"Code of Ethics" by Roger Mudd
Given what the media have put the country through this past decade, it must come as a surprise to most Americans that the press has a code of ethics. It is one of the great secrets of American journalism. But the codes are obscure, they are voluntary and they lack teeth.
Nonetheless, American journalists do have a generally agreed-upon set of standards: they do not make up stories; they do not fabricate quotations; they attribute information that is not self-evident; they seek out opposing views; they do not publish or broadcast offensive or grisly pictures; they do not use obscene words; and they acknowledge that each individual has a right to privacy.
But reporters and editors remain divided on how large that zone of privacy should be and to whom it should apply. Do they photograph without permission? It depends. Do they go through the garbage of public figures? It depends. Do they entrap? It depends. Do they lie about who they are in order to penetrate someone's privacy? It depends.And what it depends on, of course, is whether the story itself is worth the ethical compromise it requires and whether the competition is onto the story.
The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, first adopted its code of ethics in 1926 and revised it most recently in 1996. The code says, "The news media must guard against invading a person's right to privacy." But there is no definition of privacy, of "guarding against invading," of which persons have such a right and under what circumstances or whether invading a person's "right to privacy" differs from invading his plain privacy.
Most journalists now believe that a person's privacy zone gets smaller and smaller as the person becomes more and more powerful. In other words, the zone for the local county supervisor is almost as large as it is for the local businessman. But once the supervisor begins to ascend the ladder of political power or public celebrity, the zone begins shrinking. So that by the time he is sworn in as president of the United States, the zone is minute. In exchange for power, influence, command and a place in history, a president gives up the bulk of his privacy. Most twentieth-century presidents have willingly surrendered that privacy when it suited their purposes. It is when the coverage was unfavorable or damaging that the White House accused the press of invading the zone.
It wasn't always that way. For decades, the journalistic norm had been that the private lives of public officials remained private unless that life impinged on public performance. During the 1930s, the press concealed President Roosevelt's infirmities from the public on grounds of patriotism and grounds that his paralysis was not affecting his presidency.
Drinking was generally protected by the zone. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was well known to the Washington press corps that a prominent senator from the Deep South had a serious drinking problem. But it went unreported because the press knew that even when inebriated the senator ran rings around eighty-five per cent of his colleagues.
Sexual behavior was also generally considered off limits. Witness the white-out in the coverage of President Kennedy's extra-marital escapades. In 1979, I was castigated for asking Senator Edward Kennedy on a CBS News documentary about the state of his marriage. It was an invasion of privacy, critics said and wrote. It was a voyeuristic intrusion for which there was no compelling public need, they said. My answer was then and is still that Senator Kennedy by campaigning for his party's presidential nomination had narrowed his zone of privacy; that his skillfully crafted public persona was that of a devoted husband, father and Catholic; that his campaign played on that image; but that, in fact, his marriage was a shamble and existed only on select occasions or photo ops chosen to perpetuate the image; and that, under those circumstances, the question was entirely appropriate.
The ethics of editorial judgement, however, began to go though a sea change during the late 1970s and '80s when the Carter and Reagan Administrations de-regulated the television industry. No longer did television license holders have to justify their performance every three years or even every year. Licenses could now be bought or sold every thirty days, like pork bellies on the Chicago hog market. Into television came a whole new breed of corporate owners, like Loew's Theaters (CBS) and General Electric (NBC). In came management teams and cost-cutters without institutional memory, without a decent respect for the tradition of a vigorously independent news division, without a belief in the old network operating maxim that news is a precious commodity and a public service to be subsidized by the enormous profits generated by the entertainment programs.
As electronic journalism came to be evaluated for its cost effectiveness, the network world began breaking up. No longer was it just ABC, CBS and NBC but it was now PBS and C-Span and CNN and cable and VCRs and rental movies and Ted Turner this and Ted Turner that. The networks found themselves having to compete for an increasingly Balkanized audience.
The network upheaveal also meant the dumping of programs that did not pay their own way. The first to go were the documentaries, their subject matter too serious, their cost too dear for the audience they drew. The second to go was the anchorman as journalist. He became a news actor. The old boys--Walter Cronkite, Howard K. Smith, David Brinkley and John Chancellor--were quirky and real and believable but they were also toast in the competition against Oprah and Larry and Sally and Geraldo and Maury. The third to go were the old guidelines. The news now had to win. It didn't necessarily have to be more perceptive or revealing or informative; it just had to win. And fourth, the upheaval meant the slow surrender to the tabloids--the tabloid press and the tabloid TV--and their falling standard of what constitutes news.
By 1987 sex had formally and journalistically lost its off-limits status when Paul Taylor of the Washington Post asked presidential candidate Gary Hart if he'd ever committed adultery. The American press has been struggling with the appropriateness of the Taylor question ever since.Two weeks after Hart's press conference, Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts announced he was gay. He said he felt vulnerable because of the media's "increasing interest in private lives." Within another two weeks, Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio withdrew from presidential consideration when the Cleveland Plain-Dealer published a front-page story, based on unidentified sources and citing an unidentified woman, alleging that Celeste had had three extramarital affairs.
