Keith Olbermann was wrong

The third principle of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is “Act Independently.” The SPJ specifies that this means avoid any behavior that could create even the appearance of a conflict of interest. MSNBC’s own code of ethics says the same thing. Keith Olbermann has violated that principle of acting independently, and MSNBC was right to suspend him. But MSNBC needs to do more.

Olbermann was caught by Politico making political donations to three Democratic candidates, one of whom appeared on his show. Ordinary citizens can donate to political campaigns, but journalists who value their integrity cannot. Not even if these journalists are “commentators” or “analysts.” It is one thing to have a liberal or pro-Democratic outlook. It is quite another to give money to political candidates. Just because Faux News anchors do that does not make it right. And just because Bernie Sanders and Elliot Spitzer take Olbermann’s side, that still does not make it right.

The reason is simple. Journalists — even commentators — must behave professionally and avoid overtly partisan behavior, so that audiences will trust them as credible independent observers and not see them as individuals who are working for the election of certain candidates. Earlier in American history journalists were clearly partisan, but since the middle of the 19th Century the profession’s ethics clearly forbid giving money to candidates and parties, and taking other actions intended to benefit parties. Journalists concerned with ethics were up in arms when CNN’s Larry King literally embraced President-elect George W. Bush onstage while hosting a GOP event.

I supported CNN’s decision earlier this year to fire Octavia Nasr for tweeting a favorable comment about a Hezbollah leader, and I supported NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams, who was employed by both NPR and Faux News. While appearing on Faux, he had expressed fear of Muslim passengers of airlines. By the same token, I support MSNBC’s punishment of Olbermann. In each case, the journalist failed to behave professionally and avoid even the appearance of excessive bias.

But what MSNBC needs to do now is change its name, which executives of the parent company are considering doing. Never mind having the silly slogan “Lean Forward.” What the cable channel MSNBC needs to do is make it clear that it has nothing to do with the website, which is basically the website of NBC News. It is one thing to lean to the left (or “forward”) as a commentary cable channel with occasional news cut-ins. It is quite another to have the same name as a legitimate news organization which strictly avoids any partisanship in order to maintain its credibility.

If the cable channel wants to call itself the Lean Forward Channel, or whatever, that is fine. Or if the website wants to change its name to, that is fine, too. But it is too confusing to have TWO separate and different organizations both called msnbc. Having the cable one be opinionated damages the credibility of the online one. And when the most popular anchor on the cable channel gives money to Democratic politicians, it further damages the credibility of the online news organization.

I would be even happier if all of the news-oriented cable channels forbade partisan bias by their main on-air personalities, especially the ones who also anchor major shows. And if they have guests with partisan agendas, when those guests are on-air there should be some visual cue that this is commentary and not news and information. For example, there could be a red border around the screen and the word COMMENTARY onscreen throughout this segment. Otherwise it is too confusing for the audience, especially when the same person is both reporting and commenting.



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Juan Williams had to go

I’m against censorship and don’t approve of journalists being punished for their views, but I also believe that journalists should avoid discussing their personal opinions in public. Much of the troubles of American journalism today stem from too much opinion being expressed by reporters. And so for that reason I think Juan Williams had to leave NPR — even though it touched off a firestorm.

NPR clearly handled the matter badly, but I think the more important issue is opinionated journalism, which has gotten out of hand. We need to get back to the basics of reporting — telling the public the facts and letting the public make up its own mind. Journalists need to regain the public’s trust by being true, reliable, unbiased reporters, not “analysts” or pundits.

If Juan Williams had said “I have spoken to airline passengers who say they are afraid when the see passengers in Islamic garb,” that would have been an example of useful reporting that sheds light on an important issue. But when he says that he himself experiences that fear, we the public no longer see him as a professional journalist who carefully reports the facts and keeps personal biases out of it — and he loses some credibility.

To make it worse, Williams calls himself a “political analyst” and was drawing a paycheck from both NPR, which tries to be nonpartisan, and Faux News, which, in effect, is a propaganda arm of the Republican Party and has such other luminaries on its payroll as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. If Williams had wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, he should never have allowed himself to be paid by a cable network that foments Islamophobia and whose owner contributes large sums to the GOP. And for NPR to be taken seriously as an independent and impartial news network, it can’t have people on its payroll who are also being paid by rightwing propagandists. In fact, NPR would be better served by avoiding or at least minimizing the use of any “analysts” and instead have journalists on its payroll who report what politicians and academics are saying, while keeping their personal views out of it. That’s what journalists like Jim Lehrer do, and he is highly trusted and respected.

(Photo: Baltimore Sun)

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Koran burning coverage: a tough call

If the Florida pastor had gone through with his threat to burn the Koran, should news media have covered the event? And if so, how much coverage should they have given?

This is one of the toughest decisions in the news business. News organizations differed in their plans. Fox, CNN and the AP said they would not provide pictures. The New York Times did not rule it out but indicated it was leaning against publishing pictures.

