The Columbia Journalism Review issued a report Sunday, April 5, 2015, analyzing the article A Rape on Campus, which appeared in a November 2014 issue of ROLLING Stone. The conclusion of Sheila Coronel, Steve Coll, and Derek Kravitz, all highly respected faculty members, was a failure of the reporter to sufficiently corroborate the facts of the story destroyed its credibility. The excuse for not confirming details was the source might have shied away from participating any more in preparing the story. That error was added to by editorial levels above Sabrina Rubin Erdely forgoing the requirements of this central journalistic principle. Official police investigations revealed there was no basis in fact for the story. The magazine eventually retracted the story and now faces litigation by, at least members of the fraternity maligned in the story who will seek damages done to their reputations.
This piece, originally written in 2008, still reflects the worsening plight of journalism in the United States, as mirrored in the Rolling Stone episode, the Brian Williams suspension and the deepening mistrust of major national media.
The Good Old Days of American Media
Networks and major newspapers used to pick the bones of political figures, bringing to light inconsistencies. Contradictions would be trotted out and explanations demanded. But not so now. Where has the professionalism of the news media gone? Why is it no longer doing its job?
When I was learning broadcast news, the predominant emphasis was on ethics, propriety, and professionalism. Dean John E. Drewry at the University of Georgia’ School of Journalism, championed innovation, but still insisted good journalism was detailed, pains-taking work. Facts needed to be clarified, researched, and proven before they went into a story. The challenge of producing a good piece of news writing was the unseen portion of the work. That?s what separated the junk from the jewels.
Wire services reporters, often-caricatured dashing for the phone booths – though conscious of the need for speed in their work – also understood the necessity of truth. My own mind latched on to the standard of an original and two independent sources for significant news beats. Long after I?d left typewriter, audio tape editing blocks and microphones, such a precept still anchored my evaluation of news. Since those days of 1971, I?ve been a witness to major historical events. In each case, I have personally adhered to the standard of ?one original two confirming?.
Two of my journalistic heroes ? Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward ? fit the model of excellent journalists. At that time, theirs was the benchmark against which others measured themselves. But the veiled threats of Spiro Agnew against the news media giants forced a retreat from digging deeper for fear of governmental reprisal. An attitude of self-preservation reigned. One may argue as to the soundness of this stance but it prevailed, at least until Mr. Agnew and Mr. Nixon both were driven from office.
The Rise of the Imperial Media
Once the Watergate crisis passed, CBS, NBC, ABC, AP and UPI crept timidly out of their hastily dug foxholes and began to proclaim themselves as champions of righteousness. They had – so they felt – fearlessly exposed corruption. It was their demands for justice that brought about the collapse of the Nixon regime. As pay-back, they felt entitled to, and demanded, unbridled access to anything and everything. Any hesitation or reluctance the media translated into a sensitive ulterior motive.
Mike Wallace?s ?foot-in-the-door? style on 60 Minutes became the vogue. Innocent (well, maybe not innocent but certainly not ragingly guilty; more like ill advised or misguided) politicians and public figures were ?arrested, tried, and convicted? by CBS and others. A denial became ?stonewalling.? A protestation of innocence became an ?arrogance of denial.? An insistence on adherence to constitutional rights was made to appear a corruption of the legal system. There was no defense. And the news organizations, being top-heavy with a political and social agenda, began to crash down on those concepts, individuals, and programs they felt needed to be removed from society.
The Death of Tradition in America – The Media’s Role
Established traditions became targets. Responses of ?just because? or ?because it has always been that way? were made to sound lame, suspicious. If a topic?s ?root system? was not deemed valid then the entire matter could be construed as ?inappropriate, ? ?out-dated,? or even ?subversive.? Most definitely it would be deemed as in keeping with the ?American way of life? and not in the ?best interest of American citizens.? Now, through the growing influence of globalism, replace ?American? with the word ?world?s.?
Janet Cooke, employed at the Washington Post, wrote ?Jimmy’s World,? a ?profile” of an 8-year old heroin addict. Although some within the Post doubted the story’s veracity, the Post defended it and assistant managing editor Bob Woodward submitted the story for the Pulitzer Prize. Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing on April 13, 1981. Pressured by the editors of the Post as other inconsistencies were exposed in her career, Cooke confessed her guilt. To her credit, Cooke did return the prize.
