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January 07, 2005

free press for sale

Don Herzog: January 7, 2005

I think this is an easy call from left to right, but I'm (all too) ready to be surprised:  this is blatantly impermissible.  The state shouldn't offer.  The press shouldn't accept.  (Indeed the press should promptly report any such offer as a scandal.)

This sort of abuse goes way back.  In the 1790s, with Tom Paine's radical publications exciting many British workers, the government paid George Chalmers five hundred pounds -- a pretty penny indeed -- to write a scurrilous and, shall we say, inventive biography of Paine, to discredit him.  And of course he had to keep the arrangement hush hush, else no one would have given his work a moment's notice.

So the Bush administration was relying on secrecy, too, a further sign that what they did was shameful.  The government has plenty of ways of getting out its message without stooping to paid ventriloquist acts.

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» Glorification from Jesse Zink
Don Herzog at the Left2Right blog offers some historical perspective on the Armstrong Williams controversy, noting that Thomas Paine was attacked by a paid government stooge. The historical perspective doesn't just stop there, of course. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 8, 2005 2:52:52 PM

Comments

Posted by: J. Smith

I don't have a New York Times registration and cannot comment. Can you post the text of the article as a reply?

Posted by: J. Smith | Jan 8, 2005 12:33:34 AM


Posted by: stubbs

Of course it's wrong. Now what is your earthshaking point, other than that Bush is bad, bad, bad?

Posted by: stubbs | Jan 8, 2005 12:37:12 AM


Posted by: J. Smith

Is this what is being referred to?

Posted by: J. Smith | Jan 8, 2005 12:44:58 AM


Posted by: pedro

J. Smith & others: I suggest you use the marvelous tool bugmenot.com, where you can find free logins for places like the NYT, etc. All you have to do is write down the name of the website you wish to obtain a free pass for, and the tool gives you a login and password. Cheers.

Posted by: pedro | Jan 8, 2005 12:46:19 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Yes, it's wrong. But a bit of perspective here, please.

First, Williams is (or was) in the business of “advocacy journalism,” not straight news reporting. The standards are different. It's unseemly, to say the least, for such a “journalist” to be paid from government revenues to support something he would probably have supported on ideological grounds anyway, but it isn't as though he sold out his viewpoint to the highest bid.

Second, the article does not make clear whether the administration was paying for Williams to encourage support for the act before or after it was passed. Both would be improper but it is not, strictly speaking, lobbying to support an ongoing federal program as it would be to be supporting pending legislation.

Third, as noted in the article, as PR machines and spin-doctors have increasingly invaded public affairs, it is an unfortunate but bipartisan phenomenon. From the NYT article: “’The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration’ in distributing news segments promoting its policies, said Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and chief executive of Medialink, a major producer of promotional news segments.”

Fourth, Mr. Herzog’s characterization of the administration “relying on secrecy” is a bit excessive. (Not to mention the phrase “paid ventriloquist acts”) I assume the contract in question was a public document discoverable through FOIA or, as was probably the case here, a routine congressional inquiry. Not announcing that Williams was paid to flack for the NCLB is not the same as keeping it a secret.

Now, speaking of journalistic integrity, does the name Sydney Blumenthal ring any bells?

Look, this isn’t just about “your guys do it, too!” (Although they do.) But it still seems to be the case that what we haven’t seen from the authors of this blog is much in the way of righteous indignation by the left about the specific abuses of the left, and that is becoming a bit disconcerting.

Anyway, my favorite passage in the article and, in my opinion, the money quote was “The National Association of Black Journalists criticized the administration and Mr. Williams alike yesterday, calling on newspapers that use his column and television stations that use his commentary to ‘drop him immediately.’”

If they get their way, I expect the NABJ to issue a further statement reading “Unanimous at last! Unanimous at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re unanimous at last!”

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 8, 2005 12:59:59 AM


Posted by: Jim Hu

J. Smith,

Yes, that's it. In context, this is part of a larger pattern including the fake news spots used to promote the Medicare Prescription Drug bill, and similar practices that go back through both D and R administrations, which doesn't excuse anything. After this came out, Williams syndicated column has been dropped by Tribune Media Services. Most of the commentary I've seen on the right side of the blogosphere is "what were they thinking?" Even Williams says he crossed an ethical line,... but he's keeping the money!

Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 8, 2005 1:10:43 AM


Posted by: Chris

It’s just advertising!

Does this mean that you can pay the NYT and 60 Minutes to write an objective story instead of fabricating one?

Posted by: Chris | Jan 8, 2005 4:06:33 AM


Posted by: noah

Point of inquiry:

Does the failure to disclose bias constitute a similar compromise of "journalistic ethics" (oxymoron alert)?

Posted by: noah | Jan 8, 2005 7:10:32 AM


Posted by: noah

And as a matter of fact these actions by the US government in no way violates the Constitution. The first amendment protects speech from government interference but doesn't prevent a journalist from "selling out".

