Obama, Chicago Tribune and ethics

Well, here we go. Let’s hope President-elect Obama is telling the truth. That he didn’t have any contact with Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois who federal prosecutors allege was peddling Obama’s Senate seat. Somewhat surprised this didn’t show up on e-Bay. I digress.

Anyway, I really do have high hopes that Obama will restore confidence and trust in government — and that will require the mix of truth, honesty and ethical actions. But if at any time here it turns out that even one of Obama’s advisers had some inside info on the Blagojevich mess — well, the “new ethic of responsibility” will be off to a rocky start.

Here’s from The New York Times this morning:

“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in announcing the arrest of Mr. Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris.

Under state law, Mr. Blagojevich is assigned to name a replacement for Mr. Obama, who recently resigned as Illinois’ junior senator with two years remaining in his term.

Mr. Obama, who Mr. Fitzgerald said was not implicated in the case, sought to put distance between himself and the governor during brief remarks on Tuesday afternoon and later in an interview with The Chicago Tribune, saying he did not discuss his Senate seat with Mr. Blagojevich.

“I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening,” Mr. Obama said. “And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”

Another interesting twist to this story is the allegation that Blagojevich pressured The Tribune Company — owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Cubs and related properties — to fire members of the editorial board who were critical of him and his policies. Otherwise, the governor would withhold public funds and other support. The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy this week — although the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field are excluded from the filing. They, unlike newspapers, apparently still have some financial value these days.

But here’s the point. As a nation we need strong and independent newspapers and journalists to keep a watchful eye on government, business, the military, you name it. That’s the role of journalism. And maybe we can still achieve that with individuals armed with laptops and Twitter accounts. I don’t know. But something tells me that traditional media are still the best bet to have the resources to ferret out these kind of stories — and the stones to disclose them.

The Chicago Tribune was working on this story independently of Fitzgerald and his office. And at Fitzgerald’s request, the paper withheld publication of some stories involving the probe for several weeks. That in itself raises some ethical red flags. But let’s hope that Sam Zell, the owner of The Tribune Company, didn’t play a role to protect corporate interests. No indication of that at this point. But Zell has been taking some big hits from journalists these days and I expect there will be some looking more closely at this situation.

Here’s from the Chicago Tribune online:

As the federal probe into Gov. Rod Blagojevich intensified in recent weeks, editors and reporters at the Chicago Tribune balanced a competitive story with a rare request from U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald’s office: To hold off on what they uncovered until a key phase in the investigation could be carried out.

Except in unusual circumstances, newspapers rarely comply with such requests because journalists typically try to steer clear of doing anything that can be seen as working with the governmental agencies they cover.

“It’s very important for news organizations to remain independent from law enforcement. Independence is the key to journalistic integrity. When you enter into agreements or partnerships, you find your independence compromised,” said Kelly McBride, media ethicist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “If we are too cozy with law enforcement, we will have no credibility when we question law enforcement, in the eyes of the public.”

And here’s a statement from Gerould Kern, editor of the Chicago Tribune:

The Chicago Tribune investigated allegations of misconduct involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich independent of the U.S. attorney’s criminal probe.

As a standard practice, our reporters contact individuals involved in these stories for confirmation and comment prior to publication. Consequently, we contacted the U.S. attorney’s office in the course of our reporting.

On occasion, prosecutors asked us to delay publication of stories, asserting that disclosure would jeopardize the criminal investigation. In isolated instances, we granted the requests, but other requests were refused.

The Chicago Tribune’s interest in reporting the news flows from its larger obligation of citizenship in a democracy. In each case, we strive to make the right decision as reporters and as citizens. That’s what we did in this case.

Gee, kind of wish I was back at Kent State teaching media ethics.

And one last thing today about newspapers. The Akron Beacon Journal is really becoming difficult for me to read. No, not because the paper is a content skeleton of its former self. But because it appears that the paper is saving ink — and only applying a trace amount on most of the inside sections. Good grief.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s