Published in Journal of Media Ethics, Vol. 2, Issue 2, April-June 2017 ABSTRACT Obligations and loyalties that develop between reporter and source both enable and enrich—and impede and corrupt—the flow of publicly significant information to wide audiences. Source relations are at the core of journalism practice, yet they are a thinly developed area of journalism ethics, […]
How to explain the indispensable role of the news media in lubricating the unfathomable rise of Donald Trump? It can’t be favoritism. I venture to say that a survey of U.S. journalists taken at the start of the primary season would have found support among the working press for the idea that Trump was a […]
I was pretty young, but I remember with fascination and horror the stills from the Zapruder film of the John Kennedy assassination. Frame by frame, Life Magazine, which in those days defined news photography, in early 1964 ran the grainy color 8mm images of the murder—Kennedy grabbing his throat as the first bullet hit him, then Jackie cradling him, finally a red blur as the killing round went through his head.
There must have been comparable, mass-circulated, images of death from before JFK’s, but I don’t remember any. The ones that came after I do remember well: Martin Luther King Jr. crumpled on the Memphis balcony; Bobby Kennedy dying, his face almost luminous as he’s comforted by the Filipino waiter in Los Angeles; the Viet Cong commando executed during Tet; the anguished girl crouching, screaming, alongside the dead student at Kent State.
They were signature moments from a world gone mad, and they left a mark because they were rare. They were rare because the news media shied away from pictures of death and dying. That was never because the pictures weren’t readily available. No metro newspaper ever complained about a shortage of grisly pictures. Images of shotgunned murder victims, limbs severed in car wrecks, impaled motorists were never hard to come by.
But the pictures were considered distasteful, more likely to cost subscriptions than to sell papers. I once asked an editor from the National Enquirer why his tabloid hadn’t published photos of Princess Diana dying in her wrecked limousine in Paris, by all accounts a harrowing scene captured by a platoon of paparazzi. Two reasons, he said: Our readers would hate us, and we’d get thrown out of the supermarkets.
Beyond that, the logic went, such images were rarely ever needed to tell the story. That was the thinking.
But that was then. We have entered a new age when it comes to images of death. Video of violent killings has become routine. Round-the-clock news channels, lacking fresh video, run continuous loops of snuff film.
How many times have I seen the 12-year-old in Cleveland with a toy gun shot dead by a cop with a real one; the teenager in Chicago as he’s shot and shot again, incredibly, 16 times, by a policeman; the Paris club-goers running into the alleyway, filmed from above, some dying, others stumbling past the bodies; the ISIS videos of hostage slaughter, images generally carried by our media right up to the moment when blade meets throat.
And the inexhaustible supply of surveillance video, a mainstay of local news now, more images of beatings and shootings. Our public records Continue reading “Images of real, violent death are now routine on screens big and small, and nobody knows what they’re doing to us”
A ghost is stalking the presidential debates, uninvited and unacknowledged. It’s the silent envoy from a murderous side of U.S. overseas operations, one that’s reviled abroad and can’t help but scar the hearts and minds of the very people our leaders consider pivotal to global success. Here I’m talking about the U.S. drone war.
This week’s news that the loathsome ISIS executioner with the London accent, Mohammed Emwazi—known as Jihadi John—was killed in Syria by a U.S. drone was one of the rare instances when drones draw public attention here.
The candidates’ silence during the debates is understandable, since they have nothing to gain from talking about the drone war, this being one of only three out of the 44 countries Pew surveyed last year where most people support the program. Elsewhere, Pew found, disgust reigns and is growing.
We don’t hear much about that from our media, since earlier disclosures indicating our government knows that drones are killing a lot of civilians provoked scant public response—and this Congress is hardly likely to hold hearings on an effort lawmakers generally support, whose victims are both faceless and distant.
Still, I was surprised a few weeks back to see an article in The Guardian of London in which whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden were applauding some new leaks of secret U.S. documents about the drones.