I deplore it as a waste of taxpayers' money.

Posted by: noah | Jan 8, 2005 7:15:15 AM


Posted by: Shag from Brookline

Is journalism a profession? The traditional professions, law, medicine, ministry, involve specialized education and enforcible codes of ethics or conduct. Many of the newer profession satisfy this definition. But journalism does not require specialized education and the codes of ethics or conduct of various journalism organizations, which are voluntary, are not enforceable. The First Amendment as well as the Fourteenth prohibit regulation of speech and the press by governments. As a practical matter, what can be done to a journalist who violates his/her journalism organization's code of ethics? In the instance of Williams, when asked about his conduct vis-a-vis journalism organizations' codes of ethics, said he didn't know about those documents. How many journalists abide by such codes, assuming they know of their existence? How do their organizations enforce violations? After all, a journalist does not need a license to practice journalism, nor does he need a specialized education. Is Williams the tip of the iceberg of corruption in journalism? We'll probably never find out. The exposure of Williams may indeed get some journalists out there to think about how they might be able to line their pockets in a similar manner and have the benefit of the First and Fourteenth Amendments for their protection. Williams' defense might be: "I am not a journalist". That would probably be a good defense in his case; I would believe him.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 8, 2005 7:32:34 AM


Posted by: Chris

Shag,

If and when there is a vote for Top Ten Most Intelligent Comments, [Month], you can rest assured that you will get my vote! Your comment is so on point that it deserves an encore!

Posted by: Shag from Brookline

Is journalism a profession? The traditional professions, law, medicine, ministry, involve specialized education and enforcible codes of ethics or conduct. Many of the newer profession satisfy this definition. But journalism does not require specialized education and the codes of ethics or conduct of various journalism organizations, which are voluntary, are not enforceable. The First Amendment as well as the Fourteenth prohibit regulation of speech and the press by governments. As a practical matter, what can be done to a journalist who violates his/her journalism organization's code of ethics? In the instance of Williams, when asked about his conduct vis-a-vis journalism organizations' codes of ethics, said he didn't know about those documents. How many journalists abide by such codes, assuming they know of their existence? How do their organizations enforce violations? After all, a journalist does not need a license to practice journalism, nor does he need a specialized education. Is Williams the tip of the iceberg of corruption in journalism? We'll probably never find out. The exposure of Williams may indeed get some journalists out there to think about how they might be able to line their pockets in a similar manner and have the benefit of the First and Fourteenth Amendments for their protection. Williams' defense might be: "I am not a journalist". That would probably be a good defense in his case; I would believe him.

Posted by: Chris | Jan 8, 2005 7:46:57 AM


Posted by: Simon

Journalism is a profession, for most of the reasons Shaq gives.

Simply because the journalistic code of ethics is not always enforced as much as we might like -- or because it is not enforceable through state action -- does not mean that one doesn't exist. (Surely our conservative friends here don't deny that there are such things as codes of ethics among non-state actors?)

We all, of course, can run through examples where such codes appear not to be honored -- Williams on the right, Blumenthal on the left, &tc -- but that list obscures the fact that every day hundreds of thousands of journalists, from the New York Times to the Paducah Sun, try in good faith to recognize, obey, and enforce the ethics of journalism. See, for example, the story from Minnesota about suspensions resulting from a Springsteen concert, or the viciousness with which most journalists turn on plagerists and fabricators, and of course, Mr. Williams.

Posted by: Simon | Jan 8, 2005 8:12:22 AM


Posted by: Chris

Simon,

So are journalists subject to sanctions such as a Rule 11 in FRCP?

Would the New York Times also be subject to sanctions under the Journalist's Rule 11 for allowing a writer to continue to write fabricated stories?

Posted by: Chris | Jan 8, 2005 8:42:58 AM


Posted by: Don Herzog

No, the point is not that Bush is bad. The point is that this practice is unacceptable, whether engaged in by Democrats or Republicans. I am not opportunistic about invoking this principle only when a Republican administration messes up, either.

Being a naive wide-eyed academic, I actually take political theory seriously and let the partisan chips fall where they may.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jan 8, 2005 8:56:45 AM


Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

Williams is not a journalist. He's primarily an opinion columnist, and he defended the program that these paid advertizements advertized long before he accepted money to run those ads. What he did is accept money to run some ads and to spend time on the issue from time to time. All commercial media will do the former. NPR does the latter all the time. The problem here is not in accepting the money or keeping it. The problem is in terms of who paid for it and why it was not made public in the ads that it was being done. According to Williams, he found out that it was tied to the Bush Administration after the news organizations started reporting it this week. It was an independent ad company that had approached him. So those who keep putting forth headlines intended to give the idea that the Bush Administration paid him to take a certain view (and this includes the so-called conservative Fox News) need to pay a little more attention to the facts. That includes those who call it a paid ventriloquist act. That's just downright dishonest.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Jan 8, 2005 9:11:23 AM


Posted by: Jeremy Pierce

I should also say that we don't know if the Department of Education people responsible for this even knew what the advertizing firm they had hired were doing. Williams says he dealt only with the ad firm. That means it's a bit premature to assume this has anything to do with deliberate secrecy.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | Jan 8, 2005 9:14:07 AM


Posted by: Simon

Chris-

Of course the only sanction organizations qua organizations can receive is the lowered esteem of their colleagues (and never underestimate the vanity of a journalist, or the pride they take for their association with a particular outlet.)