The Impact of Technology – All News All the Time
Technology is the blame for the next unraveling of journalism?s time-honored standards of professionalism. Ted Turner?s dream CNN created instant access to news ?as it happened.? For the first time in history, those upon whom an event would impact could witness it as it happened. And with that, suddenly ?verification? became obsolete – or at least unnecessary. From that point on, what could be seen was to be considered true.
Non-stop news also set the new norm of ?speed.? As it had in the early days of the wire services, seconds became precious. Even though the AP, UP and INS at one time adhered to a rule of being sure of ?facts? before transmitting them, news operations now sought to be first on the air, whether they might later have to retract or not. Such tossing caution to the wind cost the networks dearly in the 2000 election. An insane rush to be first to call states overrode careful evaluation of raw data. Network executives tried to blame their mistakes on computer errors, but the whisper in the earpiece of the anchor to ?Call it!? was human. Once done, the domino effect brought all the news houses down in shame and embarrassment.
The Evolution of the “Superstar Journalist”
As insistence from producers to get ?news? on the air before the competition became a clamor in every newsroom; ?journalists? mutated into ?performers.? The worth of their work became the rating points achieved, not its quality.
Shrieking, screaming headline presentations replaced penetrating, thoughtful commentary. Newspapers, already dated when they rolled off the presses, became obsolete. Viewers now wanted to see things as they happened – not to read about them later. The public wanted to assemble the details themselves, not have someone do selective gathering for them. Television touted itself as being an ?eyewitness to history in the making.? It was a novelty for the public, and one not requiring a great deal of intellect. Seeing events unfold without having them put into perspective seemed to be ?right way? to watch the news.
Even in such open-ended coverage there is a subtle editing. Not every camera can be on the screen at the same time. Someone is making value judgments as to which shot to air. Though it may seem trivial, involuntary partiality can intervene. The producers and directors are determining what information the viewer receives, not the viewer making a cafeteria choice of their own. Through their selections the tone, the tenor, the very memory of the event is shaped and affects public perception.
Our Perceptions Are Being Manipulated – Continuously
This sounds very paranoid and – if it were not now painfully obvious that it is being done – it would be. A bias of the media establishment is now its agenda. The ?press? is no longer ?free,? but is a slave to a leadership determined to impose its plans, all done under the pretense of being for the ?good of the people?.
So, where has the professionalism of the news media gone? It has been replaced by a sense of mission ? gathering and reporting the news as a journalist is not a job, but a duty. Nothing is wrong with that view; what has changed is the purpose of that duty and mission. In the past, the airing of truth, unvarnished and balanced, was the goal. A news person wanted to put ideas out there for the public to make up its own mind. That truly served the ?public interest, convenience, and necessity.?
Where Does This Leave Us?
Now the goal is to replace presentation with judgment. Every news item is to be designed to advance a particular thought – a preferred narrative – often one that neatly supports a presupposed politically correct presupposition.
The saddest thing is those young people entering the field of journalism believe they are following in the footsteps of the greats ? Edward R. Murrow, William Allen White, Theodore H. White, Morgan Beatty, Drew Pearson, Ernie Pyle, Ralph McGill, Henry W. Grady. They have the delusion their profession is still noble, still fair, still performing a vital service.
But it is no longer. It has been replaced by the majestic purpose of propagandizing an agenda.
The moral of the story: Don’t live or plan your life around the headlines or the media narrative du jour. They may be exciting – but they may also be completely wrong.
What was the central failure of ?A Rape on Campus? story? According to Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll…
?But, a [reporter’s] response to someone?s request to refrain from necessary journalistic practice because [a source’s life] is at risk should be to either withdraw from ? a story because the story is not worth that person?s life or to negotiate with that person for a mutually agreeable alternative that allows you to verify the information adequately but leaves that person comfortable that the fear they expressed is no longer a concern.?
THE ROLLING STONE is an example, a tragic one, of the transcendence of a perception overcoming the traditions and standards of truly professional journalists. The Columbia report even notes the errors were all ?avoidable.? No matter that reputations, honors, careers have been besmirched; the proclamation of an idea held by a few to be distasteful took precedence over expertise.
What are your thoughts on this episode – and what do you think it says about the state of American media? Do you ever get a sense that the news media is less about news and information, and more about entertainment and propaganda?