To come up with the right decision, editors and producers have to conduct a balancing test, weighing two important ethics principles of the Society of Professional Journalists, the main professional association of American reporters. The first and most important principle is Seek Truth and Report It. The second principle is Minimize Harm. In this case, the two principles are in conflict.

Burning the Koran would have been an event, and the journalist’s job is to report the facts of newsworthy events in an honest, reliable and truthful way so that the public has enough information to make an informed judgment. So the first principle would apply.

But burning the Koran clearly would have caused great harm. Already people have died in demonstrations in Islamic counries over the mere threat of this happening. In fact, today (Sunday, Sept. 12), even though the Koran burning never took place, two people died in violent protests in Afghanistan. Had the Koran burning actually happened, American troops would have been at risk. We’ve already seen how, in 2005, an erroneous Newsweek report of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo touched off riots in Islamic countries in which people died. (In one two-day period in Afghanistan, the BBC reported, seven people were killed.) So the second principle also applies.

How do you reconcile these two?

Before the threatened Koran burning gathered public attention (hyped by a Tweet and Facebook item by the pastor and then excessive news media coverage), there would have been little need to cover it. It would have been a minor stunt by an obscure church. But once Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates and President Obama, among many other leaders, had issued public calls urging the pastor to cancel the event, it would have been improper for journalists not to cover it, including providing images of the event. For one thing, there was no guarantee that all news organizations would boycott coverage, and all it would take would be for one news organization to take one picture for it to become viral on the Internet. So any one news organization’s not covering it would not minimize harm.

For another thing, even if no news organizations covered it, some individual with a cell phone camera undoubtedly would have put images on the Internet. The damage would have been done, and riots and even killings of Americans would likely ensue. In this situation, the value of coverage by a serious, credible, professional news organization would be to make sure that, since the story is going to get out anyway, a truthful, reliable, impartial and undistorted account should be made public, to counter any false reports, rumors or propaganda about what exactly happened. And that includes accurate, contextual images of the event.

Just because something is offensive and disturbing does not mean it should not be covered. The AP photo of a monk immolating himself in an anti-government protest during the Vietnam war was highly disturbing but it was important for the public to know that such protests were taking place, and to know what exactly happened.

The third SPJ ethics principle is Act Independently. If news organizations censored themselves because of threats of violence, they would violate that principle. It’s vital that our news organizations be free to act without fear or favor, so that we the public can be confident that important information will not be suppressed and that we can trust our journalists to be fearless and forthright in making sure we get all the facts.

So, a tough call, but on balance I would favor limited coverage, not hyping the story but not ignoring it either.


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Do we care about suffering in Pakistan?

One-fifth of a nation under water. Twenty million people displaced. Eight million in need of water, shelter, or other emergency help. At least sixteen hundred killed. Millions facing years of destitution. A natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions, with unimaginable human suffering. But are the floods in Pakistan dominating our news? No. With a few exceptions (such as PBS, which has led with the Pakistan disaster day after day), our news is dominated by a dispute over where a future religious center should be located in Manhattan.

By late last week American individuals had contributed only $50,000 in private relief aid for Pakistan. At a comparable point after the Haiti earthquake, American individuals had given $34 million. Granted, the Haitian death toll was much higher and Haiti is much closer geographically than Pakistan, but Pakistan is of great strategic importance. It is the world’s second largest Muslim nation. It has nuclear weapons. The stability of its government is crucial for our own security. Its territory is used by al Qaida and other extremist groups that employ terrorist methods against American and other Western targets.

What links the two stories: the muted American reaction to the floods in Pakistan and the dispute over the mosque?

In both cases there is the danger that Muslims will see a pattern of disrespect. They could see Americans as not caring about Muslims suffering in Pakistan, and as not respecting the wishes of Muslims as to where they want to build an Islamic center. Both of these perceptions of disrespect are great recruiting tools for al Qaida.

If Americans really cared about the “war on terrorism,” really cared about depriving al Qaeda of propaganda victories, then Americans of all faiths would show Muslims respect. They would not treat the Muslim religion as suspect. They would not say that a Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero somehow sullies hallowed ground. And they would open their hearts and their pocketbooks to the millions of Muslims in Pakistan who face enormous suffering.

(Photo: Church Times, UK)

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Mosque hysteria: time for decency

During the McCarthy era, one of the great voices of reason was that of Joseph Welch, the attorney for the Army, who said: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” (See video.) That was the beginning of McCarthy’s decline, and from then on the American press no longer published every inflammatory claim he made.

We need someone like Joseph Welch today who can expose the indecency of the demagogues who exploit the American public’s ignorance and fear of Muslims. And we need news media to stop giving free, uncritical air time to these demagogues. People like Newt Gingrich need to be exposed for what they are, dangerous political opportunists who have no sense of shame.

