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?