October 12, 2004

I Rather Like Dan

People in the press write a lot about themselves. Pick up any journalistic trade magazine and you’ll see what I mean. Journalists are seen by the public (often justifiably so) as a cocky and self-important lot. Of course, this is a profession staffed largely with former nerds with huge vocabularies, who have the potential to inflict damage with what they write. I should know, because that’s me! Reporting requires a special type of person, and ambushing people to get their deepest beliefs and rushing to meet deadlines is good work for a Type-A, hard-driven personality (That’s not me).

Journalism, then, often becomes an ego-driven industry. Much like hip-hop. And just like rappers, journalists who screw up get hammered. Not only does the mistake-maker get the facts wrong, but it becomes front-page news! For days! Justified or not, it’s almost sickening how much satisfaction journalists get from exposing one of their own. It gives them a feeling of intellectual superiority, as well as a chance to harp on why they themselves are above suspicion.

It’s one thing to demand a virtuoso performance on the stage of public communication; it’s another to try to bump that person off the stage while they’re still trying to perform. Take last week’s Vermilion staff editorial. Entitled “Hit the road, Dan,” the editorial took Dan Rather and CBS News to task for its recent fudging of facts regarding Bush-related documents. Faced with evidence that memos featured on CBS proving Bush’s skittish military service were phonies, Rather apologized.

Last week’s editorial compared Rather’s case to that of Jayson Blair, the recently disgraced New York Times journalist who made up articles. I find it surprising that a journalism student would make such a silly comparison; if her professor accused her of making up quotes, when in fact she recalled the information correctly but it turned out to be wrong, there’s no question she’d explode. Wouldn’t anyone?

It’s dangerous business for a “junior journalism student” to give hell to Dan Rather over incorrect information. This assumes, of course, that this journalism undergraduate is never herself going to make a mistake in her career. Rather has been employed by CBS News since 1962. In that time, he has been known for only two major gaffes: this one and a confrontation he had with George H.W. Bush in 1988, in which they—get this—both screamed at each other! That’s two mistakes in 42 years. Not bad! I myself passed that two-mistake threshold sometime during my tenure at my middle-school newspaper. Besides, let’s face it: any Vermilion staffer who points fingers for mistakes is calling the kettle black, okay?

Such criticism is valid only when it is not accompanied by blatant partisanship. Why, for example, did the writer not refer to the case of Fox News reporter Carl Cameron, who completely made up the John Kerry manicure quotes after the first Presidential debate? Where is her outrage over that?

And witness Cameron’s network, the “fair and balanced” Fixed News, sorry, Fox News. Any outlet that makes a policy of sending e-mails to its anchors to inject pro-Bush statements in its news deserves criticism. Not the kind of self-serving criticism currently enveloping Rather, but the constructive kind that actually helps the profession and the flow in information in general.

One quote from the editorial is telling: “Most people don’t know this, but journalists have a code of ethics.” Yes, it seems that most people these days aren’t aware that journalism has any ethics. It might help the integrity of this great profession if journalists showed a little restraint and forgiveness when one of their own shows the occasional misjudgment. Now that would be ethical.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your must be insane...

2:38 AM  

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