But as for individuals within organzations, they get punished all the time. Sometimes suspension, sometimes firing (see, e.g., Blair or Stephen Glass, or now, Armstrong Williams.)

Again, simply because the rules and the sanctions meant to enforce them are not perfectly defined, nor state-enforced, it does not mean that they do not exist.

Posted by: Simon | Jan 8, 2005 9:18:45 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

The question of professions and standards of conduct interests me beyond the basic topic of the thread, so please indulge a bit of a digression that I will try to tie back to that topic eventually.

It is true that the historical ‘learned professions’ usually required extensive education, though that can be a bit misleading. Lawyers historically may have had some university education, but their professional education was (and largely still is, even after law school) basically an apprenticeship process. It is still possible in several states to ‘read’ for the law in lieu of attending law school and to practice in those states upon passing their bar examinations.

A case can be made for any of a number of occupations to be deemed professions, but the three aspects of the traditional professions which endure and which are often mostly absent from other occupations are (1) that they are self-defining, (2) self-regulating and (3) their standards of conduct are specialized in the sense that they require behavior that might well be deemed unethical outside their professional duties. The first two are straightforward: lawyers and physicians get to define what constitutes the practice of law or medicine and determine how one qualifies to become or remain a lawyer or doctor. Yes, the state regulates them, but it largely defers to their expertise in such regulation. (Yes, there is also tension and conflict both inside these professions and between them and non-practitioners about those standards.)

As an aside inside a digression, I think a good case can be made using these criteria for calling university level scholars professions but a similar case cannot be made for calling primary and secondary school teachers professionals. The former are self-defining and self-regulating; the latter are not.

It is the specialized ethics that I find interesting. Physicians grapple with ethical dilemmas all the time. Lawyers perhaps do so to a lesser extent (or at least in matters that are far less dramatic), but conflicts of interests, client confidentialities and especially the unique obligations of trial lawyers jealously representing their clients in an adversarial judicial process raise issues unlike those most people in most occupations ever encounter. What may be deemed ethical for them in a number of situations would be deemed unethical for any non-physician or non-lawyer in a similar situation.

Journalism raises interesting questions in this regard, and they are especially topical and relevant to the topic. Ignoring the easy cases (again, Williams was wrong), what are the duties to disclose financial support or outside sources of income? For example, should a journalist who writes a topical non-fiction book for which she receives some seed grant money from a foundation or charitable trust with an ideological track record be expected or required to disclose the fact routinely whenever she is reporting on that topic? What about speaker’s fees? Should the standards for commentators and opinion journalists be different?

Look, since if it were up to me there wouldn’t even be a Department of Education, let alone the No Child Left Behind Act, I have no problem condemning the federal government for spending tax dollars hiring people to flack their programs. And, yes, if they’re going to do it anyway, maybe there should have been a little voice-over saying “I’m Education Secretary Ron Paige, and I paid for this commentary with your money.” The “government shouldn’t do it” part is easy.

But as others have noted, journalism clearly is not a profession in the sense that there are no institutional bars to entry, no specialized education required and (especially thanks to the 1st Amendment) damned little regulation of any sort. What self-regulation there is may or may not be a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, what we should do is expect that journalists are not disinterested or objective, assume that both their sources of information and their sources of income make what they say suspect, read and listen to a wide variety of news sources and let the proverbial “market place of ideas” sort things out.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 8, 2005 9:34:45 AM


Posted by: John T

Herzog,stop before I puke. Your hero Bill Clinton took bribes from foreign governments. To put it in a way you'll understand,the President sold his country out. On Jan.11 2000 Janet Reno entered into a plea bargain with Billionaire James Riady on just that issue. I'll be happy to forward a copy of the Justice Departments press release to you. This in addition to all the other foreign bribery that went on. And you are indignant over Armstrong Williams? What sort of atomized brains do liberals have that allow them such indignation while showing rage at any republican that raises his head above the foxhole? Needless to say morality has nothing to do with it. Help clean up the filth in your own backyard then talk. By the way,are you going to do a piece on the Hillary Clinton fundraiser that just led to an indictment? I'll be waiting.

