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The Crumbling of the Fourth Estate By: Timothy Maier
Insight Magazine | Thursday, May 06, 2004

President George W. Bush recently turned to Brit Hume of Fox News and told him flat out that he prefers to get his "news" from White House and national-security staff, rather than as reports from journalists. Though that may have stunned the media elite, many ordinary Americans cheered. For two decades polls increasingly have indicated public dismay at the spin and fantasies of the press. In fact, a recent Gallup Poll says Americans rate the trustworthiness of journalists at about the level of politicians and as only slightly more credible than used-car salesmen. The poll suggests that only 21 percent of Americans believe journalists have high ethical standards, ranking them below auto mechanics but tied with members of Congress. More precisely, the poll notes that only one in four people believe what they read in the newspapers. Chicago Tribune Editor Charles M. Madigan may have put it best when he offered this advice: "If you are a journalist, you should probably just assume that you come across as a liar."

A 2004 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of Columbia University's storied Graduate School of Journalism, underscores Madigan's observation. "Since 1985, believability of the daily newspaper has fallen by a quarter, from 80 percent in 1985 to 59 percent in 2002," notes the study, which includes data gathered by the Pew Research Center to form its conclusions. The study also points out that there has been a rapid decline in newspaper readership since the 1980s, with slightly more than half of Americans (54 percent) reading a newspaper during the week.

"The three television network news divisions and local news also saw significant drops from 1985, when they were all above 80 percent for believability," the study reveals. A 1999 survey conducted for the American Society of Newspaper Editors also points out that about 53 percent of the public view the press as out of touch with mainstream America, while 78 percent think journalists pay more attention to the interests of their editors than their readers.

Indeed, the recent humiliation of the once highly regarded journalist Jack Kelley of USA Today and former New York Times rising star Jayson Blair hardly shocked the public. About 22 percent told a Pew survey in 2003 that they thought the unethical practices of Blair, which included fabricating sources and events, occur frequently among journalists, while 36 percent said they thought wrongdoing happened occasionally. Another 58 percent believed journalists didn't care about inaccuracies.

A 2002 Harris Poll produced similar results. In the age of Enron and WorldCom disasters, even accountants scored higher on trust than journalists. That same survey said Americans tended to trust clergy, teachers, doctors, police officers and the president, while those at the bottom were Congress members, corporate leaders and journalists. "I never bought into the polls," says Ted Gup, a former Washington Post and Time reporter who is author of The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives. Indeed, that 2002 Harris poll noted that even 51 percent of the pollsters say they don't trust polls, so who is to be believed? "I think journalists play a very big role in the feelings about the world, and anyone who is that influential is going to attract criticism," Gup says. "But I still notice that when a politician and journalist walk into a room, [people] gravitate toward them. I don't think the public is going to run them out of town on a rail."

And yet, Gup observes, "it breaks my heart" whenever a journalist is outed as unethical. "You know, Janet Cooke was a friend of mine," he recalled about the disgraced Washington Post reporter who had to give back a Pulitzer Prize for fabricating a story in 1981. "Ten years after it happened, I bumped into her in a grocery story and she saw me and rushed into my arms and gave me a big hug. I couldn't remember her name. I blocked it out because the pain was so big." While Gup says he has no reason to believe the number of dishonest journalists is greater than in the ranks of politicians, stockbrokers or priests, it nevertheless deeply concerns him. "How we are perceived affects our credibility," he says.

In the last two decades nearly two dozen writers have been caught breaking the unwritten canons of journalism [see sidebar]. And certainly the recent DVD release of Shattered Glass, the gripping and frightening story of Stephen Glass, a serial liar at the New Republic, is not likely to restore faith in the craft. Glass' stories about computer hackers and drunken Young Republican orgies - all fabricated - are as legendary as the fictional notes, phony corporate Websites and bogus business cards he created to cover his fraud. To the public, Shattered Glass likely will reinforce the Hollywood stereotype of journalists as sleazy and insensitive attack dogs with no regard for the truth, but it also should be a wake-up call for journalists.

