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By Alan Caruba
When I first became a reporter in the late 1960's, I had not spent a minute in a journalism class. The editor who hired me, Mark Stuart, taught me everything I needed to know.
"Listen, kid. If you're interviewing someone you don't like or who you think is full of it, I want you to bend over backwards to accurately quote him. The story is not about your feelings. It's about what the guy is saying or doing."
In short, the reporter's role is neutral. He is simply the eyes and ears of the reader and he owes the reader an impartial report. Just the facts. And written in a quickly comprehensible order that says what happened, where it happened, who said what, the facts—not conjecture---that explain why. The reporter's attitude, opinion, or point of view is totally irrelevant.
That's Journalism 101. Hell, that's journalism. The rest is commentary with someone's name on it. There's a place for commentary. It's sometimes the most interesting part of a newspaper, but the role, the function of journalism is to accurately reflect what has occurred and to get the hell out of the way. Journalism should not be a highway to fame and fortune. It's about the facts of the story.
Well, it used to be. In fact, when Mark Stuart hired me, right out of college and the army, he assumed that I came equipped with ethics. That's why he reminded me to apply them.
By contrast, the August 2004 edition of "Quill: The magazine for the professional journalist", published by the Society of Professional Journalists, is devoted to "Ethics in the classroom." The journalism classroom.
Let me state my opinion right here. If the kid who arrives in that classroom hasn't already learned ethics, right and wrong, honesty, from his or her mother and father, talking around the dinner table, or from attending Sunday school, they should change their major. The notion of having to teach ethics to someone who has graduated high school strikes me as an appalling commentary on our culture, its educational system, and the unspoken acknowledgement that today's journalists are and should be suspect.
That said, today's college and university students arrive knowing that the world is filled with people, often in high places, who lied for one reason or other. They are aware of governmental and political lies, corporate lies, and the lies entertainment industry people tell. They are often very aware of the consequences. There's even a movie based on the life and lies of Stephen Glass, a former freelance journalist who fabricated whole stories and, somewhere gathering dust, are copies of the book by former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, fired for doing the same.
There is no single greater crime against the profession of journalism than to be a liar. To teach this, the professor in Journalism 101 need only assign students to read the Society of Professional Journalists' code on the subject. After they do, there's a need to discuss the issue of bias in journalism today. It's the title of former CBS correspondent, Bernard Goldberg's bestseller.
Journalism, like any profession, is subject to having unethical people join and practice it. However, the need for the truth is so vital in a free society that lapses, when found, need to be treated with the utmost severity. That is why I keep wondering why Dan Rather is still employed by CBS news.
Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba 2004
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