The leaks, which concern CIA and Air Force drones in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were reported by The Intercept, the maverick U.S. website bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
The leaks indicate that drone-borne targeted assassinations: first, are guided by frequently inaccurate “signals intelligence,” meaning inferences based on electronic communication captures instead of ground-level spies; second, are authorized by death sentences pronounced by presidential decree, which are subject to neither review nor appeal; and third, have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, many of them reflexively classified as “enemies” posthumously, no matter how thin the evidence that they had done, or intended to do, any harm to us.
As one example, The Intercept reported, during 13-month-long Operation Haymaker in Northeastern Afghanistan in 2012-13, some 200 people died, of whom only 35 were specifically targeted. “During one five-month period … nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets,” The Intercept said.
The reason I was surprised to read that Ellsberg and Snowden welcomed those disclosures was that I hadn’t seen the new leaks reported anywhere else in this country’s media.
People who are concerned about runaway secrecy and who cheer when the media break important stories in defiance of government edict may still find this particular affair worrisome.
Suppose the official secrets that are illegally leaked are published in an exclusive newsletter for a narrow sliver of the public that pays a lot of money for them. What’s more, the secrets don’t so much enlighten the broad public—which doesn’t see them—as they enable those lucky customers to cash in by making smarter investments than non-subscribers do.
Now, by and large, even though the government prosecutes leakers vigorously (especially in the national security realm) and tries its best to imprison them, it never goes after the outfits that publish the blown secrets. By custom—if not by statutory or constitutional entitlement, since this immunity has never been tested in court—the media get a pass.
But should the newsletter that brokered the illegal leak to its clients, who sought to profit from it financially, still benefit from the restraint that the U.S. government usually shows to news organizations that run classified material?
So to the case at hand, which involves Medley Global Advisors, owned by the London-based Financial Times. Medley describes itself as “the leading global provider of macro policy intelligence for the world’s top hedge funds, institutional investors, and asset managers. “
In October 2012 a Medley newsletter published delectable, secret information about forthcoming actions to be taken by a pivotal committee of the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank.
The Fed is notoriously protective of its deliberations, since they routinely move markets worldwide, and is mindful of the immense advantage that knowledge of coming decisions can give to those in the know.
In this instance, according to an account from Pro Publica, Medley reported that the Fed’s Open Markets Committee had decided in September to extend its stimulus program, and would buy $45 billion per month in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities for some months to come.
That was big news, and the day after Medley’s account came out the Fed, as scheduled, released minutes of the committee meeting, which confirmed the report. That caused bond prices to fall and yields to rise. Advance knowledge of what the minutes would say was, it’s safe to assume, extremely advantageous.
Fed officials launched an internal probe, and by last month the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a regulatory agency, had started an insider-trading investigation while federal prosecutors in Manhattan were conducting a Continue reading “Suppose an inside scoop of official secrets gives some market players an unfair advantage—is that a good reason to muzzle the media?”
It was in 1991, during the lurid Senate confirmation hearings over the nomination of Clarence Thomas, a career Republican functionary with scant judicial qualifications, for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The hearings were testy, and among weightier sins, Thomas was allegedly a regular at a D.C. video rental shop that specialized in porn.
Now I didn’t care for Thomas politically, and I cheered for the women who characterized him as an office creep and borderline predator. But I was chilled by the idea that his personal movie choices could first, be unearthed, and then, be brandished as evidence of character. Really? Is that where we want to go?
Little did I know. This was way pre-Internet. We now inhabit a world where the volume of personal data that’s routinely gathered by anonymous vendors is immeasurably greater and says much more about us than mere video rental records do.
What’s more, as we all continue to learn, the places where this personal data is kept are more porous, more accessible, and more frequently pillaged than any of its self-serving keepers ever willingly admit.
But even if the data can’t be kept private, can’t we at least keep it from becoming public?
Enter Ashley Madison. That’s not some debutante, but a Canadian-based online hookup network for aspiring adulterers. Its catchphrase is, “Life is short. Have an affair.”
Ashley’s marketing persuaded more than 32 million people to sign on since 2007, and it seems reasonable to figure some proportion of them had satisfactory dalliances. The parent company, Avid Life Media, wasn’t taking any chances, and hedged its bets by also creating Established Men, which offers romantic opportunities for the rich; Man Crunch, for gay dating; one site for swinging couples, and another for the overweight but libidinous.
