Integrity is being obsoleted, examples 467 and 468

467. From Alessandra Stanley’s appraisal of this week’s appointment of Diane Sawyer to anchor ABC News, in today’s New York Times:

Patience is not normally a virtue in the news business, but Ms. Sawyer made it her ally, letting time smooth bumps in her résumé that at one time seemed insurmountable. She moved directly from working with former President Richard Nixon on his memoirs to CBS News back when the line between journalism and government was virtually inviolate — until, that is, Tim Russert and George Stephanopoulos came along and changed the rules.

This decline in basic journalistic integrity has been going on for longer than we—or perhaps Ms. Stanley—might care to know, or acknowledge. The great John Leonard wrote about it in a major thinkpiece for the Nation’s June 8, 2000 issue entitled “How the Caged Bird Learns to Sing”:

[S]tuck as I am on my periphery of books, movies and television programs, I can’t tell you for sure whether Tom Friedman, when he covered the State Department for the Times, should have played tennis with the Secretary of State. Or if Brit Hume, when he covered the White House for ABC, should have played tennis with President Bush. Or if Rita Beamish of the Associated Press should’ve jogged with George. Or if it was appropriate for George and Barbara to stop by and be videotaped at a media dinner party in the home of Albert Hunt, the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Judy Woodruff, then of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and now of CNN. Or if one reason Andrea Mitchell, who covered Congress for NBC, showed up so often in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center was that she just happened to be living with Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Nor can I be absolutely positive that there’s something deeply compromised about George Will’s still ghostwriting speeches for Jesse Helms during his trial period as a columnist for the Washington Post, and prepping Ronald Reagan for one of his debates with Jimmy Carter, and then reviewing Reagan’s performance the next day, and later on writing speeches for him. Or about Morton Kondracke and Robert Novak’s collecting thousands of dollars from the Republican Party for advice to a gathering of governors. Or John McLaughlin’s settling one sexual-harassment suit out of court, facing the prospect of at least two more–and nevertheless permitting himself to savage Anita Hill on his McLaughlin Group. Or, perhaps most egregious, Henry Kissinger on ABC and in his syndicated newspaper column, defending Deng Xiaoping’s behavior during the Tiananmen Square massacre–without telling us that Henry and his private consulting firm had a substantial financial stake in the Chinese status quo.
For that matter, who knows deep down in our heart of hearts whether the nuclear-power industry will ever get the critical coverage it deserves from NBC, which happens to be owned by General Electric, which happens to manufacture nuclear-reactor turbines? Or if TV Guide, while it was owned by Rupert Murdoch, was ever likely to savage a series on the Fox network, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was meanwhile busy canceling any HarperCollins books that might annoy the Chinese, with whom he dickered for a satellite-television deal? Or whether ABC, owned by Disney, will ever report anything embarrassing to Michael Eisner, the Mikado of Mousedom? It wasn’t the fault of journalists at ABC’s 20/20 that Cap Cities settled the Philip Morris suit before selling out to Disney. But nobody quit, did they? Nor was it the fault of journalists at 60 Minutes that CBS killed another antismoking segment, to be immortalized later in Michael Mann’s movie The Insider; it was the fault instead of the CBS legal department, on behalf of a Larry Tisch who actually owned a tobacco company of his own, on the eve of the big-bucks sale of the network to Westinghouse. But nobody quit there either, did they? Not even aggrieved producer Lowell Bergman, till two years later. Nor have any of the Beltway bubbleheaded blisterpacks on the all-Monica-all-the-time cable yakshows quit in embarrassment and humiliation, renouncing lucrative lecture fees, after being totally wrong in public about almost everything important ever since the 1989 collapse of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe.
Stop me before I go on about the petroleum industry and public television’s shamefully inadequate coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, not to mention Shell Oil’s ravening of Nigeria. Or say something I’ll regret about the $5-11 million a year that the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer gets from Archer Daniels Midland, the agribiz octopus whose fixing of prices and bribing of pols got so much attention in 1995 everywhere except on the NewsHour. How suspicious is it that so many Random House books were excerpted in The New Yorker back when Harry Evans ran the publishing house, his wife, Tina Brown, ran the magazine and all of them were wholly owned subsidiaries of Si Newhouse? Is anybody keeping tabs on what Time, People and Entertainment Weekly have to say about Warner Brothers movies? What else should we expect in a brand-named, theme-parked country where the whole visual culture is a stick in the eye, one big sell of booze, gizmos, insouciance, “lifestyles” and combustible emotions? Where the big-screen re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy is brought to you by Doritos and the associated sale of stuffed Yodas, Muppet minotaurs, trading cards, video games and a six-foot-tall Fiberglas Storm Trooper for $5,000? Where the newest James Bond is less a movie than a music-video marketing campaign for luxury cars, imported beers, mobile phones and gold credit cards? Where Coke and Pepsi duke it out in grammar schools and Burger King shows up on the sides of the yellow buses that cart our kids to those schools, in whose classrooms they will be handed curriculum kits sprinkled with the names of sneaker companies and breakfast cereals? Where there is a logo, a patent, a copyright or a trademark on everything from our pro athletes and childhood fairy tales to the human genome, and Oprah is sued for $12 million by a Texas beef lobby for “disparaging” blood on a bun during a talk-show segment on bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?
And where, I might add, all of us “delirious professionals” sign away, in perpetuity, our intellectual-property rights, our firstborn children and our double-helix to synergizing media monopolies that will downsize our asses before the pension plan kicks in. Marx made a mini-comeback on the 150th birthday of his Communist Manifesto. But years before he wrote the Manifesto he was overheard to say: “Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges everything, it is the universal confusion and transposition of all things, the inverted world, the confusion and transposition of all natural and human qualities.” In other words, if money’s the only way we keep score, every other human relation is corrupted.
…The world of television journalism has been changing, not since O.J. or Monica or the Internet, but ever since they discovered that news can be a “profit center.”….

