Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Journalists Should be "Two People": A Lesson in Professional Ethics

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By Barry Rubin

There's a wonderful exchange in "Citizen Kane" that tells us about the proper role of the media. The banker Thatcher--sort of a J.P. Morgan type--says to his former ward Charles Kane, who is using his money to run a newspaper that is simultaneously reform-minded and sensationalist.

First, I'll quote; then I'll explain:

THATCHER: "I came to see you, Charles, about your - about the Enquirer's campaign against the Metropolitan Transfer Company....I think I should remind you, Charles, of a fact you seem to have forgotten. You are yourself one of the largest individual stockholders.

KANE: "Mr. Thatcher, isn't everything I've been saying in the Enquirer about the traction trust absolutely true?....The trouble is, Mr. Thatcher, you don't realize you're talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who has 82,631 shares of Metropolitan Transfer--you see, I do have a rough idea of my holdings--I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a dangerous scoundrel, his paper should be run out of town and a committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of $1,000.

"On the other hand I am the publisher of the Enquirer. As such, it is my duty...to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this city are not robbed blind by a group of money-mad pirates because, God help them, they have no one to look after their interests!"

What Kane is saying is this: My personal (economic) interest is to back the company, but my duty as a journalist is to report the truth and expose those who are doing wrong. If I don't do it, no one--or at least no one who is going to preserve freedom--is going to do so.

Since this is the traditional issue of wealthy versus poor, we might read these lines just based on the specific case in question. Yet Kane is saying that he is "two people." One of them is a man with his own interests; the other is a journalist whose job is to expose the truth. Notice how important it is for Kane to first establish that his charges are true: he isn't lying to help the working people; to do so would be demagoguery.

Here's the point: as a person with political views a journalist might say: I love Barack Obama, I voted for him and gave $1000 to his campaign. I think Republicans are evil. I loathe anyone conservative. Every time I hear him speak a thrill runs up my leg. I hope Barack Obama is president forever and does everything he wants to do.

But then he should go on to say: as a journalist all of that is totally irrelevant. My job is to tell the truth as best I can, even if it makes my "side" look bad and if I don't protect the people who might be hurt by a given policy who else can do so?

With a lot of shortcomings, that's the historic view of journalism in the United States. Is it naive to think that someone can so separate out such things? But that's what professional ethics, Enlightenment values, democratic norms--and might one dare say modern Western civilization?--are based on. And when someone fails that test, they should be called to order, their work edited appropriately to siphon out bias and to ensure fairness. That includes reporting, not burying, stories just because they do not further the cause that they favor in their "other" identity, when off-work.

Yet this is not at all what is happening all too often today, when large elements in the media have thrown out their sacred trust in order to back individuals and policies--hiding or slanting stories--merely because those are the ones they personally favor.

[Forgive a digression about how so many other things hitherto taken for granted come unglued but this story, told to me first-hand, really shook me up. A doctor regularly receives referrals from the local office of the Immigration Service. One day a patient was sent over because, the officials said, he needed to get a certain shot to stay in the United States. The man insisted he didn't need it, but the doctor pointed out that, according to the regulations, he did. The man said to the doctor, "You're Jewish, aren't you? You don't like Syrians." Just like that the whole Weberian, rational, laws-not-man, equal-treatment-under-law infrastructure that holds up Western civilization collapsed and the Middle Ages had returned.]

It is no more moral for journalists or the media to become propagandist for causes they support in their personal political views than to do so for the Metropolitan Transfer just because they own shares in it.

Guess I'm kind of an old-fashioned guy who believes all this stuff he was taught in school back in the pre-post-modern era.

Here's what Kane said in the declaration to readers of what his newspaper would do:

"I'll provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. And no special interests will be allowed to interfere with the truth of that news."

Special interests includes the journalists' own interests. In Kane's manifesto there's much less wiggle-room than in, "All the news that's fit to print," the New York Times' slogan. Who decides what's fit and on what basis? Now we know the answer for this era: all the news that won't make people feel they have to fight wars in self-defense, criticize other countries or cultures, and vote against the editors' own candidate.

Optional note: Yes, I know what happens in the film. Of course, Kane also broke his promises, which is a main theme of the film, and Leland reminded him of that bitterly.

But also let's remember that later on after the scene I describe above, Kane's own wife gives a bad singing performance and he bullies his staff into giving good reviews, But when Kane's oldest friend--the theatre critic--pans her performance but passes out from drink before finishing it, Kane is so caught up in his journalistic-honesty persona that he completes the negative review. It is a reminder of the professional code which this complex character both reveres and breaks. Bernstein, Kane's manager, thinks he did it to show his friend that he was an honest man--and a good journalist. The theatre critic thinks Kane did it to show off. I don't care what the journalists' motive is nowadays as long as they do their job.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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