Posted by: John T | Jan 8, 2005 10:05:31 AM


Posted by: Chris

Simon,

I agree that writers have a good deal of vanity and that this vanity does provide some safeguards against potential abuse but it isn’t working. If the medical, legal, and accounting professions advocated doing away with their licensing requirements they would be tarred and feathered. Even a minimum wage nursing assistant must be certified to wash bed pans but the same nursing assistant is eligible for employment not as a janitor but as a writer at just about every major newspaper in the country.

The present case is an example of the established media finding someone who is not politically correct and publicly crucifying him for what may be inherent abuses. Compare the present case with the other recent cases and even though the issues are somewhat different, the core values of the “profession” which include being objective, researching the facts, verifying the facts and correcting mistakes are in question when even the flag ships fail to meet the minimum professional standards.

Posted by: Chris | Jan 8, 2005 10:27:00 AM


Posted by: S. Weasel

I'll admit I'm not thoroughly conversant on the history of journalism, but my impression is that the trouble started because journalism began to regard itself as a profession. In the early 20th C, at least, journalism appears to have been nearly a blue collar job. It was often learned via apprenticeship by people without much secondary education. I suppose there was always a stray Walter Duranty to flog fashionable ideologies, but for most the concept of a good journalist was one who got a story which would sell newspapers or magazines and got it before the other guy. Or maybe I've watched Front Page one too many times.

It seems to me the mischief largely dates to Watergate. When Woodward and Bernstein courageously spoke stuff to whatever, suddenly middle class kids saw j-school as a viable option. Only, you know, how boring and beneath them would it be just to report stuff? The new journalism was about awakening consciousness and tearing down the establishment and teaching good citizenship. Anything less than that and you can turn to that rag they give away free at the supermarket, thank you very much.

If reportage has never been free of slant, at least let's have a different sort of slant in future. Something a little less smug and self-important, please. I am so very tired of being preached at.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 8, 2005 10:29:59 AM


Posted by: rtr

Don is absolutely right on the money. It is just not limited to the press. Expert witnesses are routinely paid outrageous sums for their testimony in court cases. The “Law & Order” witness in the Texas case that was just overturned for the woman who drowned her kids in the bath tub was paid $100,000. It’s more proof for minimizing government. The paid individual in question has made it clear that his position was the same before he was paid. Still he should not be paid by robbing others through taxation and confiscation. I’m sure Don will start teaching his law students tactics aplenty on which to assault the revenue and enumerative spending powers of the U.S. government from which to assault this dastardly government. Actually, the information and knowledge upon which to conduct such an assault will become ever freer and the bureaucracy can collapse upon itself as 300 million cases a year are filed. No university degrees or payment for sunshine and rain will be necessary. Those going to law school should start their own blogs disseminating exactly just such information. It’s not like others need anything but words to master the law. Well, maybe some drama and acting classes. ^_^

Also, in the future if news items from the NYT, WSJ, etc. could include the title of the article so those connecting through other universities can more easily find the cited article.

Posted by: rtr | Jan 8, 2005 11:12:14 AM


Posted by: sierra

Perhaps tangential, and I may be off base, but I'm a bit curious about the issue of how appropriate it is for a government to engage in such P.R. in the first place -- as opposed to out-and-out lobbying prior to enactment of legislation, which D.A. Ridgely rightly distinguished.

A few years back there was an extensive ad campaign designed to make Bostonians feel better about the Big Dig project, which was of course long delayed and overbudget by a bazillion dollars. It struck me as odd: what did it matter how I felt about it, since either way I'm screwed? I don't know if the state was running the ads directly or whether it was one of the contractors or some consortium, but I know these issues have come up from time to time.

Some years back there were government-sponsored ads encouraging New Yorkers to take advantage of various welfare services they might not know they were entitled to, which conservatives criticized as encouraging dependency. But is there an ethical problem with such advertising as such, or is it plausible to argue it is part of making the program work? And I realize that if there are laws against direct "propaganda," it encourages the government to contract out the function, muddying the issue a bit.

Posted by: sierra | Jan 8, 2005 12:17:21 PM


Posted by: frankly0

According to Williams, he found out that it was tied to the Bush Administration after the news organizations started reporting it this week. It was an independent ad company that had approached him. So those who keep putting forth headlines intended to give the idea that the Bush Administration paid him to take a certain view (and this includes the so-called conservative Fox News) need to pay a little more attention to the facts. That includes those who call it a paid ventriloquist act. That's just downright dishonest.

This completely misses the point.

The point is that Williams had an obligation to tell his listeners that he was paid to advocate for the NCLB act. Whether or not he happened to support it independently is, fundamentally, not material. Everyone understands that being paid to advocate for something, in the vast majority of cases, greatly impairs the ability to exercise independent judgment about the matter, or to express even the mildest criticisms. People, rightly, hear one's opinions with far greater scepticism when they are paid for.

The person who was being deeply dishonest here is Williams, who pretended that he was working from an entirely independent point of view, received the automatic respect a presumption of autonomy would lend his views, but then got paid behind his audience's back.

A real piece of work.