That same month in 1987, the George Bush campaign was frozen in place by the rumor that the Vice-President had had an affair with a woman on his staff. Although the story never surfaced publicly and the Bush rumor temporarily receded, others quickly filled the vacuum. In 1989, the Senate, for the first time, rejected a cabinet appointee of the incoming president when it turned down John Tower to be Secretary of Defense because of his private indiscretions. Then in January, 1992 came the Star tabloid story about Gennifer Flowers and President Clinton, followed in August by the New York Post's resurrection of the George Bush rumor, which culminated in the Vice-President being asked on live television the "Big A" question.
Since then, we have been through the abject end of Senators Brock Adams and Bob Packwood, the Vincent Foster suicide, Whitewater, Madison Savings and Loan, Paula Jones and the Arkansas State Troopergate, Monica Lewinsky and finally the impeachment of the President.
So was it any wonder that William Cohen of Maine wrote as he left the Senate in 1997 that "there has been a breakdown in civil debate and discourse . . . . And increasingly public officials face the hair-trigger presumption of guilt pulled at the slightest whisper hint of impropriety." Or that Bill Bradley, upon his retirement from the Senate, wrote in his memoir that "reporters have begun to treat politics as though it were a sporting event. What's the score? Just how do you win this game? How do you feel about where you are in the standings?"
So how are we to explain this sorry state of affairs? Much of what Mr. Cohen calls the "hair-trigger of guilt" is a legacy from the official government lying during the Vietnam War, during Watergate, during Irangate, during Whitewatergate, during Travelgate and during Bimbogate.
Journalists, who are skeptical to begin with, simply do not like to be lied to or made fools of. They don't mind being flattered or pandered or coddled or stroked but they can't stand to be duped because it goes directly to their credibility which is most precious to a journalist. So once they learn not to trust the government or its politicians or its spokesmen, they give nobody in public life the benefit of the doubt. The relationship between press and politician--protected by the Constitution and designed to be happily adversarial--becomes sour, raw and confrontational.
The written tone and the spoken tone change and the reporters' disbelief in the veracity of the government spreads to the readers and the viewers.
Where to begin to break this cycle for which both press and politician are responsible?
Michael Gartner, former editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and former president of NBC News, once advised political candidates who feared gumshoeing reporters were hunting them down: "If you don't want it in the paper, then don't do it."
But the time has come for journalists to acknowledge that a zone of privacy does exist. That being quietly adulterous should be protected but that if the politician's private conduct, sexual or otherwise, is carried on without discretion, with callous disregard for contemporary mores, in defiance of community standards, with demonstrable effect on his public performance, then the zone of privacy evaporates.
Similarly, running a congressional hearing with a hangover is protected conduct; canceling a hearing because of a hangover is not. No matter what name we give it or how we judge it, a candidate's character is central to political reporting because it is central to a citizen's decision in voting. The media, therefore, have a major obligation--nay, a burden--to report on the character of our presidential candidates.
In the aftermath of the Gary Hart affair, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Roosevelt biographer, put forward a check list of questions to help the political reporter with character coverage of the candidates. The list has circulated through the Washington press corps ever since. It is not a bad list for the voter, either.
How much physical energy does the candidate display? Does he keep humming, or does he run out of gas?
How is he with people? Does he reach out and touch, or seem to shrink from physical and personal contact?
How does he react to the experience of campaigning? What does he say he's learned from being out there?
How does he deal with, and relate to, his staff? Is he a disciplinarian, a delegator? Does he play them off against each other?
What does the standard stump speech--or the changes and evolutions in it--tell us about the candidate?
Does he evoke emotion in his crowds? A leader is always in a relationship with his constituency. What relationship does he seek? What does he achieve?
Does he have interests beyond politics? When he's not campaigning, can he talk about anything else?
Does he have a sense of humor? Or irony? Or detachment? Is his humor always aimed at others, or can he kid himself?
What kind of relationship does he have with his political peers? How open is he with them? How candid can they be with him?
How does he deal with setbacks, aggravations, frustrations? Can he bounce back? Does he scapegoat, shift blame? Is he overwhelmed with guilt?
How truthful is his picture of reality? When recounting stories, is he accurate, or does he embroider or shade reality?
And I would add one more. In the company of his wife, where does he walk? With her, or in front of her?
Such questions might help the press delineate the character of our candidates without having to resort to the "Big A" question in all its forms.
But that's not all we could do to help break the cycle.
Could we not stop commissioning all those instant public opinion polls--ABC and the Washington Post; NBC and The Wall Street Journal; CBS and The New York Times? Because those polls aren't cheap, there is always front-office pressure to use them, to amortize their cost, even though they generally tell us what we already know, even though they oversimplify politics and turn it into a game of who's on first.
Could we not stop predicting what's going to happen tomorrow and concentrate on the meaning of what happened today? Could we not let the story play out by itself? Besides, our predictions are consistently wrong half the time. I'll cite just one example. February 9, 1988:
"I would say, Robin, " said the pundit, "the fact that Dukakis finished a weak third in Iowa . . .would raise the question whether, indeed, he is a national candidate."
You know who said that? I said that.
There was a recent study of the McLaughlin Group's predictions over the last several years. More than a thousand predictions by the Group. They were right an average of 52 percent of the time. The highest score was Fred Barnes--56 percent.
I like the solution put forth by the late John Chancellor. Instead of a prediction of who is winning and who is gaining, why not just end the piece with "And tomorrow the candidate flies to Cleveland."
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File created: 4/15/02