Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Even if it’s John McCain and baby back ribs, journalists should behave ethically

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Originally published on on Tue, 03/04/2008 – 3:16am

When I tell people I am a journalist, I worry sometimes over what is going through their minds. “Hmm. Okay, Brian Williams is a journalist. But well, he’s on TV, and does he write his own news. Oh, but Bill O’Reilly. Is he a journalist?”

People who aren’t journalists don’t always know who is a journalist or what standards they should conduct themselves.

Journalists who actually cover stories are supposed to be objective; we’re not supposed to work for people we cover or actively support people we cover. Opinion writers are different — they don’t have to be objective.

Journalists are also not supposed to let trivial issues cloud how they cover someone. Sunday’s Doonesbury cartoon reflected on how the press treated Bill Clinton vs. George W. Bush.

“Chronic lateness is a statement about how little regard you have for other people’s time. It’s disrespectful and narcissistic. At least that’s what George W. Bush believes, and I agree! Say what you will about him, but Mr. Bush is always punctual, unlike his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who always keeps people waiting.”

The press treated Bill Clinton poorly, in great part, because of his lack of punctuality. To say that’s junior-high behavior is insulting to junior high school students. But Bush doesn’t schedule a whole lot of activities, so it is easier to be on time if you have nowhere else to go. Journalists, heck, any profession is supposed to be above such behavior.

The most recent “shake your head” moment was John McCain’s barbecue for the press at his weekend cabin just outside Sedona, Arizona. McCain, who already gets the best treatment from the press of any recent presidential candidate not named Bush, was trying to endear himself to the press even more by serving up baby back ribs.

Was this a journalistic event? From The Washington Post: “The afternoon barbecue for the press was on the record — sort of. Tape recorders were prohibited (though a few popped up.) Pictures were not allowed for publication. There were no television cameras. And McCain’s aides kept urging reporters to put away the notebooks.”

Also, this tidbit: “McCain’s aides said the three-hour gathering was intended as a “social event,” not a glorified press conference. And by and large reporters agreed to those rules, asking him substantive questions only a few times.”

If it’s a press conference, go. If it’s a “social event,” you shouldn’t socialize with people you cover.

I’m not suggesting journalists starve. But appearances are important, and given that McCain’s recent troubles, especially the campaign financing problems, are getting light treatment even before the ribs came off the grill, the event and previous (and subsequent) coverage looks tainted.

The two presidential candidates who can legitimately complain about the way they have been treated by the press are Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Glenn Greenwald points out this “classic” exchange from The Washington Post, and what happened as Hillary Clinton went on the press bus to offer coffee and bagels.

Yes, Obama has received more positive coverage than Clinton. But McCain has received significantly better coverage than Obama. And if it ends up being between the two of them, the MSM has made it clear which side they are on already, and that is ethically wrong.

I remember watching MSNBC’s coverage after The New York Times came out with the story on McCain and Vickie Iseman. The commentators (not Olbermann) stopped just short of calling the Times liars. Did they have any proof? No. They just thought McCain couldn’t have done what he was accused of doing.

We need to ask tough questions of the candidates from both parties. We didn’t have that in 2004 or 2000. And because of that, our problems are much, much worse. So, MSM, as soon as you are done wiping the sauce from your chin, it’s time to get back to work and do your job – without bias.


Written by democracysoup

March 4, 2008 at 3:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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