So far so good, until July, when a web security expert named Brian Krebs broke the news that Ashley had been hacked, and information about millions of its customers had been uploaded to the Internet. The hackers, an outfit called The Impact Team, said they were outraged by Avid Life Media’s policy of letting customers expunge their identifying information for a $19 fee.
The hackers said the offer was fraudulent, the listings were left intact, and Ashley had pocketed $1.7 million last year for a bogus service. So the hackers helped themselves to acres of personal information about Ashley’s users and posted it online, hoping the furious customers would sue Ashley for failing to safeguard their privacy.
In other words, the hackers sought to avenge a fraud by punishing the defrauded, and millions of names of wannabe adulterers were posted online.
So the question is, how much of that information was honest news? What use should the media make of it? If news organizations begin scouring the listings, what should they do with data suggesting that a TV star, or a high-level bureaucrat, or a member of Congress, or a candidate for public office, once went trolling for playmates through a channel he or she had every assurance would remain secret?
As it happens, the media were hungry, but turned out to be picky eaters. An Continue reading “Hack of meet-up site for adulterers produces plenty of embarrassment, but does it produce news?”
Media shaming is hot. It’s the new spectator sport in which hapless people say or do something that unexpectedly provokes general wrath, and get their skin torn off by online abuse from thousands of furious, abusive, and hateful strangers.
Justine Sacco was among the early headliners. She was a New York public relations practitioner who tweeted, as she got on plane for Capetown in December 2013, an ironic remark about how she probably wouldn’t get AIDs in South Africa because she was white. Within hours Sacco was inundated with ferocious, Twittered scorn and denunciation, and wound up losing her job.
Now comes Walter Palmer, the hapless dentist from Minnesota, who killed a lion in Zimbabwe in July. It was named Cecil, apparently had a devoted following, and was allegedly lured illegally from a wildlife sanctuary so the hunter could put an arrow in it. Palmer was the subject of 670,000 tweets in the first 24 hours after he owned up to shooting Cecil.
These cases and the many others that the feverish pace of online chatter is churning up involve misdeeds, often trivial, for which people are vilified and insulted, sometimes with serious consequences. They aren’t charged formally with wrongdoing that they can deny or explain. They can’t rely on a forum where they can argue they did no real harm, they can’t offer to remedy their wrongdoing, they can’t appeal to a disinterested panel.
If they could do that, they’d be in the realm of guilt. That’s where wrongs are clearly identified and punishment is pronounced after evidence is heard, explanations are offered, and some reflection is given to what might be necessary to set things right.
But this isn’t the republic of guilt, it’s the empire of shame. Both are mechanisms by which people are held accountable for wrongs, but they’re very different. Guilt is a response to a wrongful act, while shame instead blankets the person who appears to have done wrong with moral condemnation.
Guilt can be mitigated by showing that the action didn’t do much harm or that the harm was unintended. Any response by the wrongdoer that reduces the harm is pertinent. Punishment that seems to even the score, makes whoever was hurt whole again, ensures the wrong doesn’t continue or isn’t repeated—those are all part of a venerable formula for redress that seems rational and fair.
Shame is different. It’s about a lack of moral worth. The crook who robs the bank may be guilty, but the one who mugs the bank teller is shamed. In the old days, guilt got you flogged, shame got you shunned.
Shame can’t be relieved; it must be suffered and endured and, at best, can in time be forgiven, through an accumulation of evidence that the person who was shamed has done the prescribed penance.
Shaming rituals have elements about them that are pre-modern, almost tribal, and which are hard to square with fairness and proportionality. They constitute punishment without trial, inflicted by anonymous strangers acting under standards of their own, and they trigger reprisals that may be grossly excessive. (Why was Sacco fired? Should Palmer have been hounded into suspending his practice?)
That said, what should the response be to wrongdoing in instances when the rational machinery of deciding guilt isn’t up to the job?
Maybe, sometimes, shame has its place.
“Scorn or shaming are important in reaffirming the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behavior and helping ensure that people adhere to them,” Continue reading “Maybe media shaming isn’t always a bad thing, especially if injustice otherwise goes unanswered”