Powerful men often have a way with words, although not always in the way we might expect.
Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was famous for malapropisms, often saying the opposite of what he meant. He was Chicago’s powerful mayor for 21 years, and an example for journalists taking measure of Donald J. Trump.
Daley was the undisputed Democratic kingmaker in Illinois and beyond until his death in 1976, both feared and respected. Daley was a force in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory, leaving lingering hints of vote fraud. A dressing down by Daley could leave his underlings in pools of sweat.
But his speech was sometimes tangled and mangled, often while he was agitated or angry. Such as the time he was talking about the battle being waged by police against street violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all,” the mayor said. “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.
This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.
News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.
As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.
Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?
“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.
“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”
Ambush interviews usually are not the way journalists conduct business. Seasoned professionals identify themselves as journalists and tell sources they intend to quote them, or ask permission to quote them. They make clear that remarks are “on the record.”
That’s the way it’s usually done. Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists occasionally get calls or inquiries, usually from young reporters, who don’t know that.
In 2012, a reporter doing an article on a controversial homeless shelter in New York asked: “Would it be unethical to call and not disclose that I am press?”
The answer from Hugh Miller, an AdviceLine consultant, was short and sweet: “Don’t. It would be unethical.”
Implicit in this exchange are questions of candor, disclosure and transparency. They raise the question of getting information under false pretenses.
On the Chicago police beat, which I covered at the City News Bureau of Chicago, legend was that police sometimes arrested suspicious characters for mopery with intentions to gawk.
By definition, a gawker is a person who stares openly at someone or something. To gawk is to gape, stare or rubberneck without trying to hide that you’re doing it. A gawker also can be an awkward or clumsy person.
So when Financial Times reporter Nick Denton launched Gawker.com in 2003, I figured I knew what to expect. The website described itself as a media news and gossip blog, one of its goals being to “afflict the comfortable.” Gawker Media became a network of blogs, including Gizmodo, Deadpan, Jezebel and Lifehacker.
As chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes peddled sex appeal.
News anchors often were chosen for their looks: young, pretty, blonde, leggy and shapely. That’s the way Ailes liked them. A lot. Maybe too much.
It’s a formula that led to his downfall, apparently because he could not resist temptation or the raptures of the casting couch. Ailes resigned amid sexual harassment allegations after a 20-year reign as head of Fox News, where he devised a highly successful broadcast formula of vitriolic partisan right-wing commentary.
Ailes’s own alleged comments are part of a lawsuit against him by former Fox News Anchor Gretchen Carlson.
“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago,” Ailes supposedly “>told Carlson. Carlson charges that Ailes sabotaged her career in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances and complaining about a hostile work environment. In a statement, Ailes contended her contract was not renewed due to low ratings and her lawsuit was her retaliation for the dismissal. Her lawyer claims the suit was considered even before the firing.
Carlson’s lawsuit prompted 25 women to come forward with what they describe as similar harassment claims against Ailes over five decades.
The Washington Post reported that interviews with four of the women “portray the 76-year-old television powerhouse as a man who could be routinely crude and inappropriate, ogling young women, commenting about their breasts and legs, and fostering a macho, insensitive culture.” One women accused Ailes of groping her. Ailes’s lawyer said the accusations are false.
So what explains the umbrage over Melania Trump’s warmup speech at the Republican National Convention, extolling Trump family values and virtues of her husband, Donald, the Republican nominee for president?
“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect,” said Trump to warm applause.
By the next day, political writers were pointing out that passage and others were almost exactly what First Lady Michelle Obama said at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Writing about suicides can make journalists squirm.
In part, it’s because the topic long was considered taboo or loaded with restrictions on the proper course of action. When I was a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, one of the fears was that a story about someone who took his own life might trigger suicidal thoughts in others. A stigma was attached to suicides and it seemed best to avoid being too intrusive for the sake of the family.
These memories flooded back upon reading about the contortions that the Toronto Star staff suffered while trying to honor instructions left by Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, before she ended her life. She was the paper’s global environment reporter.
“Please don’t talk about me. Please don’t let anyone write about me,” she wrote, not even an obituary in the Star. Her family expressed similar wishes and the Star wanted to respect them.
But the Star could not. An investigation revealed that Aulakh was distraught over a broken relationship with her senior editor. She also revealed in emails that the senior editor was having a relationship with the Star’s female managing editor. Both lost their newsroom jobs. One left the newspaper.
Bill Green set the standard for ombudsmen while investigating the Janet Cooke hoax at the Washington Post. (Post photo).
By Casey Bukro
Bill Green, an ombudsman’s ombudsman, was not even sure what the job entailed when he was called on unexpectedly to unravel one of journalism’s most famous ethical failures.
Green was only weeks into the job as Washington Post ombudsman on Sept. 28, 1980, when the Post published “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict with “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”
So compelling and detailed, the front-page story written by 26-year-old reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing on April 13, 1981.
Almost immediately the story about the unnamed boy, and Cooke’s background that appeared when the prize was announced, started falling apart.
The story that followed is especially notable for two reasons. One is that falsehoods often fail sooner or later. The other is that Green, an editor of small-town newspapers who took a year’s sabbatical from Duke University to serve as the Post’s reader advocate, wrote a blistering report on the Post’s editorial lapses that is a model of journalism accountability. It set the standard for ombudsmen.
The nine-part report, starting on the front page and covering four full inside pages, showed the Post’s willingness to confront its flaws and admit them publicly.
After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.
The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.
That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.
A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.
The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”
The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”
Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”
It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.
Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”
One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.
Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.
The stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson had journalists guessing for a week about the identity of the new owner and had some fuming over a lack of transparency, a prime tenet in media ethics these days.
But why should we be surprised by all this?
Very rich men often play by their own rules and get away with it. Even in media, top executives sometimes believe they are exempt from the ethics standards they hand down to their employees.
Journalists are warned against forming close personal ties with the sources they cover in case of conflicts of interest or an appearance of conflict. Publishers, however, party and play golf with the high and mighty covered by their staffs and call that good business.
They see themselves as business men and women, not journalists. In this case, we’re talking about a businessman in the Las Vegas casino business, where razzle-dazzle is the way the game is played. The house always wins.
Politics makes it more complicated. Adelson reportedly declined mentioning his purchase of the largest Nevada newspaper, even denying it as first, because he did not want it to distract from the fifth GOP presidential debate being held at the time in the Venetian resort hotel casino owned and operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., of which Adelson is chairman and CEO.
Clearly, politics took priority. And that might offer a clue into some of the leading questions in Las Vegas these days, such as what does Adelson want, and what does he intend to do with the newspaper?