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 8, 2005 1:04:04 PM


Posted by: frankly0

Regarding the whole question of journalistic ethics, what strikes me most is how poorly grounded and primitive they are.

For example, journalists take it as a point of ethics that they should never reveal sources, and indeed will go to jail to protect them. The argument here is that if they don't do so, then, say, whistleblowers who demand anonymity will never come to them, because they will fear ultimate exposure. This goes against the public good, argue the journalists, because the public is much better off for knowing such things.

But then what about the notorious cases in which the anonymous sources are, instead, seeking to advocate for entirely self interested causes, which in no way serve the public, and in which they are using outright fabrications to make their case? Do journalists have an obligation to maintain the anonymity of their sources in such cases? How on earth in such cases is a larger public good ever served?

Journalists seem to revert to the primitive, crudely formulated general rule "Never reveal your sources" even when it perversely has exactly the opposite effect from that which is supposed to justify the rule in the first place. It's as though these journalists, like credulous children, treat the rule as if written on some stone tablet handed down by God, rather than to see it as a rule of thumb adopted over a period of years informally, which should be subject to re-examination and reformulation under changed circumstances.

This is one big reason I have very little respect for journalism as a profession. Journalists, even most of those at the very top of their profession, are not exactly what you'd call deep or flexible thinkers.

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 8, 2005 1:22:31 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Ah, but sierra, the government does contract out propaganda. Here’s another recent example I wish Mr. Herzog had used instead of the Williams case. After all, we’re all against illegal drugs aren’t we? I mean, its “for the kids!”

Matt Welch posted this brief blog entry, titled “GAO Denounces Gov't ‘Covert Propaganda,’" yesterday on ReasonOnline’s “Hit & Run” site. Welch’s description is so dead-on that I just have to repeat the comment verbatim:

"Stories in The Washington Post and GovExec.com. This marks the second time that the Government Accountability Office has chided the Administration for producing fake news tapes that were subsequently broadcast in the guise of independent journalism.

"What's neat about this one is that the 'news story' in question, which was planted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was about 'plans for a new White House ad campaign on the dangers of drug abuse.' In other words, your tax dollars were spent by anti-drug government P.R. types to make fake journalism about how your tax dollars are being spent by anti-drug government P.R. types ... and then your tax dollars were spent once more to reveal that, indeed, your tax dollars are being misspent."

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 8, 2005 3:01:02 PM


Posted by: sierra

Yep, totally outrageous, DAR. But I'm interested in when government entities put out self-serving information regardless of whether it's true.

Also, there's a slight problem with your distinction between lobbying for new legislation and promoting existing legislation. If the Department of Homeland Security put out an ad extolling the virtues of the Patriot Act, it's still lobbying in the sense that that law eventually comes up for reauthorization.

Posted by: sierra | Jan 8, 2005 3:37:01 PM


Posted by: Mona

DAR writes: In other words, your tax dollars were spent by anti-drug government P.R. types to make fake journalism about how your tax dollars are being spent by anti-drug government P.R. types ... and then your tax dollars were spent once more to reveal that, indeed, your tax dollars are being misspent."

Equally if not more nauseatingly, the DEA spends our money drafting and promoting manuals to "train" people how to debate with opponents of drug prohibition, if one must. (They recommend avoiding it if at all possible.)


Posted by: Mona | Jan 8, 2005 4:14:49 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

By way of clarification, they were Welch's words, not mine.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 8, 2005 4:16:31 PM


Posted by: CDC

As interesting as is the question of whether or not government should subcontract the production of propaganda, my favorite aspect of this story is the NYT's sudden startling enthusiasm for high journalistic standards.

Posted by: CDC | Jan 8, 2005 6:58:15 PM


Posted by: US_Courts_Define_Journalism_As_Fiction

Apparently media organizations can fire any "journalist" who refuses to report the lies that the organization wants reported. What were the names of those reporters in Florida who got canned because they wouldn't do a story covering up the Monsanto pus-milk scandal?

pedro wrote: "I suggest you use the marvelous tool bugmenot.com, where you can find free logins for places like the NYT, etc. All you have to do is write down the name of the website you wish to obtain a free pass for, and the tool gives you a login and password."

Except, pedro, that I refuse to even take even two seconds to log in to such sites. The fact that the NYT, etc. have such low opinions of their content that they feel obliged to hide everything from the public view makes me ridicule them even more.

Posted by: US_Courts_Define_Journalism_As_Fiction | Jan 8, 2005 9:06:23 PM


Posted by: Theodore Hasse

I haven't read any defense of this on the left or right. What is the point of piling on a condemnation and pointing the finger at a Republican administration?

"So the Bush administration was relying on secrecy"

Do we know this? The information about it was released through Freedom of Information request, seems like if they were keeping a secret they would not document it or at least would not release the documents.

"further sign that what they did was shameful"

Who is "they"? Do we know enough to blame the whole administration? Couldn't this be a DoE problem?