But, back to today’s New York Times…

468. From today’s “Public Editor” column by Clark Hoyt in the New York Times, regarding ongoing conflict-of-interest accusations against the paper’s “State of the Art” columnist David Pogue:

…In addition to [Pogue’s] weekly “State of the Art” column in The Times, and his blog and videos on the newspaper’s Web site, and his weekly e-mail newsletter, he appears regularly on “CBS News Sunday Morning,” CNBC and NPR. He also entertains lecture audiences with satirical ditties on the piano — he once aspired to be a Broadway composer — while informing them about the latest gadgets. You can even take a Geek Cruise to Bermuda with him next spring. Finally, Pogue originated “The Missing Manual” series of help books for the technologically challenged like me, who otherwise would never figure out how to get the most out of something like an iPhone.
His multiple interests and loyalties raise interesting ethical issues in this new age when individual journalists can become brands of their own, stars who seem to transcend the old rules that sharply limited outside activity and demanded an overriding obligation to The Times and its readers.
Two Thursdays ago, two of Pogue’s interests seemed to collide. In his Times column, he gave a glowing review to Snow Leopard, Apple’s new operating system for Macs. At the same time, he was writing a “Missing Manual” on Snow Leopard — two, actually — already available for pre-order on Amazon. If you are now running Leopard on your Mac, Pogue wrote in the review, paying the $30 to replace it with Snow Leopard “is a no-brainer.”
… [T]he better Snow Leopard sells, presumably the better Pogue’s “Missing Manual” on how to use it will sell.
…The Times and other news organizations are going to face more of these situations as journalists worried about the economic health of their employers seek outside sources of income and as the companies turn to independent contractors, like Pogue, for more of their content.
Pogue is by no means the only Times writer with other interests. Thomas Friedman commands $75,000 for a speech, and his books are blockbusters. Another Op-Ed columnist, Frank Rich, is a consultant helping HBO develop new programming. A. O. Scott, the film critic, is about to become co-host of “At the Movies,” produced by ABC Media Productions. Mark Bittman, The Minimalist, an independent contractor like Pogue, writes cookbooks and appears on PBS. John Harwood, who writes from Washington, is CNBC’s chief Washington correspondent.
In another era, many of these activities would have been frowned on as diluting the Times brand and draining energy from the paper. Now, with what seems a mixture of resignation and sensed opportunity, editors say The Times can be enhanced by all the outside activity. “We see their exposure in a quality venue as good promotion of The Times,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor.
…Larry Ingrassia, the business editor, said that, prompted by my questions, editors decided to make disclosures to readers regarding Pogue’s outside activities. On his Times Topics page online, Pogue posted a statement of ethics, saying manufacturers have no involvement in his manuals and that from now on, if he is writing a book about a product he is reviewing, he will disclose it to readers. It says his personal investments are in a blind trust to avoid any question of reviewing products in which he has a direct financial interest. A disclosure was appended to the Snow Leopard column online.
The old-school way — telling Pogue to give up the manuals or take a hike — was not realistic.

Categories: BLOG | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in the rural wilderness of Joshua Tree, California, where I am a partner in JTHomesteader.com with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

3 thoughts on “Integrity is being obsoleted, examples 467 and 468

  1. thank you thank you thank you! last i heard arthur magazine was no longer…then it might come back. however, i have now been re-united with the magazine via your blog. this is the most excellent reading on the internet that i have yet found. music, news, thoughts, fun videos, etc. all from under the “radar” and all of a great variety. thanks and keep it up! p.s. – is the magazine still in regular print? how can i subscribe? i’d love to pay for your magazine which was once free. for sure.

  2. Am I the only one who reads pieces like this with split feelings? Half of me leaps out of my seat, fist in air, and goes “Righteous! Completely agree and this totally lays out the crux of the problem in news media in a way people can understand, man!”

    The other half just shrugs “well… OF COURSE all these hucksters have massive conflicts of interests. That’s just how things are these days”, and that this kind of analysis is like one that details the obvious fact that I breathe oxygen. I suppose it still helps some people turn off big media when they encounter stuff like this, but it also feels like this horse has left the barn long ago.

    Not to say don’t keep posting good stuff like this… just not sure what to do about it, and somewhat demoralized that it’s somehow seen as acceptable by people.

  3. TwoMinds: I hear you, I’m with you. I do think this is news to some (perhaps younger?) folks, though. I also think it’s good to remind people how deep this runs, how far back it goes. And to my mind, it’s always a good thing to nudge people towards reading John Leonard, a true late great. Finally, I think it’s important to point out that standards continue to slip. Or rather, that specific people in specific institutions make decisions that standards no longer apply. Or even more rather, the standard-lowering is being forced on folks and institutions via market forces, and it’s good to point out when this is happening, every time, until it stops happening, til people stop putting up with it. For some of us, like you and me, this is old news, predictable developments, yeah, but not everyone’s seen THE WIRE yet, ya know?

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