fictions originated with a freelance columnist in Los Angeles who claimed to have the inside story on unethical behavior at The Times. Specifically, she wrote, the paper had completed its Schwarzenegger story long before election day but maliciously held it for two weeks in order to wreak maximum damage.
Now if this were true, I wouldn’t still be here to write about ethics. The reporters and editors involved in the story would have given me the same treatment Jayson Blair’s editors got in New York, and I would no longer be employed. But it wasn’t true. The idea that the newspaper held the story for two weeks was a fabrication. Nothing remotely resembling that ever occurred.
It is instructive to trace the path of this falsehood. Newspapers have always been magnets for crackpots. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a complaint from someone whose head has been rewired by the CIA, or who has seen a UFO, or who has a tortured theory as to why the newspaper did or didn’t publish something. I tend to shrug such things off, figuring that it’s unseemly for a large newspaper to quarrel with a reader.
But we live in changed times. Never has falsehood in America had such a large megaphone. Instead of being ignored, the author of the column was booked for repeated appearances on O’Reilly, on MSNBC, and even on the generally trustworthy CNN. The accusation was echoed throughout the talk-show world. The tale of the two-week delay -- as false as any words ever penned by Jayson Blair -- earned the columnist not infamy but fame. Millions of Americans heard it and no doubt believed it. And why not? It sounded just like journalism.
Let us turn now to a mundane subject: corrections. Like a factory on a river, daily journalism is an industry that produces pollution. Our pollution comes in the form of errors.
America’s river of public discourse -- if I may extend this figure of speech -- is polluted by our mistakes. A good newspaper cleans up after itself.
Every fact a newspaper publishes goes into a database. So do the errors. A good newspaper corrects those errors and appends the corrections to the original stories, so that the errors are not repeated. Thus we keep the river clean. Last year at the Los Angeles Times, we published 2,759 corrections. Some of you may be shocked that a newspaper could make so many mistakes. Others may be impressed that the paper is so assiduous in correcting itself.
It has now been six months since Fox and the other talk shows told their audiences that The Times did not cover the Troopergate scandal. It has been six months since they accused the newspaper of a journalistic felony by timing its story about Arnold Schwarzenegger. These are simple factual matters, easily provable. Nevertheless, corrections have not been forthcoming.
I’m not happy about this, but at least I know the truth. The deeper offense is against those who don’t -- the listeners who credit the “facts” they hear on Fox and the talk shows.
In the larger scheme, these two falsehoods represent two relatively minor discharges of pollution into America’s river of public discourse. I suspect there are many others, and on much more consequential subjects -- the war in Iraq, for example.
An interesting study published in October explored public misconceptions about the war in Iraq. One of those misconceptions was that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction had been found. Another was that links had been proved between Iraq and Al Qaeda. A third was that world opinion favored the idea of the U.S. invading Iraq.
The study did not examine what had actually aired on specific media outlets, but the results spoke for themselves. Among people who primarily watched Fox News, 80% believed one or more of those myths. That’s 25 percentage points higher than the figure for viewers of CNN -- and 57 percentage points higher than that for people who got their news from public broadcasting.
How could Fox have left its audience so deeply in the dark? I’m inspired to squeeze one last bit of mileage out of our river metaphor: If Fox News were a factory situated, say, in Minneapolis, it would be trailing a plume of rotting fish all the way to New Orleans.
Some view the difference between the talk shows and traditional journalism in political terms, as a simple quarrel between left and right, between liberal and conservative. Those differences exist, but they’re beside the point.
What we’re seeing is a difference between journalism and pseudo-journalism, between journalism and propaganda. The former seeks earnestly to serve the public. The latter seeks to manipulate it.
It is the netherworld of attack politics that gave us Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox News. Having spent much of his career smearing politicians, he now refers to himself as a journalist, but his bag of tricks remains the same. Over time, I believe, the public will become increasingly aware of the discrepancy between what it’s told by pseudo-journalists and what turns out to be the truth. They may even grow weary of the talk-show persona -- the schoolyard bully we all know so well.
Recently this newspaper had the good fortune of winning five Pulitzer prizes. I’m not sure we’re worthy of all that, but we won’t turn them down. I wonder how the news of the awards struck the talk-show fans who know the Los Angeles Times only for its ethical outrages. Surely they must have been scratching their heads over that one.
But they probably didn’t worry about it long. My guess is that they sat back on their sofas and consoled themselves with more soothing thoughts, such as the way President Bush saved America from catastrophe by seizing those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq while the whole world cheered.