Alone in Their Principles, Part 1
Alone in Their Principles, Part 1
For decades, American journalism has operated under the guise of dedication to a set of operating principles. Perhaps recent years have seen the ugly side of their fulfillment: the quest to paint an authoritative narrative.
This is part one of a multi-part series that examines the state of journalism through the actions of American journalists in relation to the purpose and principles they set forth for themselves nearly two decades ago.
The fake news war has easily been the most delightful development of the Trump era.
Whether it’s Russians hacking a Vermont power grid, Michael Cohen visiting Prague incognito like a cut rate Bond villain, or some kids smiling at a Native American guy, Americans have never been less trusting of the news and its gate-keeping purveyors.
From Facebook fact checkers to Voxsplainers, CNN to Fox News, and the New York Times to boutique online news sites, one thing everyone can agree on in these frenzied times is that other so-called journalists are not conducting themselves in a principled and trustworthy manner.
There are many including myself that would argue Trump’s most endearing feature of his campaign and ensuing Presidency has been his ability to force our malevolent media magistrates to drop their facade of independent, truth seeking, just-the-facts-ma’am news people to reveal their true nature; partisan elites who don’t care about a you or a majority of the people in this country. The Trump era has borne a plethora of documentaries, articles, columns, TV segments, blogs, and unhinged tweets covering the fake news phenomena.
For those with an iota of historical knowledge, fake news is nothing new or novel to the American way. From babies-thrown-out-of-incubators to babies-on-bayonets, the military industrial complex has always used fake news to launch their wars to churn their profits and further their political goals. Fake news about fake news is even older than many people think, from H.L. Mencken’s bathtub ruse to Orson Welles radio rendition of War of the Worlds.
As someone who quite enjoys the reality show nature of media pundits and personalities lobbing literary and liturgical bombs at one another, I have found a fascinating sub-plot to the fake news wars to be the underlying dissection of journalism itself.
After all, what is journalism?
How should a journalist be conducting oneself?
What is news/worthy?
Well, there is precedent to these questions and many more, taught in at least one University in the US.
Believe it or not, journalists themselves have a "shared purpose" of nine principles for every journalist to observe. I learned about them during my days in journalism school (or as the hip kids refer to it, J-school).
According to the American Press Association, as part of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (tellingly rebranded as the Pew Research Center Journalism Project in 2013) the laughingly titled Committee of Concerned Journalists in 1997 quote:
“…began a national conversation among citizens and news people to identify and clarify the principles that underlie journalism. After four years of research, including 20 public forums around the country, a reading of journalism history, a national survey of journalists, and more, the group released a Statement of Shared Purpose that identified nine principles.”
This, of course, led to a journalism textbook used in Universities, because someone’s gonna make that cheddar. Naked capitalism in all its 21st century glory.
According to this shared purpose, these nine principles seek to define “a theory of journalism”.
They are as follows:
1. Journalism’s First Obligation is to the Truth
2. Its First Loyalty is to Citizens
3. Its Essence is Discipline of Verification
4. Its Practitioners Must Maintain an Independence From Those They Cover
5. It Must Serve As An Independent Monitor of Power
6. It Must Provide a Forum for Public Criticism and Compromise
7. It Must Strive to Make the Significant Interesting and Relevant
8. It Must Keep the News Comprehensive and Proportional
9. Its Practitioners Must Be Allowed to Exercise Their Personal Conscience
On its face, these principles for the most part seem to be quite reasonable. But what about the detailed explanations of each principle, composed by the journalists themselves, that accompanied them?
These series of articles seeks to answer one simple question: are journalists abiding by the purpose and principles they claim journalism to represent?
The common narrative in traditional right circles, demonstrated in a clear and concise manner by Michael Malice his new book The New Right, spins the old yarn that journalists were once upon a time the objective and principled news vendors they claim to be, having only recently descended into the madness of malevolent media magistrates. Conversely, the left has always supported the news outlets and coverage it deems useful to their movement, castigating any journalist or medium that dares oppose their narrative du jour.
While this series seeks to unpack the extent to which journalists are not abiding by their stated purpose and principles, there are also perhaps not so discernable ways in which the journalists are indeed faithfully adhering to the purpose and core principles they set forth for themselves at the turn of the century. Indeed, a more cynical view of journalism may find that journalists have been fulfilling their stated purpose and living their expressed principles long before they were ever consecrated into common declarations.
A Purpose of Principles
As any successful organization can attest, before an organization defines its principles it must first understand its purpose – its reasons for being.
Many of us struggle to understand our own individual purpose in life, which may evolve and outright change multiple times as we bob-and-weave our way through life. Journalists, on the other hand, believe they have demarcated their place in society.
After extended examination by journalists themselves of the character of journalism at the end of the twentieth century, we offer this common understanding of what defines our work. The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.
So explains paragraph one of the journalist’s Statement of Purpose. Forgetting for a moment the arrogance that implies journalists maintain the knowledge and authority to decide what information citizens need to function in a free society, I would guess ordinary Americans largely agree with the general premise this “central purpose” connotes.
But let’s take 10x this first sentence slide using a historical microscope.
How might we describe the character of journalism in the twentieth century?
Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter Walter Duranty repeatedly used America’s ”newspaper of record” to convince its citizens the 25,000 deaths per day during the genocide-via-famine Holodomor in the Soviet-controlled Ukraine was but mere “exaggeration or militant propaganda”.
Congress’ Church Committee revealed the CIA to have planted several dozen agents and assets in major news outlets across the globe, including domestically, to circulate agency approved propaganda under the guise of straight man reporting.
And William Randolph Hearst used his vast media empire to push fabricated news, sensationalist stories, and yellow journalism into the mainstream; among other misfortunes, Hearst led the charge for the prohibition of marijuana, leading to the destruction of millions of lives that continues to this very day.
