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All the News That's Fit to Sell.

A discussion about ethics is a discussion about everything. Epicurus, quoted by Diogenes, says: "Ethics deals with things to be sought and things to be avoided, with ways of life and with the telos" (the chief good, or the purpose of life itself). Journalism, like Ethics, tends to be about everything. So where does one begin a discussion about journalism?

As a journalist, I have come to believe more and more that as the mass media have grown in corporate complexity and scale, their influence on the ethical quality of society has become mostly negative. Part of this is because journalism as a function of the mass media has been fundamentally diluted and practically marginalized.

When I was starting out in journalism, many people held a simplistic notion that journalism, in as much as it is supposed to be an objective pursuit of truth, was inherently ethical. That journalism was defined pretty well as the Greeks defined ethics itself: dealing with things to be sought and things to be avoided, with ways of life and with the telos.

Unfortunately, I now sense a lot of contemporary confusion about what constitutes ethical behaviour. And journalism, naturally, reflects that confusion.

Increasingly I find the purpose of life, or the Good, being defined as whatever feels good at a given moment. Journalists have always celebrated people who conspicuously do good things, and we have even invented a word for such people. We call them "celebrities." Perhaps it is a reflection of how confused we have become about what is really good that we no longer seem able to distinguish between true celebrity and public narcissism.

The Challenge of Journalism

JOURNALISTS are obliged to achieve balance in story telling, to deal fairly with both sides of any issue. We equate balance and fairness with truth, and truth with the general good. Journalism calls for a marriage between truth and justice. Some days I feel that the real world has become too complex for such simple notions. On other days I feel the reverse: that the world has become too dumb for such a challenging exercise as ethical reflection.

The biggest ethical challenge for a journalist is that there are no useful rules or handbooks to guide us through the moral minefields of daily work. The individual journalist must rely on private reflection, which usually calls upon nothing more objective than personal moral resources. This can lead more frequently to frustration and despair than to enlightenment. I personally have been involved in stories which directly or indirectly caused laws to change, people to lose their jobs, individual parents to lose their children, people to lose confidence in public institutions. In the middle of one story, a man committed suicide, probably because we were preparing to expose him. Another man died shortly after we revealed a scandalous story about him.

In such cases I have nowhere to look for guidance but within myself, and there I can find no instruction more definitive than "do your best to get it right."

I became involved in the life of Tyrone Conn, the young bank robber about whom Theresa Burke and I have written a book. I believe the fact that we were journalists and that we cared about him helped him to see himself as a basically good person. That infected him with optimism and excited moral impulses that, in his criminal activity, he had suppressed. I believe that his newfound optimism and morality contributed to his death. Should we have left him alone?

For ethical guidance, after Ty was dead, one of the people I turned to was a man who was awaiting execution after more than twenty years on death row in Texas. I considered him to be a good man who, for complex reasons, had once participated in a bad deed. Just hours before his own death, the condemned man struggled to persuade me that we had helped Ty Conn discover the truth about himself- that he was essentially good. And if the knowledge of his goodness contributed to his death, that was good too. He believed that the truth had helped to set Ty Gonn free - and that there is a deep connection between death and freedom and truth. I am not yet wise enough to know whether he was right or wrong. Because he was about to die when he told me all this, I didn't argue with him. I just thanked him. And I hoped that he was right when he also tried to persuade me that there is a place called Heaven.

I think I know the difference between truth and untruth. But what is the value of truth? Is it absolute? How do we decide on the moral quality of any concept? I once heard Dr Ursula Franklin comment that what is morally wrong is practically dysfuctional. I think she stole that from Kant. But, in any case, I believe his categorical imperative applies to truth and lies. A lie is practically dysfunctional. In the great universal jigsaw puzzle, lies don't fit. But we don't always have a clear sense of what that puzzle is supposed to look like when it's in one piece. Theologians and philosophers have been sending out notoriously mixed messages for a long time now. Ultimately we have to decide for ourselves, on the basis of what we know. This is frightening because most of us don't know very much, and I suspect that the market value of moral knowledge is diminishing rapidly, if it isn't entirely gone.

We are all moral reflections of the communities and families we grew up in. The measure of the integrity or ethical quality of our mass media is a measure of the spiritual health of our society at large. I suppose we should be encouraged by the fact that things aren't worse than they seem to be.

We live in times of great moral peril. The culture of celebrity and narcissism has infected large segments of society and, consequently, the media with an appalling selfishness. The structure and ownership of the media are now so driven by the basest corporate interests, accumulating wealth and manipulating social and economic policy, that the resources available to unbiased journalism are being downsized to insignificance.

Arrayed against journalism we find an apparatus of information management of unprecedented sophistication and cynicism, and it seems dedicated entirely to the protection of power and privilege, or the competition to wrest those advantages away from the various interests that control them at any given moment.

The need for sceptical and disinterested journalism has never been greater. At the same time, the illusion that journalism is flourishing has never been more widespread and more misleading. The truth is that there has seldom been less incentive for and fewer resources dedicated to genuine, unbiased inquiry aimed at generating an accessible and comprehensible flow of information to the public.

The illusion of our journalistic affluence (and influence) is fed by a proliferation of specialty channels for television, the constant babble of commercial radio, fat newspapers full of slick advertising and self promotion. And, of course, there's the Internet, that vast and unsorted information scrapyard, around which people flock like seagulls before a storm ... looking for cheap knowledge and thrills. If the Internet has any exemplary merit, it is as evidence of the increasing irrelevance of the traditional mass media. I believe that a large part of that irrelevance results from the fact that so many people no longer trust the mass media. Newspapers, radio, and television have, for quite some time now, been perceived mainly as vehicles for entertainment, or the pet projects of vested interests.

