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Wanted: internal whistle-blowers.

WANTED: Internal whistle-blowers for work in journalism. Should be hardy, self-directed. Normal, team-playing duties most of time, but must be ready to make scenes and shrill noises in ethical clinches. Must know ethical clinches. Must provide own whistle.

People go into journalism for all sorts of reasons. The main ones have not changed. It's still love of writing, a compulsion to find and tell the story, joy in observation, willingness to expose yourself while fully clothed, and an elaborately disguised passion to improve the world with a little bit of truth.

Nobody I know (including some multimillionaires who once earned $70 a week) came this way for the money. Nobody. None. And very few entered the field for the kind of power that flows from command or property or executive status.

As broadcast journalism gained equal footing, it was not just the power of words but also the power of the visual that attracted people. Did the ego factor, the glory of being on camera, eclipse other reasons for these new career choices? "J'accuse!" say the print people. But be honest, print people. You remember the ecstatic excitement of your byline in some (perhaps obscure) newspaper. Admit it: That stroked your ego at least as much as a camera could.

The ego, the commitment, the tactile enjoyment of the words and the images, the excitement on a good day, the constancy of the unexpected, the companionship of the lonely: These fuse and are inseparable in most journalists, good or mediocre. Then the difference in individual performance gets down to other qualities, and one of them is courage. Guts.

You have to be willing to stand alone: to stand out, and sometimes to move out. It sounds pompous to talk about this. But it needs more talk in the aftermath of the NBC News "Dateline" debacle and other recent episodes.

In NBC's use of incendiary devices in staged GM truck collisions and on-air dishonesty about it, was inexperience and ignorance of basic standards the cause? Or was it the failure of top executives because they had not established and enforced standards? Both, it appears. (See David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr's alarming story about this problem in general on page 26.)

But at least one staffer, correspondent Michele Gillen, did sound the alarms. The tests proceeded anyway. Then, according to colleagues, she again expressed objections. She was overruled.

The line was breached. Nobody backed up the line. One by one, people failed to understand the ethical consequences of what was being done, or they failed to resist, to sound off, to speak out against fraudulent journalism, to quit in protest.

The game was lost, with incalculable damage to NBC News and tarnish to journalism. Certainly it was in order for Michael Gartner, despite his lifelong career of integrity in journalism, to lose his job as president of NBC News. If for no other reason, he had to leave because he initially defended what is indefensible in journalism: this egregious example of dishonesty and fraud in reporting.

New standards will be put in place. But no statement of standards, no code, no declaration of future intent, can substitute for individual integrity. It does not exist without ethical antennae, or without guts. Down as well as up the line.

Reese Cleghorn, president of AJR, is dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
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Title Annotation:the need for individual integrity among journalists
Author:Cleghorn, Reese
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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