One of the first times I ever spoke to a real, live reporter, I had made an appointment to see him in his offices. On arrival, I was shocked to find myself stopped and interrogated by a uniformed character in the lobby who checked a list for my name, called up to announce me, and issued me a visitor’s badge. He then pointed me toward the elevators and told me to get off on the third floor. My appointment would meet me as I debarked.
I followed all this rigmarole dutifully, like livestock getting branded. I was, after all, visiting a real, live reporter. This man’s words were published and read daily. I confess I was in awe.
Why the security? I wondered. Then I recalled that someone had once told me how dangerous it can be to be a reporter. Uncovering the Truth all the time, you might ruffle the feathers of violent souls. Best to keep one’s person safe.
Since then, I have visited many more reporters, and it’s always the same. Someone signs you in, you get a badge, and you go on in. But with repetition comes familiarity, and with familiarity comes somewhat less awe. I now see that most of the security guards who sign me in are often bored, and don’t seem to be looking too hard for evildoers. With the proper smile and bluster, I could easily infiltrate. And those visitor badges? Typically no more secure than “Hello! My name is. . .” stickers from Staples. A piece of cake to mimic. Once in the newsroom, no one gives me or my badge a second glance. It’s not like the defense firm where I used to work, where the presence of a visitor’s badge (hard plastic, not sticky paper) caused conversations to end and office doors to close.
The purpose of all the security seems not so much safety as it is to create a sense of separateness, to erect a barrier between the reporter and the reported-upon. It creates a bunker behind which journalistic work can take place. This apartness is important to the journalistic endeavor — think of how hard it would be to publish a story criticizing your neighbor, whom you greet daily. But, behind the bunker where truth is king, you can easily sally forth.
Once, in a conversation I was leading with a number of journalists (when I worked at The Harwood Institute), a man told a story about his mother. She had been accosted in a grocery store checkout line and called to account for something her son had written. The anguish on his face as he remembered how his mother had felt was there for all to see — the separateness that had allowed him to write the story in the first place had suddenly been stripped from him.
This apartness works only if it’s grounded in something that restrains the power it gives. What properly restrains the working journalist is his or her code of ethics. Some may chuckle at the thought of journalistic ethics, but it’s real. Among the professions, newsgathering has historically had what may be the strongest such code. Reporters who have worked for years on their craft betray a reverence for truth and objectivity that would cause one to goggle.
But, wafting over the bunker of late have come signs that the zealous adherence to truth is slipping. One hears about it happening here, or there, and the news organizations in question tighten the reins and create new procedures. Rick Bragg, for instance, made the New York Times rethink how it approaches datelines.
In the past few days, stories have reached the public that further erode our sense that the news profession has truth at the top of its agenda. CBS News has made public the contents of the independent report investigating the infamous “memogate” affair in which its 60 Minutes franchise aired reports based on documents with unprovable veracity — yet insisted they’d been verified by experts. To its credit, the Eye has fired four of the executives involved and a fifth, news anchor Dan Rather, is on his way to retirement anyway.
And then there’s commentator and columnist Armstrong Williams. It’s come to light that he took almost a quarter million dollars from the federal government in return for mentioning — often and in a positive context — the administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Williams, caught with hand in cookie jar, is now on a tour of talk shows where he is making contrite gestures. Throwing himself on the mercy of his audience, he says that, as an independent commentator (he doesn’t work for CNN or Fox but instead has his own show and column), it’s hard to balance both the business and reporting aspects of what he does. Maybe he crossed the ethics line, he says, but it was just a simple mistake. It’s not like he did something illegal.
There are those who, on looking at both of these affairs, want desperately to find something illegal to point to. It would be comforting to be able to say that this, or that law had been broken and so the proper sanction would be clear. But the problem is deeper than that. The problem is one of ethics. CBS and Williams both, in their own ways, had abandoned the code of journalistic ethics that is the basis of their livelihood.
There is an implicit deal struck between reporter and society. This covenant, in its essence, is: Reporter, you have the power to write and publish what you please, to go where you like in order to find out what you wish, and not divulge whom you speak to. In return, we in society ask that you do this always in the service of truth and that you keep uppermost in your mind that it falls to you to tell us the stories that we ought to know. This deal is not a law and it’s not explicit. The First Amendment guarantees one side of it, but we rely on good will to enforce the other side.
CBS News and Armstrong Williams each in their own way welched on the deal. They didn’t pursue truth. There behind the bunker, they forgot the covenant they had with us, the reported-on.
Each such incident makes it harder for all the other journalists to do their important work. Because, while the bunker makes it possible to pursue truth in the first place, it also offers a convenient screen behind which to hide. And so, each new revelation pushes us closer to a tipping point where we begin to wonder: What else does the bunker obscure?