When reporters step out of line, fire away

November 26, 2007

I’m sure that since Tim Page is a music critic for the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize he’s a fine journalist. But he did something stupid recently when he sent an aide to Washington’s ex-mayor, Marion Barry, an angry e-mail demanding to be taken off the solicitation list for some cultural initiative Barry was pitching. “Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new — and typically half-witted — political grandstanding?” Page asked. (Barry, you’ll recall, served six months after he was videotaped in an FBI drug sting in 1990.)

The Post was embarrassed when Page’s e-mail came to light, and apologized profusely to Barry. Then the paper’s executives did something astonishing: They did not fire Tim Page.

Why is that astonishing? Because no matter where else you look, in today’s newsroom environment, just about everybody who screws up, regardless of how serious the offense or how forgivable the sin, gets fired. Almost invariably, the firing is justified in the language of ethics.

Well, not everybody’s fired. The Los Angeles Times reporter who was posting comments under a pseudonym on various websites was only demoted and stripped of his column. (So pseudonyms are unethical? Somebody tell George Orwell and Mark Twain.)

He got off easy. An Indianapolis Star editorial writer wrote a scathing column likening some African-American city officials to a minstrel show. In the interest of “civility” the writer, himself black, was fired. The Benicia (Calif.) Herald sacked its editor for a column criticizing political candidates in which he quote from an unpublished letter from a reader — another freshly minted ethical crime. A reporter at KDFW-TV in Dallas was suspended indefinitely for conducting a streetside “ambush interview” with a 70-year-old scrapyard owner who had shot dead his second intruder in three weeks. (The station aired the interview, then suspended the reporter. Go figure.)

Those three were in the last month or so. But the case that made me gag involved John Merrill, a retired professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a leader in the academic field of journalism ethics. Merrill had been writing a column for the Columbia Missourian, a daily paper affiliated with the journalism school.

In a column this month that deplored the university’s decision to make its gender studies program a full-fledged department, Merrill briefly quoted some officials praising the move. He didn’t mention their remarks had been reported in the university’s student paper.

Failing to disclose where he had found the comments, his editors decided, constituted plagiarism. So they fired him and told everybody why.

For various reasons, I think Merrill’s omission was defensible, especially in an opinion column. But my interest isn’t in what Merrill did, but in what was done to him — in the harshness of the response to an 83-year-old academic whose wrongdoing, at worst, was well shy of a war crime.

What gives? Why this determination to punish and humiliate? And, of greatest concern, is this becoming yet another source of fear and anxiety among journalists — alongside the layoffs, business declines, threats of mergers and sell-offs, and the perpetual anti-media carping from bloggers, hacks and hirelings?

How, with the in-house ethics cops now poised to purge, does anybody still summon the courage to practice journalism?

After all, journalism requires a strong stomach and a tolerance for risk, and it flourishes where reporters can trust the people they work with — and work for.

Sure, this new, greater willingness by news organizations to confess wrongdoing and submit to public accountability is an immensely positive change, one that many of us have been urging and few of us ever saw as likely.

But what’s with the vindictiveness, the self-righteousness, the callousness with which media bosses respond to even marginal instances of misconduct — typically while brandishing ethical slogans that they spend little time actually grappling with, and that are nearly always more perplexing than some high-minded clause in an employee manual?

In the wake of John Merrill’s pillorying, an old friend, a newspaper publisher, e-mailed me a passage from Aristotle about hubris. We usually understand hubris as overweening pride. But to Aristotle it consisted of inflicting shame or degradation, because “men think that by ill-treating others they make their own superiority the greater.”

The implication: Under the banner of humbling themselves and being accountable, media bosses are displaying the same arrogance that the public has long despised.

Sure, ethical action requires admitting and correcting wrongs with humility and sincerity. But it also demands acting justly, with proportionality, fairness and compassion. Forgiveness is a good thing, both in the news and in the newsroom.

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