The loss of credibility is caused by the trivialization of culture, but also by a loss of trust, and it isn't entirely because the media are less truthful now than at some ethically better time. I think it's just that people don't believe in the existence of truth the way they once did. I believe this fact is reflected in a loss of faith in a large number of professions and institutions. Politicians, doctors and lawyers, teachers, the clergy and journalists no longer acquire, with their professional credentials and their certificates, a cloak of credibility. In fact, there is popular subscription to the opposite view: that in circumstances that involve our personal or Corporate interests, we use our public advantages for private enrichment -- that when self-interest is involved, we're all liars. Which, if true now, probably always was. But it seems more accurate now.

Beyond Ethics

A NUMBER of philosophers now argue that we are in a historical period that is we are ethics or, as one of them put it, After Virtue. That was the name of a compelling book written by a Scotsman, Alasdair MacIntyre, in the early '8os. In that view the telos or the good of life is basically what any individual can suck out of it in the time available. Truth becomes correlative with expedience, whatever it takes to sway a sufficient number of people to achieve a particular private benefit. Truth becomes commercial or political propaganda, its sinister intent disguised by its entertainment value. In contemporary society we are inclined to embrace anything that is amusing, no matter what damage it might do. Personality has become a substitute for character.

Alasdair MacIntyre suggested that we are not entirely without hope because we at least have a cultural tradition of virtue. We still have a collective memory of virtue. And in some quarters, like the academy, there is a certain nostalgia for an age in which moral debate excited people, in which philosophers achieved wide popularity and influence over public affairs. And when we could -- maybe stupidly -- but nevertheless comfortably, take truth for granted in public and private transactions.

Alasdair MacIntyre argued that the tradition -- or memory -- of virtue is crucial in this age, which is historically comparable to the period just before the Dark Ages, when Hellenistic civilization was suppressed by the primitive tribes of northern Europe.

"What matters at this stage," he wrote, "is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope."

He goes on to warn, however, that, "this time ... the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers. They have been governing us for quite some time."

Against this bleak backdrop, Canadians have some substantial historical reasons to be optimistic. This country began, after the shooting stopped, as an exercise in practical ethics. It was founded as a partnership among mortal enemies -- French, English, Irish, Scots, and the aboriginal North American societies. From the beginning, the project required a lot of compromise and conciliation, and finally arrived at a rough consensus that we were all going to die in the wilderness if we didn't learn to get along. That insight has more or less held us together ever since. It has also led to the maturity of a uniquely Canadian ethos and public institutions to preserve the essential Canadian values of peace, order, and good government.

Towards Civic Journalism

I find it significant that there is now a noticeable movement in the United States toward what they are calling "civic journalism," or "public journalism." Its aim is to create media that will help people to function as citizens, to make decisions they are called upon to make in a democratic society.

It is, according to one mission statement, an effort to reconnect with the real concerns that viewers and readers have about the things in their lives they care most about. It seeks to reconnect, not in a way that panders, but in a way that treats people as citizens with the responsibilities of self government, rather than as consumers to whom goods and services are sold.

This is a principled attempt to revive the ethical ideals that, as far as I know, have always legitimized the institutions of journalism. I admire the instincts behind the movement, but inasmuch as these media mirror society, it might be a mistake to think that the way to start fixing society is to reinvent the media. The media remain a reflection of reality. Trying to make them a reflection of the good intentions and the ideals of earnestly moral citizens is, I would argue, just as dangerous as trying to make them a reflection of liars and thieves and pornographers. I would suggest to the people behind civic journalism that, if you don't like what you see in the mass communications media, you should start fixing the society these media reflect.

I do applaud these initiatives in civic journalism, but remain a little bit sceptical. Maybe my scepticism is based on the fact that we have had civic journalism in this country for the past 67 years -- ever since a national broadcasting act mandated the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission to take over the broadcasting arm of the CNR. For the past 16 years our society, through our national government, has been busily weakening our public broadcaster by forcing it to rely more and more on commercial advertising revenues for survival. In Ontario we've witnessed repeated assaults on the journalistic usefulness of TV Ontario.

Federally and provincially, Conservative and Liberal governments have attempted to marginalize public broadcasters and, I would suggest, civic journalism, into irrelevance. I'm happy to report that, so far, they have failed. But now a strong new political party has emerged and has pronounced as a major policy goal the elimination of television from the national public broadcasting service. This, I gather from my reading, is part of a broader vision for the country, a general devolution of taxing and spending power from the federal government to the provinces.

I'm not complaining about what has happened to the GBC in the past i6 years. I am, however, alarmed as a citizen because I think the diminished commitment of this society to public broadcasting is an indication of a diminished Canadian commitment to the health of public institutions in general. And this represents a diminished commitment to the whole ethos of community life -- the ethos which has justified and enriched this particular community that we call Canada for nearly two and a half centuries.

In the New World Order the Canadian ethos and institutions are under attack. In the New World Order a shocking number of people, including influential Canadians, don't want us to be Canadians any more, in any meaningful way. We should not let this happen by default ... as a result of political shell games, private greed, and the abdication of civic responsibility by public servants.

I CONFESS, I do not know what to do about it -- but I do know that what is at stake is not trivial. The Canadian ethos and the communal institutions that we have created to express this ethos are worthy of the effort it will require to understand their place and their vulnerability in this New World Order I think they are worth a fight, for without them Canada will be nothing more than a sentimental notion supporting a vast bureaucratic infrastructure that will soon become irrelevant and unethical and unnecessary.

LINDEN MACINTYRE, a journalist for 36 years, has won many awards, including six Geminis from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. His most recent book is Who Killed Ty Conn?
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Title Annotation:journalistic ethics
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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