"For me, I think it's editorial leadership," says Adam Penenberg, the former Forbes Digital Tool reporter who helped expose Glass. Author of Tragic Indifference: One Man's Battle With the Auto Industry Over the Dangers of SUVS, he says that even "when I worked at Forbes, no one ever gave me a piece of paper to sign about ethics." Penenberg believes an ethics guideline on the dos and don'ts - such as not altering quotes, avoiding use of anonymous sources, not holding positions that could be considered a conflict of interest for a reporter, and not owning or purchasing stock before or after writing about a company - would clear up a lot of gray areas between reporters and editors. Creating an ethics standard of the sort that Fortune 500 companies require of their employees would "put the fear of God" into reporters, he says.

Alex Jones, director of the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and a former media critic for the New York Times, says many media organizations have a "strict ethics-standards policy." Coauthor of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times, he notes that the Times has "very rigorous standards," but says rules that are obvious to the profession, such as not plagiarizing, hardly need to be put formally into a code. "You don't have those types of rules. You have an assumption of professionalism," he says.

That assumption apparently went astray at the Times, but the Blair incident has caused the paper to move aggressively to fix problems. For instance, it finally has acknowledged that it took, without proper attribution, a quote from a 1997Insight story about singer Pat Boone and heavy metal. The Times explained on March 7 that "a request for acknowledgment went astray" for seven years. Meanwhile, it remains unclear under what circumstances the Times must include attribution when picking up the work of other journalists.

Penenberg argues for a strict set of rules to eliminate the gray areas. For example, is it ethical to alter a quote to fix grammatical errors or improve clarity? Must a reporter identify an anonymous source to his editor or fact-checker? Are there different rules for "star reporters" such as Glass, who for so long duped fact-checkers with fabricated notes? "Stephen Glass was the best liar I ever dealt with in my life," he says. "In my only phone conversation with [Glass], that lasted an hour long, I had him dead to rights. I had a checklist. I didn't give him any breathing room. Yet Stephen Glass was able to manipulate the situation and never admit he made it up." The only thing he didn't make up in the story "Hack Heaven" was that there is indeed a state of Nevada, Penenberg chuckles. Glass succeeded at fraud because everyone trusted him.

Gup says: "Journalists can't function without trust - one is between the journalist and the public and the other is between a journalist and an editor. ... An editor can't police journalists at every twist and turn. All they can do is have an antenna up and look for anything suspicious." A journalism professor at Case Western University School of Law in Cleveland, Gup recalls an incident in which an editor changed quotes in a story; he responded by stating in a memo that unless the editor also conducted an interview with the subject, the quote should stay as written. His quotes never were changed again, and that sort of care helps build reader and editorial trust.

Jones says of most concern to him is not the idea that "journalists pipe quotes or write phony stories, but ... that the editors involved have done their duty. There is not enough blame on editors - Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley should never work in journalism again. They betrayed a trust, but the editors did not follow up when there was reason to think that actions should be taken. They bear responsibility. The shock to me is not that Blair and Kelley were able to survive in the environment but the [editors for whom they worked] tolerated them as long as they did."

What needs to be done? It begins with hiring practices, Gup says. Editors should be "hiring someone with character," he explains. "Companies need to spend more time investing [in] people with character ... someone with integrity that grasps the full and humbling responsibility a journalist has." The problems of the Blairs and Glasses "begin with culture and end with culture," he says. "[A sound] culture promotes integrity. If you hire someone with high character, they will police those who don't have it - and if you are fabricating, you will be outed. You will be revealed and found out."

And finally, when the story ends up in the editor's hands, Jones says, "News organizations should take the advice of the great communicator, President Ronald Reagan: 'Trust but verify.'"

Timothy W. Maier is an investigative reporter for Insight magazine.

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