"stooping to paid ventriloquist acts"

This kind of invective does not add anything to the discourse on the troubling revelation about the paid relationship between Williams and the Department of Education.

Posted by: Theodore Hasse | Jan 8, 2005 9:30:19 PM


Posted by: Chris

I was discussing this topic with a British friend and he sent the following that he has agreed to let me post. By American standards Bob is liberal to extremely liberal but by European standards I would say that is a moderate. He grew up after WWII and was weaned on BBC radio and British newspapers and tabloids.

It seems that we are now in the realms of Journalists and their morals. History always repeats itself, news is propaganda, whether good or bad and is a personal view because it is produced by one or two individuals. When reading the news this must be kept in mind especially today in the UK as the newspapers are owned by Individuals Rupert Murdock who also happens to own Sky satellite system. Berlusconi in Italy owns the media there as well and he is the prime minister, so what ever you read in the newspapers you can treat with a pinch of salt.
There is not and never will be a free press, because they have always been dependent on sponsors, in the early days before advertising the actual printers were the sponsors, if they did not like the articles they did not get printed. We have always underestimated the people, they will given enough time decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong no matter what propaganda is used. Hitler needed the SS to control the people as they did not believe all they were told, rule by fear is the historical start to the 20th century, but fortunately we have in most cases overcome that strategy, the 21st will no doubt produce something else.


Posted by: Chris | Jan 9, 2005 2:21:54 AM


Posted by: oliver

This affair with Williams attracts scorn toward the Bush administration because it fits into what appears to be a pattern of exploitation and undermining of news reporting and suggests an utter lack of respect for journalists' democratically sacred role of telling people what their government is doing. Bush gives hardly any press releases, hardly ever submits to real questioning, his press office black balls reporters that don't follow their cues about the kind of questions they don't like and hardly anyone in the administration ever seems to say anything for attribution (i.e. non-anonymously) that isn't on the message of the moment (hard to imagine occuring without a well enforced administration policy that says to stay tight-lipped).

Re: Williams, among the ways he went astray, Romenesko's journo blog http://www.poynter.org/ has this:

"By not disclosing the $240,000 he received...Williams (left) violated a provision in his syndication deal with Tribune Media Services (TMS) that says TMS must be notified when "a possible or potential conflict of interest arises due to the subject matter of (his columns) and the social, professional, financial, or business relations of (Mr. Williams)," says a TMS statement. "Tribune Media Services today informed Armstrong Williams that it is terminating its business relationship with him effective immediately."

Such contracts exists because, whether journalism is a profession or not, in the _culture_ of journalism, conflict of interest is a well known and dire taboo. Every culture has its subcultures and misfits, but that doesn't mean there aren't highly scrupulous members and it doesn't say what proportion of them are this way.

One more thing: I think people here may be confusing the one-minute overt ads Williams made with the segments of his regular "news" show in which, unbeknownst to his ostensible employer, the network, he was under an agreement to sprinkle promotions of an Bush-advocated bill in return for a pile of federal money. Williams may also have done infomercials, but at least those wouldn't have aired on a station and in a timeslot that TV Guide would have labelled "news." Viewers of Williams' regular show had no reason to expect he was working for the federal government.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 9, 2005 11:44:34 AM


Posted by: oliver

"Bush gives hardly any press CONFERENCES" I meant to write.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 9, 2005 11:45:24 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Oliver raises, perhaps inadvertently, a point about the relationship between the media and the government that may lie below the surface of the conversation so far; namely, how different administrations deal differently with the press and how we think they should all deal with it.

Now, I don’t think the role of the press is sacred, but I do agree with Oliver (and Jefferson) that a free press is vital to a democratic society. We can find historical precedents before the 1970s, but I think it is fair to say that there was a paradigm shift in how the press views its own function vis a vis the government following Watergate, and every subsequent administration has dealt with this differently. I’m not at present interested in whether the mainstream media is liberally biased (it is) or the extent to which this plays a role in why some administrations enjoy a relatively non-hostile press (Clinton for quite a while) and others have had to confront a clearly and consistently hostile press even as candidates (Bush, excepting a brief respite after 9/11).

Let me try to make this a bit more clear. The press eventually did ‘turn on’ the Clinton administration to the point where Hillary Clinton’s claims of a right-wing media conspiracy were risibly absurd. As the late Michael Kelly wrote in response: “I believe that The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, PBS and NPR are all part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Especially NPR.” Ideology plays a role, but it isn’t what I care about here.

Here’s the thing. Legitimate national security concerns and the like aside, we all want open government. Moreover, whatever it is that we want government to do, we want it to be done well. A vital part of that job is always going to be getting the message out, communicating and, whenever there is any controversy (and there almost always is) literally selling or marketing the government’s position. (There’s that M-word again, Mr. Herzog. Enjoy your nap.)

