Update:“I should not have believed a word he said,” author Gay Talese said after the Washington Post informed him that property records showed that the subject of his latest book, a Peeping Tom motel owner, did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988. While Talese disavowed his latest book in the Post’s report, he and his publisher defended the book to the New York Times.
By Casey Bukro
One questionable ethical episode after another piles up in the New Yorker’s excerpt of a forthcoming Gay Talese book. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” a serial Peeping Tom owner of a motel might have witnessed a possible murder. He invites Talese to join him in secretly watching a couple have sex.
By Talese’s own admission, there’s reason to believe some of the story is not true.
It’s possible the New Yorker was swayed by the author’s fame in publishing a titillating account of voyeurism. The Aurora, Colorado, motel owner kept detailed written accounts of what he saw through the ceiling ventilating system grille openings over more than a dozen rooms. Talese writes that he could not verify some details, including the murder. He shrugs it off as poor record-keeping.
Although the motel owner, Gerald Foos, admits to being a voyeur since the age of 9, he considers himself a researcher of human sexual habits. Talese knows the subject as well, having explored it in 1981’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He’s also an inventor of New Journalism, a style that depends heavily on subjective observation.
“Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies – mostly about dates – that called his reliability into question,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt. Most editors might balk at publishing a story on which the writer himself casts doubt upon its reliability. But the New Yorker forged ahead.
At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.
The newspaper’s columnist John L. Smith resigned in protest after being told he could not write about Adelson or Steve Wynn, both Vegas casino magnates who unsuccessfully sued Smith for libel and drove him into bankruptcy through legal fees.
The paper’s editor, J. Keith Moyer, argued that it would be a conflict of interest for Smith to write about two of the most powerful men in town, who had sued him, not for his work on the newspaper, but for books he had written about them.
The one mentioning Adelson was titled “Sharks in the Desert.” The other book was titled “Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn.” Clearly, neither book offered much sympathy for either power player.
But this is a story about fabulous Las Vegas, a town with an explosive history of gambling, gangsters, show-business megastars, showgirls and entertainment. It’s in a constant state of drama or turmoil. All you have to do is walk through the downtown casinos at 3 a.m. and see the action on the roulette and blackjack tables to know things don’t slow down there.
Lynching is no joking matter in the United States. News manager Robert Selkow found himself in the middle of a controversy over a Halloween display featuring three figures hanging from a tree.
“I got a photo on a smartphone,” recalled Selkow, who is site manager and news director of clarksvillenow.com, an online hyperlocal website affiliated with six radio stations serving Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. “It looked like a scene out of (the movie) ‘Mississippi Burning,’ black figures being hanged.”
He said it turned out to be “the most powerful image we ever published.”
Selkow contacted Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in facing this sensitive issue, and agreed to discuss details of the case publicly.
The offensive Halloween display was in the residential area of the Fort Campbell military base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Clarksville.
War is famously shrouded in a fog that journalists are supposed to penetrate.
Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.
In that case, the fog just gets thicker. But it is a way to make a buck as media cut staff and rely on freelancers.
The recent Brussels bombings is an example. A 21-year-old Palestinian photographer triggered strong social media reactions. When a Fox News video showed him posing a girl at a makeshift memorial, an outcry arose against the unethical practice of staging photographs.
The Guardian, a British national newspaper, identified the photographer as Khaled Al Sabbah, who lives in Brussels and has won photography awards for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newspaper also quoted Michael Kamber, a former New York Times staff photographer and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, after he saw the video.
“It’s one more example of a photographer doing something that destroys public trust in the media,” said Kamber.
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.
A ban on naming sexual assault victims has been one of the ironclad ethics rules in journalism. Why inflict more pain on an innocent person?
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says: “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.”
Yet even this rule is coming into question as people decide what rules they want to follow.
For example, Stephen J.A. Ward, a media ethicist, points to the trial of Jian Ghomeshi, a former Canadian Broadcasting Co. radio host. Ghomeshi is charged with sexual misconduct involving three women in 2002 and 2003.
One woman insists on being identified. The others’ identities are protected under Canadian law.
“So what should newsrooms do if the complainant insists on being identified?” asks Ward. “It’s a complex legal and ethical decision.”
Ward described how identity bans work under Canadian law. But two trends complicate the issue.
“One trend is the growth of media beyond the mainstream journalism that was the original focus of the ban,” he writes. “Social media, bloggers and others may ignore the ban. The second trend is that some people want to be named” and “may use social media to identify themselves as a complainant.”
Once the name is ‘out there’ in the media world, it’s very difficult to erase.
One of the central rules in journalism ethics is minimizing harm. Ward reasons that this means explaining consequences, to make sure complainants give informed consent to the use of their names.
