Ethics, Journalism and the End of the World

I’m a strong advocate for an independent, vigorous and financially competitive news media — traditional, new, dead tree, online, whatever. I would also like to add the word responsible, but that concept strikes me as something that is becoming more and more blurred.

The situation involving the British tabloid News of the World, which went silent yesterday after 168 years, provides a real-life lesson that unethical and illegal conduct can have serious consequences and that the public really doesn’t have a need or right to know everything particularly when the privacy of ordinary people is at risk.

Here’s the backstory from the WSJ, “British Tabloid News of the World Bids Farewell“:

Felled by a scandal over its illegal reporting tactics, News Corp.’s News of the World published a final issue filled with its greatest hits from 168 years of muckraking and just a few nods to the problems that brought it down.

The British tabloid’s front page on Sunday bore a simple headline—”Thank You & Goodbye”—and images of some of the paper’s most notable stories, from titillating scoops about soccer stars’ extramarital affairs to a recent undercover sting that caught the Duchess of York selling access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, for £500,000 ($802,000).

“After 168 years, we finally say a sad but very proud farewell to our 7.5 [million] loyal readers,” the paper said.

The tabloid made fairly brief mention of the reason News Corp. gave last week for abruptly closing the paper: evidence that some of its reporters, and private investigators working for them, broke into the mobile-phone voice-mail boxes of celebrities and others in an effort to obtain stories—an illegal practice known as phone hacking. Allegations emerged last week that even a murder victim’s voice mail had been hacked. Mounting evidence about the scope of the problem led to widespread calls last week for greater oversight of the nation’s powerful newspapers, and the sometimes cozy relationships politicians forge with them in an effort to keep them on friendly terms.

“Quite simply, we lost our way. Phones were hacked, and for that this newspaper is truly sorry. There is no justification for this appalling wrongdoing,” the News of the World said.

A corporate “oops, my bad.” And there is speculation that the parent company, News. Corp. owned by Rupert Murdoch, had other reasons to close the tabloid beyond taking responsibility for ethical lapses.

Just an isolated example of a rogue publication and unethical management and reporters?

Nah.

Here’s from Howard Kurtz, opining in WaPo, “British tabloid tactics are rampant in American journalism, too“:

It takes some doing to get an entire country up in arms about media misconduct, but News of the World rose to the occasion.

By hacking into the phones of terror victims and a missing 13-year-old girl later found murdered, the London tabloid became such a despicable symbol of journalism gone bad that media titan Rupert Murdoch felt compelled to close it on Sunday.

But the debacle is just an extreme example of a news business that increasingly pushes the ethical envelope — and perhaps of a public that wants the juicy stuff and isn’t too particular about how it gets unearthed.

News of the World didn’t exactly discover phone hacking. Back in 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 million and apologized to Chiquita Brands after a reporter obtained voice-mail messages from a company executive “in violation of the law,” the paper acknowledged.

We may look down our noses at tabloids paying for stories, but American networks essentially do the same thing. In 2008, ABC paid Casey Anthony $200,000 for an exclusive interview under the guise of buying photos and video of her missing 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Anthony was charged with child neglect and endangerment the next day and indicted for murder the following month. (She was acquitted last week in a highly controversial verdict.)

Last month ABC paid $15,000 to Meagan Broussard, one of the women who was texted by then-congressman Anthony Weiner, for her photos (and an interview). But the network got burned when it offered $10,000 to Sheena Upton, who claimed to have injected her 8-year-old daughter with Botox, and rescinded the offer after the woman admitted it was a hoax. NBC Entertainment forked over $2.5 million for the rights to the Concert for Diana in 2007, and Matt Lauer just happened to land exclusives with Prince William and Prince Harry ahead of the remembrance of their mother.

Princess Diana, of course, would probably be alive today if paparazzi hadn’t chased her car into a Paris tunnel — the most notorious legacy of a profession that routinely harasses celebrities for shots peddled to mainstream publications.

From Dan Rather’s report on George W. Bush and the National Guard, retracted by CBS, to NBC’s “Dateline” rigging a fiery truck explosion years earlier, there are episodes of reckless American journalism that would not seem out of place at a British tabloid. Then there is the parade of fabricators, such as Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, who deceived their publications, with editors later found to have missed blatant warning signs. And the journalists fired or suspended for plagiarism are too numerous to mention.

Even old-fashioned news organizations operate these days in a bubbling tabloid culture in which sensational tales (Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Tiger Woods, Casey Anthony) crowd out coverage of, say, health care and deficit talks. The line between high-minded and low-road journalism has all but vanished. When the Los Angeles Times reported that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child with his housekeeper, it refused to name the woman — but Radar Online published her name and picture and other outlets, from ABC to the New York Times, quickly followed suit. The slippery slope of the Web makes it easier to justify our voyeurism.

In the end, the public’s indifference to how salacious stories are procured creates this lucrative market. When a News of the World reporter posed as a fake sheik last year, taping Sarah Ferguson as she offered access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, for a huge payoff, almost no one focused on the paper’s lying and deception. Most folks had a great laugh instead at the hapless duchess of York. It was only when such sleazy tactics were employed against ordinary Brits that politicians such as Prime Minister David Cameron (who had hired the former News of the World editor arrested Friday in the scandal) felt compelled to demand an investigation.

Murdoch, whose empire stretches from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal to the Times of London, is engaging in corporate damage control by shuttering Britain’s best-selling newspaper.

If media ethics were his primary concern, he would have fired his top London executive, who ran the paper during the phone hacking. Maybe someone should put up a statue of the media mogul outside the News of the World building, to remind us of the dangers of corrupt journalism.

To say the obvious, journalism in all its forms will continue to change and evolve, driven in part by new technology as well as the ageless competitive and financial issues. But ethics matter. And the word responsible really does need to be attached to strong, independent and financially competitive.

Just sayin’.

 

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