Let’s also ignore the law and the constitution here for a moment. The Constitution does not require the administration to communicate beyond an annual state of the union address to Congress and freedom of the press is about the freedom to report what the press learns, not freedom to gain information, per se. (There are, of course, some legal rights such as FOIA, but they have nothing to do with the 1st Amendment.)

What are the right ways for a democratically elected administration facing what it has reason to believe is an unduly hostile press to get its message out? Effective communication in America is expensive and sophisticated (in both the good and bad sense of that word). We may well want to hold our government to a higher standard than, for example, businesses; indeed, I think we do want to do so. But that doesn’t really solve the problem.

I suppose what I’m getting at in my typically longwinded way is that it is easy to call the Armstrong Williams type cases, not so easy to craft rules that facilitate effective government communications in the face of an overtly adversarial press.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 9, 2005 12:27:12 PM


Posted by: Don Herzog

Thanks, but I've already had my second cup of coffee.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Jan 9, 2005 12:36:51 PM


Posted by: Chris

Oliver, "This affair with Williams attracts scorn toward the Bush administration because it fits into what appears to be a pattern of exploitation and undermining of news reporting and suggests an utter lack of respect for journalists'..." Maybe I'm reading this wrong but it sounds as if you may be suggesting that they forced him to take the money? I'm not about to say that buying ad time was right but giving the "reporter" a free pass just doesn't make sense to me.

"Every culture has its subcultures and misfits, but that doesn't mean there aren't highly scrupulous members and it doesn't say what proportion of them are this way." If this was an isolated incident then I might agree that it was a case of one or two “misfits” but when you have key people at the flag ship media outlets failing to comply with the ethics that a high school journalism teacher would require then I suggest that the entire industry has a serious problem.

I don’t know if the Society of Professional Journalist is recognized by the industry but they have a Code of Ethics at http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp. It’s the basic items that you would expect from a high school reporter writing about Friday night’s game but I don’t think many reporters would be able to pass test

Posted by: Chris | Jan 9, 2005 12:51:10 PM


Posted by: oliver

No I was not suggesting they forced him, but I would like to suggest here that you reconsider the way you generalize from statistics. Anecdotalism is not a science.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 9, 2005 2:14:30 PM


Posted by: Chris

Oliver,

Thank you for your suggestion that I “reconsider the way you generalize from statistics” but since the comment failed to reference the specific area where I’m guilty of generalizing, I’ll take a general shot that it was in reference to, “If this was an isolated incident then I might agree that it was a case of one or two “misfits”...” I realize that my comment may have failed to convey my general belief that there is a general lack of ethics in the journalism industry not because of the current case but due to the fact that there have been a series of what I could classify as serious and general ethical violations at newspapers and television networks alike. It is also my opinion that I don’t believe a general statement like “one or two” could be read to imply that I thought or a wanted a reasonable person to believe that there was any kind of statistical significance to the statement. My general impression of your comments would lead me to believe that you have a specific knowledge of this subject which far exceeds my general understanding so I’m sure that you would be able to cite more than my 4 or 5 examples that have occurred in recent years.

Again thank you for general comments.

Chris

Posted by: Chris | Jan 9, 2005 3:41:18 PM


Posted by: oliver

By "statistics" I mean numbers produced using a consistent metric (e.g. a good standard poll question or benchmark criterion) and which can be expressed in percentages and in terms of a distribution and hence at least in principle in terms of a standard deviation etc etc. I don't mean one's qualitative impressions from the editorials or opinion pieces in whatever papers one chooses to read or whatever stations one happens to tune into. If you're trying to generalize from specific instances of bad behavior, where's your denominator? Do you even know how many working newspaper journalists are in this country? TV journalists? Mainstream from weekly? (The cultures and practices of TV versus print in particular are different). Demography takes spadework. To me, your scoffing at my invocation of "subcultures" reads as if you claim to know that close to 50% of journalists are corrupt by some unstated definition of the "corrupt", and to me that's just an audacious and hollow insinutation. Of course, that's par for the course on the Web, but you seemed curious to know what I was getting at.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 9, 2005 4:51:25 PM


Posted by: Steve Marsh (Ethesis)

This happens all the time. Most of the major pundits and anchors speak to groups, for significant reimbursements, so often that they generally make more money outside than inside.

They don't do disclosures (unlike the computer press which does disclosures all the time) and don't consider it a conflict.

Why no outrage over Dan Rather's long history?

Or is it the baldness of this particular transaction? But seriously, it is a real issue.

Posted by: Steve Marsh (Ethesis) | Jan 9, 2005 7:20:56 PM


Posted by: John T

to no one in particular, Itis common to quote Jefferson on the choice between gov't and a free press. It is forgotten that Jefferson also said "the greatest threat to republican government is a licentious press." The real scandal is a press that does cartwheels for a Democratic candidate. Williams did what he did for money,and I don't know that we have all the details. The trashy Dan Rather did what he did for love,or hate,depending on which candidate you're talking about.