The latest example of that has been his fanning the flames of hysteria over the planned mosque near Ground Zero. After earlier saying no mosque should be built there until synagogues and churches are built in Saudi Arabia, Gringrich this morning reached a new low when he compared having a mosque near Ground Zero with having a swastika sign near the Holocaust Museum. As reported by Mediaite, Gringrich said on Faux News:

“The folks who want to build this mosque, who are really radical Islamists, who want to triumphfully (sic) prove they can build a mosque next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists. Those folks don’t have any interest in reaching out to the community. They’re trying to make a case about supremacy… This happens all the time in America. Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.”

Gingrich is a bully who has been throwing rhetorical bombs for decades, but enough is enough. It’s time for someone respected by the American public to step up and say: At long last, have you no sense of decency?
And the press needs to treat him the way they treated McCarthy when it was clear that he was a dangerous demagogue. They stopped giving him free air time.



Filed under news media, Obama, terrorism

Anchor babies, aweigh

Suddenly we’re hearing about a strange new threat called “anchor babies,” and news media are not doing a very good job getting the facts right and putting the term in context. It’s important for journalists to report this carefully because the far right is citing the alleged threat of “anchor babies” to justify monkeying with one of the most important parts of the Constitution, the 14th Amendment, with its guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in this country.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who claims to be a moderate, has been warning of the dire threat of “anchor babies” every chance he gets. Recently on CNN he was asked by Wolf Blitzer how many illegal immigrants come here just to have babies that automatically become U.S. citizens. Graham said there are “reports” of some 6,000. Blitzer failed to follow up and ask some obvious questions: What “reports?” What are they based on? And this figure of 6,000: does it refer to 6,000 a year, a decade, or some grand total over all time?

Politifact examines the issue carefully in a long article and ends up saying there’s no evidence of any large number of illegal immigrants coming here to give birth:

“Graham appears to be conflating two things — a pattern of wealthy foreigners engaging in ‘birth tourism’ using legal visas, and illegal immigration of poorer people from Mexico. In our view, failing to make the distinction exaggerates the alleged problem and uses inflammatory rhetoric to obscure legitimate policy questions. On balance, we rate his comment Half True.”

Rating it half true seems overly generous. Graham knows very well he is misleading the public, and the overall impression he’s leaving is totally false. Even Lou Dobbs won’t go as far as Graham; Dobbs defends the 14th Amendment and “birthright citizenship.”

This is an issue ripe for demagoguery, and it’s up to journalists to report the facts carefully and help the public have a sensible debate about immigration.

(Photo: Still from video of CBS News report.)


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One year without a real newspaper

It’s been a year now since the death of the Ann Arbor News. It’s been replaced by something called, which is both a website and a twice-weekly (Thursday and Sunday) print newspaper. I don’t know if it’s successful commercially, but in terms of journalism it leaves a lot to be desired.

Much of it seems to be a kind of community bulletin board, with notices of upcoming events and soft features on life in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some of the stories are so trivial they almost seem like “little Billy Jones fell off his tricycle yesterday.” One time I went to the website and the lead story was about a 100-year-old man who still plays the harmonica. There was a link to video of this gent actually playing the instrument, in case I might be interested, which I was not.

The week it was launched failed to cover some major political stories: the gubernatorial candidacy of local businessman Rick Snyder and the final campaigning for the following week’s Democratic primary for local offices. Last month, less than a month before today’s Michigan primary election, there was a story about Snyder being third in a poll of GOP voters — but the story was a link to a Detroit News item instead of being written by an staffer. The same day a story about Obama’s visit to Michigan was just a rewrite from the Grand Rapids Press.  And today has a story about political factors in today’s election — again drawing heavily from the Grand Rapids Press, which happens to be owned by a subsidiary of the company that owns

While some of the staff are professional journalists who lost their jobs at the old Ann Arbor News and were rehired by at lower salaries, others on the staff are amateurs, and it shows. Some of the stories look like rewrites of press releases (without even much rewriting, I suspect). One time the website even included an actual press release without identifying it as such. Some of the news coverage seems amateurish and naive, without the skepticism and adversarial relationship toward the rich and powerful that American journalism prides itself on and that the public needs. (The closest thing to a real newspaper with that type of attitude is the university’s student-run newspaper, the Michigan Daily.)

To be sure, does publish a print edition twice a week, so at least the old Ann Arbor News is not completely dead, in format. It does provide some information of interest to the community. And it has potential, if it can tap into tips from local citizens who are sending in items about their interests, but it would need a more professional staff and a more journalistic attitude.

It’s a pity, because this is a highly literate, well educated community that would read long-form, in-depth, investigative pieces, and hard-hitting stories exposing social problems, and intelligent, thoughtful, critical profiles of the many interesting people here including world-renowned experts, and instead they are being given pretty thin stuff.

(Photo: Toronto Star)


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