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Just tuning in… what’s the scandal again?

March 20th, 2009 · 4 Comments

So, as a writer of a distinctly non-progressive bent, I’ve never been on JournoList, but I’m a little shocked to see it suddenly become such a topic of discussion. For one, I had been under the impression that the list’s existence had been rather an open secret in DC for a long time—at least to the folks  likely to care about it. I’d thought I was as big a stickler as anyone for full disclosure by public officials and journalists, but I’ll confess that it had never occurred to me that—as Mark Hemingway apparently believes is required—we have to give an exhaustive account of the people we engage in private conversations with, lest coverage be “disproportionately” shaped by people with a particular ideological agenda.

Not only does participation not strike me as “clearly inappropriate,” but I think any such suggestion would be fairly clearly ludicrous if we applied it to people’s conversations and social interactions generally. The test of objectivity is whether the story you write fairly presents the relevant sides. A catalogue of the author’s drinking buddies and lunch dates (assuming they’re not paying for lunch) just seems beside the point. If there’s some kind of ethical problem with being “inordinately” exposed to a certain viewpoint, why don’t we have to disclose every magazine we subscribe to, every blog we read, every radio program we listen to, every book club or happy hour we attend, every e-mail conversation we engage in…  if there’s something special about a listserv as a medium I’m not seeing it.

Then again, maybe Mark doesn’t think there’s anything special about listservs either, since he writes that “when it comes to diagnosing Washington’s ethical ailments, the JournoList is the symptom and not the disease.” But if the “conflict” here consists of having conversations and social associations with people who tend to share your views, then the disease is called “life”—and is, I fear, terminal.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 david hodges // Mar 21, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    journalists, by choice, should hold themselves to a higher ethical standard.

    from the spj’s code of ethics:

    “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

    Journalists should:

    —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
    — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
    — Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
    — Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”


    this is why i think blogs are killing journalism. it’s kind of ridiculous to talk about an “ethics of blogging.” but journalists used to hold themselves accountable to their profession’s ethical code. if you belong to a news organization that aims to be objective, then being on a pseudo secret, but well-known-to-be-liberal listserv is a big no-no. see where it says shun political involvement?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Mar 21, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    I’ve been a working journalist for eight years, and am as serious as anyone about the ethics of the profession. And I agree about “political involvement,” which traditionally refers to things like active campaigning for a candidate or cause. The idea that participating on a listserv counts, however, seems to me not just wrong but risible. It’s not even a close call.

  • 3 david hodges // Mar 22, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    without knowing the actual content of the listserv, it’s hard to say how active the degree of political involvement is. i can imagine it being very tame, but i can also imagine them talking about ideas for angles that would boost the popularity of a candidate. the fact that it’s “secret” leaves the distinction totally to my imagination.

    i think ultimately it’s probably up to the editors at the news organizations to decide if this needs to be disclosed, or if participation should be barred altogether. i think the line between whether or not this is acceptable or a “perceived conflict of interest” is razor-thin.

    on the one hand i can see how informal associations, however left-leaning they may be, shouldn’t be held against you. but just because they shouldn’t be held against you doesn’t mean that they won’t be by your readers. and so even if the listserv is actually harmless to your writing, if the readers, to whom you owe your ultimate responsibility, are still perceiving a conflict of interest, then you’ve got a problem.

  • 4 MM // Mar 25, 2009 at 11:06 am

    LOLZ. You are a total fage beyond my wildest imagination.