Posted by: John T | Jan 9, 2005 7:50:09 PM


Posted by: stubbs

I retract my previous comments. It appears that, indeed, Bush has been involved in a pattern of corrupting the press:

http://www.scrappleface.com/MT/archives/002017.html

Posted by: stubbs | Jan 9, 2005 9:09:29 PM


Posted by: oliver

With that story on Bush's army service, Rather is guilty of sloppy journalism, no more. It's unacceptable, yet I find it impossible to believe that it was intentional, and I also don't believe the facts he got wrong change or distort the overall picture of Bush's war record as can be patched together from credible sources.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 9, 2005 10:40:05 PM


Posted by: oliver

Sorry: make that "military service" not "army service." Bush was Air Force National Guard or something like that (right?), not the U.S. Army.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 9, 2005 10:44:04 PM


Posted by: stubbs

Oliver, you have just pointy-headedly reminded someone that anecdotalism is not science. You have also above discredited personal impressions drawn from editorials or opinion pieces. Then you post the following:

"...Rather is guilty of sloppy journalism, no more. It's unacceptable, yet I find it impossible to believe that it was intentional, and I also don't believe the facts he got wrong change or distort the overall picture of Bush's war record as can be patched together from credible sources."

Just what do you think makes your anecdotal opinions and beliefs valuable over others? "I believe blah blah blah" (insert oliver's prejudices here). Add ability to sting others verbally here. What do you have? Articulate hypocrisy.

I have a question for you. How would you characterize the behavior of one William Jefferson Clinton regarding his dealings with the American military at the time he was subject to the draft? Please do tell us what the credible sources have made known to us. A link to your denunciations of Clinton would be appreciated.

Posted by: stubbs | Jan 9, 2005 11:53:23 PM


Posted by: media girl

What's notable to me is simply that he's the one who got caught (and then made the blunder of getting a tad self-righteous about it). That and the large sums of money involved.

But what's more telling, I think, is the ho-hum attention this has received. I saw only a couple of shows this morning -- Did any of them even mention this story, let alone discuss it? Why would anyone assume that this is the only case of this kind of corruption? Maybe it's a question the media don't want to ask, because then they'd have to answer.

I have to laugh at the notion of some liberal media conspiracy that's out to get Armstrong. The New York Times has spend more energy skewering its own reporters, and Dan Rather's blunder of hubris was practically news story of the year. How soon we forget the big to-do the press built around Clinton's penis, taking the most wild and ludicrous accusations made by partisans and turning them into headlines. How soon we forget the cheerleading that accompanied the run-up to invading Iraq, and the breathless reports filed by embedded reporters, replete with Pentagon statements and lots of video full of visions of American might. This year, I heard we had more reporters covering the Scott Peterson trial than were in the entire country of Iraq.

Is anyone else getting the sense that we're supposed to obsess over distractions and just butt out of the things that are happening behind our backs, in our name, with our money?

This isn't a problem of left vs. right, is it? Isn't this more a matter of people in power and people they're feeding at the trough vs. the rest of us "peasant" folk?

To the question, "Can there be a free press in this context?" ...I'd like to think there already is. You're participating in it right now.

Posted by: media girl | Jan 10, 2005 12:13:39 AM


Posted by: CDC

D.A.Ridgely, "...not so easy to craft rules that facilitate effective government communications in the face of an overtly adversarial press."

True enough, but it's becoming easier. You remember when, in one of Mr. Bush's rare press conferences, reporters took turns rephrasing the same "When did you stop beating beating your wife?" question. Mr Bush never answered and he paid no price. By that point the public had seen enough "Sixty Minutes" sharpies that it recognized the sound-bite gotcha game that was being played.

Though the Bush admin blew this Armstrong Williams deal, the new media isn't going away. The Legacy Media's days of cynically manipulating us with a deeply trusted but dangerously befuddled old duffer like Uncle Walter are over.

Oliver,
Someone good said, "Never attribute to evil what can be explained by simple stupidity." Just for discussion purposes, let's say that Rather is as stupid as a whole flock of chickens and is simply guilty of "sloppy journalism". (What a wonderful understatement. It's like Ambrose Bierce defining 'Flood' as 'A superior degree of dampness'.) If Sixty Minutes had a story like that about, oh, John Ashcroft, they would work tirelessly to see him roasted on a spit for criminal negligence.


Posted by: CDC | Jan 10, 2005 12:39:31 AM


Posted by: Shag from Brookline

Making the case against Williams has been easy because direct payments of federal funds were made to him. But what about indirect "payments" in the form of exclusive, inside information that will enhance the career of the journalist (including his compensation) in exchange for which the latter will provide favorable commentary to his donor? Watching the Sunday political shows suggests that this is common occurrence. The same applies to op-ed opinion makers in the printed press. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. But watch out for the infection that may result.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 10, 2005 7:15:25 AM


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