By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
That’s the truth.
The furor over the Fox News audience-pleasing, distorted election reports about the 2020 presidential race is only the latest example in a long list in a walk of shame. Notice that journalists are most disturbed; the public doesn’t seem to care much.
That’s because journalists have the most to lose, their credibility, when other journalists are caught fabricating or playing loose with the facts. Although, it might be argued that the bloviating opinion-shouters at Fox News do not qualify as real journalists who follow codes of ethics and keep their opinions to themselves.
It might be argued that the American public never did have a good idea about how objective journalism operates, or where to find it. They look for echo chambers, instead. It’s ironic that segments of the public who accuse media of bias are vehemently biased themselves. If they don’t see their entrenched point of view reported, they consider that bias.
The Fox News fuss still is playing out; remaining to be seen is whether its tawdry performance leads to new legal restrictions on all media in the United States, including softening protections under the First Amendment and standards for winning defamation suits against the media.
Freedom of speech and the press are hallmarks of the American way of life. They could be jeopardized by the Fox News case. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not the only rotten apple in the barrel. There have been other rotten apples. Over time, we tend to forget them.
Rotten apple awards
Who would get some of the top rotten apple awards? Usually, we talk about the best in the business. The Fox News scandal prompts some thoughts about the worst examples of journalism, even the most shameful. Like any contest, it depends on personal judgment. Some might come to different conclusions. But here are some of the worst that come to my mind:
Janet Cooke and the Washington Post – Never before in the history of American journalism did a newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize, then return the prize because the award-winning story was found to be fabricated by the reporter. That’s what happened in 1981.
Cooke wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a 1980 story that began: “Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks flecking the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”
Cooke suckered her desk-bound editors into believing a story so beautifully written, they wanted it to be true. Editors should be suspicious, a trait taught in Chicago journalism, where reporters are told to doubt their mother’s love. Cooke concocted a story that made her editors swoon, with the kind of beguiling details editors love. Here is more of Cooke’s story:
“He nestles in a large, beige reclining chair in the living room of his comfortably furnished home in Southeast Washington. There is an almost cherubic expression on his small, round face as he talks about life – clothes, money, the Baltimore Orioles and heroin. He has been an addict since the age of 5.”
Some staffers had doubts about the story, which was based on anonymous sources. But assistant managing editor Bob Woodward submitted it for a Pulitzer Prize, and it won for feature writing. It all started to unravel when Post editors were notified that Cooke had fabricated her education background. Post editors then told Cooke to prove Jimmy’s existence, and show where he lived. She couldn’t, and eventually admitted she felt pressured by newsroom competition and wrote the story to satisfy her clueless editors.
Even after Cooke was discredited and resigned, Woodward said: “It is a brilliant story – fake and fraud that it is.” Love of beautifully written words that sway dies hard in journalism, even when they are used for betrayal. It’s a kind of love best understood by journalists. The story winning the Pulitzer Prize, said Woodward, was “of little consequence.”
My next candidate for a blockbuster journalism bad apple is Walter Duranty, a name most journalists would not recognize today, especially young journalists who believe history began with the date of their own births.
This story also has a Pulitzer Prize connection. Duranty was the New York Times Moscow bureau chief for 14 years, from 1922 to 1936. In 1932, Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports about the Soviet Union, 11 of which were published in June 1931. Later, Duranty was criticized for denying widespread famine in the USSR from 1930 to 1933, which reportedly caused 5.7 million to 8.7 million deaths. He covered up one of the worst disasters in history.
Stalin’s forced plans
Duranty lauded Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, which forced collectivization of Soviet Agriculture, rapid industrialization which decreased the agricultural workforce and forced grain procurement — all major contributing factors to the famine.
A Stalinist lapdog, Duranty was accused of reporting the Soviet Union’s official propaganda instead of the news, going so far as to denounce reports of a Soviet famine as “a big scare story” and condemn a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who said he witnessed starving in Ukraine. Jones was the first Western journalist to report the devastation.
In a 1933 New York Times article, Duranty was resorting to Soviet-style double-talk. The article said: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage, however, which has affected the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces – the Ukraine, North Caucasus (i.e. Kuban Region) and the lower Volga – has, however, caused heavy loss of life.” Duranty admitted Stalin’s brutality, but defended it. In 1934, Duranty privately reported to the British embassy in Moscow that as many as 10 million people might have died, directly or indirectly, in the Soviet Union famine the previous year.
Despite conflicting stories about the Russian famine, Duranty in his day enjoyed great esteem, although the Manchester Guardian’s Moscow correspondent called him “the greatest liar I ever knew.”
Since the late 1960s, Duranty’s work came under growing fire for his failure to report the famine. The controversy led to a move in 1990 to strip him of the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. He died in 1957. The Pulitzer Board reconsidered the prize but decided to preserve it. Another challenge arose in 2003, with an inquiry by the New York Times. Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. called Duranty’s work “slovenly” and said it “should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago.”
Sig Gissler, Puliter Prize Board administrator, declined to revoke the award, saying “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine led to renewed attention in the case. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller publicly expressed remorse that he failed to do more to return the award in 2003, saying: “A Pulitzer Prize is not just an accolade for an isolated piece of work. It at least implies an accolade for the reporter’s performance, and Duranty’s performance was shameful.”
Duranty could be described as a world class liar, one who ignored millions of deaths while reporting falsehoods that benefited one of the world’s most brutal dictators. It is a matter of scale and consequence. What changes in world events might have happened if Duranty told the truth? It is a reminder that journalists have that power to change world history, but Duranty squandered it.
Other rotten apples on this list of liars are not world class like Duranty, but they deserve some recognition.
Jayson Bliar was a New York Times reporter caught lying about stories he wrote and making up quotes and scenes that never happened, including stories about the Beltway sniper shootings. The New York Times called Blair’s long list of fabrications and plagiarism a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper” and fired him on May 1, 2003.
Stephen Glass worked for The New Republic from 1995 to 1998 until the discovery that many of his published articles about events and human beings were fabrications.
Rolling Stone Magazine retracted a story titled “A Rape on Campus” after learning that it was false. The story, published in 2014, about a University of Virginia student who said she was gang raped at a fraternity party, was retracted in 2015. After other journalists found major flaws in the report, Rolling Stone issued multiple apologies for the story.
Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News anchor, was lying when he said during a broadcast that he was a passenger on a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003. In 2015, NBC suspended him for six months without pay, sending his career into a tailspin. Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.” He left the network in 2021.
A short list
This is not an exhaustive list, but serves to show that liars have tarnished journalism in many ways, fabrication being one of the most common. Making things up is a lot easier than doing the hard, shoe leather work of digging up reliable information, whether it’s elegantly written or not.
Another list could be drawn of broadcasters brought low by sexual harassment allegations, and payments of millions of dollars to hush them. But that is for another time.
The $1.6 billion defamation case against Fox News, meanwhile, makes its way through court.
Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems contends that days and weeks after the 2020 election, Fox News executives and its on-air stars did not believe voter fraud allegations made by then-President Donald Trump, but promoted those unfounded claims anyway in a strategy to appeal to Trump loyalists.
Fox has accused Dominion of “cherry-picking soundbites, omitting key context and mischaracterizing the record.”
Whatever the court finds, at least some observers fault Fox News for reporting what it knew was not true.
“It’s really rare, to my knowledge, to have a major news organization, or what claims to be a news organization, willingly broadcast what it knew to be lies,” said Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School. “It’s an egregious violation of journalism ethics.”
The four key principles in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics are: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent.
It appears Fox News violated every principle.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.