As eluded to earlier, American journalists also “reported” scores of propaganda our fair and noble war mongers in DC exploited to gin up their wars. The Bryce Report, a supposed investigation into German war crimes in Belgium circa 1915 and published widely across the United States, recounted supposedly verified stories of German soldiers butchering women and small children with bayonets. These horror stories undoubtedly helped to sway some American sentiment towards intervention in the European tragedy we today call World War I.
The Gulf of Tonkin fraud gifted our Washington elites their permission to send hundreds of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese to gruesome deaths that left its survivors emotionally and/or physically torn and frayed. And then there was the run up to the Gulf War, whereby the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States testified in front of Congress as “Nayira”, an ordinary Kuwaiti citizen. Nayira related the gruesome stories of depraved Iraqi soldiers ripping babies from incubators only to leave them on the floor to writhe in death. As an aside, it was an American PR Firm hired by the Kuwaiti government that promoted and advocated Nayira’s “story” about the incubators.
History, of course, proved all of this propaganda to be dubious if not outright false – but only after our Washington elites had consummated their Hell-on-Earth desires.
Given these glaring examples, which are merely the all-stars in the professional league of “accurate and reliable information” journalists claim to provide, one might draw the conclusion that the “character” of journalists in the 20th century, was, shall we say, wicked filth.
But even taking their statement in a more narrow view, that is journalism at the end of the 20th century, we find the rotten apple of this last decade’s reporting to land not far from the 20th century tree fertilized in this ordure. There was Richard Jewell, the guy many journalists agreed definitely bombed Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics until they didn’t – it was actually Eric Rudolph.
Matt Drudge built his entire career as the number one news website in America because the media refused to report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 1998 a Forbes reporter revealed celebrated New Republic journalist Stephen Glass had fabricated a story about a 15-year-old hacker from whole cloth. Upon a detailed managerial review, The New Republic found Glass to have fabricated 27 of his 41 articles in various capacities, including a 1997 exposé that detailed the supposed drug iniquity and sexual immorality of young Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Committee.
It is, however, the second paragraph of the journalist statement of purpose, excusing their preferred parlance, that may shine some light on this insidious behavior they classify as journalism.
“This [purpose] encompasses myriad roles helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community’s goals, heroes and villains, and pushing people beyond complacency. This purpose also involves other requirements, such as being entertaining, serving as watchdog and offering voice to the voiceless.”
All story tellers seek to encompass these functions. But served in combination with a self-declared air of objectivity, this paragraph reads as something just short of authoritarian. Defining a community? Creating common language? And knowledge? Identifying the heroes, and declaring the villains? Have tyrants not sought to perfect similar procedures within their regimes over the millennia?
If the Trump era has exposed anything at all, it is that journalists are adhering to the exact purpose they defined for themselves close to 20 years ago.
Like autocrats, journalists have defined who is material in society. Based on the bureaus they maintain, and the Ivy League graduates they hire, they have defined the community for the United States as the coastal elite urban confluence. Have you heard or read much about the horrific flooding in Nebraska this year? Maybe – but if you have it was probably in an article preaching the good word of climate change. Have you read or heard about this little controversy I will refer to as Trump Russia collusion? That this question has become rhetorical provides us the answer.
Like technocrats, journalists have developed the “corpus of information”, or if you prefer “the mosaic of facts”, that you as a good and right citizen must know in order maintain the status of a good and right citizen. Putin controls our country from the Kremlin through 20 dollars in Facebook ads and Twitter trolls. “Confidential informants” may no longer be referred to as “spies”. Trump attempting to make peace with North Korea provides “legitimacy” to a brutal dictator. And everything is either racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted, or all of the above.
Like tyrants, journalists have dictated the heroes and villains in America. News and media personalities such as Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulis, Laura Loomer, and Gavin McInnis have all been unpersoned at the behest of our malevolent media magistrates. Most of them can no longer utilize traditional banking options, let alone Twitter and Facebook. McCain, by virtue of his last great act of opposing Trump, has never been more revered in media circles. You can add sexist-no-more Romney and Jeff Flakey Flake to that list of now protagonist Never Trump Republicans the media magistrates trot out from time-to-time to hit out at Trump.
Trump is the villain, and anyone who supports him supports literally Hitler. As for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Ilhan Omar? The deep state? Pay no attention to their numerous scandals marinating like a staphylococcus bacteria within the thin layer of the sweat logged wrestling mat known as our 24 hour news cycle. Journalists have declared “The Squad” and our intelligence agencies to be the protagonists, fighting the rampant hatred and bigotry of the Trump administration one declaration of racism and violation of our fourth amendment at a time.
As with all peoples, journalists aren’t perfect. They can’t live up to all the tasks described in their statement of purpose all of the time. For example, journalists really aren’t all that entertaining. Any decent conservative news outlet has detailed ad nauseum the “watchdogging”, or shall I say “lap dogging”, that the majority of DC journalists accomplished during Obama’s tenure as President. And journalists probably don’t know much about what it means to be voiceless, because I haven’t seen too many journalists outside those publishing at antiwar.com relaying stories of the thousands of children starving to death in Yemen. Because to journalists, the voiceless in America are, in fact, the journalists themselves. According to them, Trump puts every right thinking journalist in mortal danger every time he leads a rally in a cheer of “fake news”.
Journalists’ adherence to their central purpose and subsequent functions they have carved out for themselves in society may actually be at an all-time high. Which may have something to do with why American’s perception of journalists may be at an all-time low.
About the author
Harry is a greasy Italian fellow with a loud mouth, soft eyes, and stereotypical furry chest. He lives somewhere in California.