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The news at any cost: how journalists compromise their ethics to shape the news.

The News at Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to shape the news.

The News at Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News. Tom Goldstein. Simon & Schuster, $18.95. This book has been advertised as a sensational, insider's expose of media sleaze, but when you tear off the wrapping paper what you find is a journalism school ethics textbook. Buried deep within that, in turn, are memoirs of Goldstein's service as a reporter at The New York Times and as press secretary to Mayor Edward Koch of New York, which contain a couple of good morsels. Goldstein says Koch is so cozy with Rupert Murdoch ("Rupert is more important to me than anyone else,' he quotes Koch as saying) that he often calls the editorial page editor of Murdoch's New York Post and dictates the editorials about himself, which run verbatim. The Times's soft spot is for Irving Kaufman, a federal judge who always rules for the press and is rewarded with adoring coverage which never mentions that he presided at the Rosenberg trial.

The discourse on journalistic ethics isn't nearly as interesting. Goldstein has done some sporadic first-hand research--visited a few newsrooms, distributed a questionnaire to editors, and run with a Super Bowl press corps--but for the most part he worked from clips. In fact, it's as if he punched the words "media ethics' into a Nexis machine and summarized the entire product. Not much is missing here, although if you're a journalist and not a journalism student, you may not want to read summaries of the cases of Janet Cooke, Laura Foreman, "Hymietown,' the Chicago Sun Times's Mirage Bar, The New Yorker fact-checking flap, "Ear''s Jimmy Carter bugging error, the CBS Vietnam documentary, ambush interviews, etc. Goldstein summarizes these familiar stories with impeccable clarity and evenhandedness, and then sometimes delivers a prim verdict, such as "he . . . abused journalistic license,' or "many of the practices and strategies taken for granted by journalists raise troubling questions.'

For lawyers and doctors, the massive edifice of required professional school, limited entry into the field, and high pay and prestige was built on a foundation of concern about quackery. As journalism becomes more influential and more like a public utility because of government regulation of broadcasters and the decline of competition among newspapers, the temptation to turn it into a profession can only grow. Goldstein knows not to go whole hog with this because of the first amendment problems inherent in government licensing of journalists, but the professional mind-set tempts him. His prose radiates approval when he reports, for instance, that CBS produced a 60-page internal report that found that ten of its "own standards' had been violated in its Vietnam documentary. Conversely, when journalists try to expand the horizons of their craft, he's instinctively suspicious.

The most egregious example is his treatment of New Journalism, which he calls "a new label . . . to an old technique: intermingling fact with fiction.' It's typical for journalistic ethicists to dismiss New Journalism in this prejudiced, don't-bother-me-with-the-details way. But it's grossly unfair--bad reporting, to use a phrase that would get Goldstein's attention. Truman Capote, whom Goldstein cites as a "leading practitioner,' did not mingle fact with fiction in In Cold Blood, an extraordinarily careful book; neither did Tom Wolfe ever create composite characters, except in an obviously rhetorical way. The people who did unforgiveably mingle fact with fiction and thus discredited the genre, such as Gail Sheehy in her prepsychobabble days, never make the list of New Journalists.

It's not just that Goldstein is being unfair to Capote, Wolfe, et al., it's that there's something automatic about his hostility to exploration of the true potential of journalism. It's very important for journalists to report faithfully on the doings of high government officials, but that isn't what journalists should do all the time, even though it does create a feeling of high competence. Journalism has the power to explain why things are happening, to take public affairs out of the realm of boredom through the use of characterization and narrative, to show how character interacts with institutional imperatives in government-- all this, and much more, and without ever resorting to mingling fact with fiction. One disadvantage of professionalization is that it usually brings with it a tropism toward the bland and the safe--why put your carefully built position of self-respect at risk? The pressure on journalism to turn that way, too, is going to be relentless. I hope some of the high priests of the trade start pressing in the other direction.
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Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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