The problem prompted the Canadian Association of Journalists ethics committee to release guidelines. The committee suggests journalists take specific steps to ensure informed consent:
A journalist should explain that, once a complainant’s name is made public, other media likely will use the name too.
A journalist should explain that that the name likely will be used on social media, over which the journalist has no control. Individuals on Facebook, Reddit or other social sites will post comments. Some of them “can be vile.”
A journalist should explain that, once the name is “out there” in the media world, it’s very difficult to erase.
A journalist should not pressure complainants to make their names public.
A journalist should explain that, given the nature of search engines, the sex crime report might be the first thing that appears when someone does an Internet search of the complainant’s name. Has the complainant thought about the information being available indefinitely when applying for jobs, entering into relationships or having a family?
The guidelines report also advises journalists to give complainants a day or two to think about their decisions before making their identities public.
“Taking that time up front will almost certainly reduce the likelihood of ‘source remorse’ and the possibility of an unpublishing request later.”
The CAJ report also reminds journalists that they are obligated to tell the whole story, not just the complainant’s viewpoint. The 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story about an alleged campus rape turned out to be bogus because it was based on the allegations of one person. Sex crimes often involve conflicting viewpoints.
The Canadian ethics panel suggested, as an alternative to an “all-or-nothing approach,” considering refusing to share a story through social media channels, not archiving stories that name victims or removing names from a story. But these actions could raise more ethics concerns.
The Bill Cosby case is an example of the complications in alleged sex crimes. Controversy can simmer for decades. Journalists and authorities have been accused of protecting the popular entertainer. Some women kept silent in the belief nobody would believe them. Years later, some identified themselves as women who were allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted.
Years ago, sexual assault was a crime that people hesitated to talk about under social norms. That has changed. Television and the online media discuss and show sexual situations openly. It’s the new norm.
Still, it’s a good idea for journalists to keep in mind the golden rule: Minimize harm.
David R. Daleiden said he misrepresented himself and falsified his identification while investigating Planned Parenthood because that’s what journalists do.
What an insult to journalists! Ethical journalists know that telling lies and deception while covering the news destroys their credibility. Who would believe a journalist who lies, cheats or steals?
That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics clearly states: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”
True, there’s a qualification. And journalism lore is rife with tales of Hollywood-style derring-do, with reporters pulling off grand deceptions.
In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern and staffed it with reporters and photographers to show the extent of corruption and shakedowns by Chicago city inspectors and others who took $10 or $20 payoffs to ignore safety or health hazards. Then the Sun-Times published a 25-part series that documented the abuses and crimes in the Mirage tavern.
You’ll still get an argument from some journalists who say it was a terrific story and resulted in major city, state and federal reforms. The talk at the time, though, was that the series failed to win a Pulitzer Prize because the investigation was based on deception, and that was wrong.
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?
Everyone is in favor of ethics, until you get into the details. That’s when the fights break out.
This is something the Online News Association is likely to learn as it makes its way through a project called the Build Your Own Ethics Code. Journalists are invited to crowdsource and document their ethical practices.
I have some personal experience in this realm. Back in 1972, I was national professional development committee chairman for Sigma Delta Chi, later named the Society of Professional Journalists.
The public, then as now, tended to have a low opinion of journalists. A public opinion poll in 1972 showed only 19 percent of the public had confidence in the press. Garbage collectors ranked higher.
Hoping to counteract that, delegates at the 1972 convention in Dallas adopted a resolution asking the group to do something about that low image of American journalists. That resolution was sent to my committee.
We decided to write a code of ethics reflecting SDX values and standards, acting on a constitutional mandate to inform the public as part of journalism’s role in a democracy. We wanted to show that journalists do have standards, and can act in an ethical manner.
It’s hard to be good and ethical. Sometimes it comes at a cost.
Amelia Pang, metro reporter for Epoch Times in New York, discovered this when she called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in 2012 and asked a question that AdviceLine gets sometimes:
When calling a news source, is it necessary for reporter to admit to being a reporter? That is, not say that she is a reporter, unless asked?
It is a question that arises among young reporters, those learning the ropes or those who work for organizations without printed standards or spelled out ethical guidelines that can leave a reporter wondering what to do.
In Pang’s case, she called AdviceLine on advice from a colleague.
“I am doing an article about a controversial homeless shelter in New York City,” Pang told AdviceLine adviser Hugh Miller, an assistant professor of philosophy who teaches ethics at Loyola University Chicago.
“The shelter is located in a very rich area, therefore many residents have been quite unhappy about it. The shelter has received a lot of bad press since they opened last year, and now they are reluctant to talk to any media.”