This article is extremely profound and perhaps one of the best I’ve read in a long time. The unfortunate truth is that you cannot trust 99% of what you read in mainstream media these days. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal has more integrity than most. The news has become very agenda driven and politicized in that the vast majority of journalists are extremely left of center in their personal politics and there stories (notice I didn’t say news articles) are slanted to persuade/brainwash the public into believing the same way they do. The same press corps that delighted in exposing Nixon go out of their way not to report Clinton’s, the Kennedy’s and Obama’s transgressions. Fox News and Rush are always castigated as being the mouthpiece for conservatives but without those and a few websites on the internet the public would only hear one presentation of the news and that would always be what the liberals want you to believe. Once upon a time the news was reported in a fair and partial manner. Because that is no longer true, the print news media is dying and the traditional network news shows are following in those footsteps. Add to that the fact that young adults now get most of their news from left leaning and indeed fictitious shows like The Colbert Report and the Jon Stewart show most Americans receive their news in the form or lies on a daily basis. And since too many aren’t willing or able to dig deep enough into the story – relying on small news bites for the most of their information – we have grown a very misinformed population that is easily duped into believing what ever the first news bite they hear as gospel.
Hi Kathy – I agree that the conclusions are profound. What we’re witnessing from the mass media is the death of the truth. It’s as if it doesn’t matter, as if there are higher objectives. A civilization can’t survive without at least a general adherence to the truth – it’s one of the basic foundations of a society. The problem is that the anti-truth rot has filtered through our entire culture. We can never know if what we’re seeing or hearing is reliable.
One of the purposes of a free press was to create a segment of society that would keep an eye on the government. That worked well for nearly 200 years, but since the 1970s it’s mostly broken down. In general, the mainstream media is in bed with government, since most of the MSM’s members believe that ultimately all problems can and should be provided by government, which does the greatest good for the most people. The only time when the media openly (and agressively) criticize government is when someone who’s not a liberal (like Ronald Reagan or Rand Paul) gains any traction with the public. The MSM acts as a rear guard for the Democratic party. But they also favor any movement by Republicans to increase the size and power of government.
So what it comes down to is that the sector that the founding fathers envisioned as the public watchdog has become part and parcel of the very institution that they were set up to survey for excesses. That function is no longer being performed by anyone, except a small group of vocal bloggers, most of whom are ignored by the mainstream media. It’s getting harder and harder to see how we’ll survive all of this. Checks and balances are long gone.
Thanks for the kind words. Sadly, this trend towards “managed news” didn’t just start with Watergate. You can read of how the media collectively avoided any mention or reporting of FDR’s polio. Despite mounting evidence of the Holocaust the major outlets in the United States refused to print any of it until after the Second World War and then only because it came up as evidence in the war crimes trials.
This is not something that is taught; it is a culture, an atmosphere that permeates content, upward and downward. CBS Television destroyed some careers in Washington because material that was good wouldn’t pass muster in New York and Cronkite. So the reporters and producers began putting together things slanted the way they knew “the most trusted man in America” wanted them to be.
Only a few courageous independent media challenge the mighty MSM. And, even Fox News sometimes slides into line, so they cannot totally be considered absolutely untainted.
The solution is going to have to come from the public demanding accountability and equality. Until the fists are raised in challenge, we will continue to go the path as it is set. Lack of verification is not the only sin of the media. Hopefully soon the call to repentance will be loud enough and we can have restored to us a “free press.”
Why the hell is Woodward one of your heroes? He’s every bit as guilty as Cooke was for her bs story.
Hi Jim – Woodward might have been a hero of mine had I come up in life as a journalist, but I didn’t. Bill, the author of the post, did.
Woodward was in management at the time of the Cooke affair, wearing a different hat. Yes, because he signed off on the piece, he should be considered culpable. Difference was there was a “cover-up” being conducted to support the Cooke story. Even Marion Berry chimed in and claimed the story was true, though deep digging by authorities couldn’t come up with the “verification.”
Woodward was my hero during the Watergate affair because, like a dog with meaty bone, he and Bernstein grabbed the heart of the story and dug in their heels. Ben Bradlee wasn’t happy about running the material, but couldn’t come up with anything to shake their evidence. He’s a hero because he stuck his neck out, went out on a limb for something he thought was right and didn’t back down. That’s integrity; that;’s courage; that professionalism; that’s journalism.