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September 10, 2004

Tom Fiedler's Rock Concert Credibility Blues

If a food writer at the Miami Herald, a music fan, attends a Springsteen concert on the swing state tour this fall, there's a problem with journalists being too partisan, but when an executive editor and political columnist signs a petition and lobbies the Justice Department for a change in federal policy, that's somehow okay. A closer look at Fiedler's rules.

On Aug. 23, Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, warned his staff against a temptation they will face during the political season. “Don’t succumb,” he urged, except it sounded more like an order than an urging, since he is the boss, after all, and also since the behavior in question was, he said, prohibited by the Herald’s Guidelines on Ethics.

According to Fiedler, the ethically alert journalist, realizing that Bruce Springsteen, REM, Bonnie Raitt, John Mellencamp and others want to support John Kerry in a special concert tour of key states, will resist the temptation to snag two tickets and enjoy the music when the show comes to Miami, Orlando, or Clearwater, Florida. “My advice,” Fiedler wrote: “Unless you are covering one of these partisan events as a working journalist, stay away.”

Stay away from the concerts, the boss advised, because “avoiding conflicts of interest, real and perceived” is among “the compromises that we accept” as journalists at the Herald. Actually, he didn’t mean that. He meant “among the sacrifices we accept to avoid being compromised,” but the memo was probably written in haste. It later showed up at Romenesko, as memos sometimes do, and from there Fiedler’s Rules became an item of debate.

When you think about it, it’s an extraordinary little claim: that attending a rock concert like a normal person can somehow threaten the credibility of the Miami Herald. How is such a verdict reached?

Scott Rosenberg of Salon: “Note how the newspaper has revised the concept of conflict of interest—which should apply to situations where an individual can improperly gain material benefit in the course of pursuing her professional responsibilities—and turned it into a stricture demanding that all reporters neuter their civic selves.”

True: conflict of interest takes a leap in what Fiedler told his people. It “isn’t about the celebrities” but “the events themselves,” he said. They’re political:

The money generated by ticket sales to many events will be earmarked directly or indirectly to groups whose mission is to influence the outcome of the election. As you know and understand, it is improper for independent journalists—which we are—to engage in partisan politics or to advocate for political causes. In this case, buying a ticket to any of these events is tantamount to making a political contribution, which is prohibited by the newsroom’s Guidelines on Ethics.

To which Rosenberg says: “my eyes roll.” Mine tend to squint. I’d hope the top editor would be reluctant to compromise away the individual journalist’s right to a normal life, and a civic identity. Crucial to that is free expression, which includes most forms of political expression.

But Fiedler doesn’t seem reluctant to restrict. Instead, he goes out of his way to politicize a human situation— where a journalist is being a fan, buying tickets, enjoying a concert, and (perhaps) making a statement in the process. These, according for Fiedler, are not normal acts of citizenship, permitted to anyone— not if you work at the Herald.

If you work at the Miami Herald, your desire to see Springsteen team up with REM actually endangers the newspaper. For it tempts you to “engage in partisan politics.” It whispers: go ahead, be an “advocate” for causes you favor. When Fiedler says what’s forbidden, he doesn’t have to give much of an argument. Consensus press think is doing the work.

Everyone knows it’s bad for a journalist to have any part in politics, and dangerous to support a candidate. When a portion of-the ticket price will go to groups who intend to influence groups who could influence the election… that is pretty indirect involvement, but even so: steer clear of the concert trap is presented as common sense.

Take a more extreme case— journalists signing petitions, and putting them before the Justice Department or Congress, in an effort to influence federal policy during criminal prosecutions. Now that sounds political.

Yet it’s what Fiedler himself does right here, along with 32 others at the Herald. They and more than 2,800 like-minded professionals want the Justice Department to stop pressuring journalists to reveal confidential sources. There are good arguments for that position, but arguments alone are not enough. It takes advocacy— kicking up a fuss, gaining attention, petitioning the government, showing officials how much support you have. All of which Fiedler and company have done.

Readers, I present you a puzzle in press think: If a food writer at the Miami Herald, being also a music fan, drives to Orlando with friends to attend a Springsteen concert on the Vote for Change tour this fall, there’s an immediate problem with journalists being too partisan, but when an executive editor and political columnist signs a public petition and lobbies the Justice Department for a change in policy, that’s immediately okay, and others in the Herald newsroom can join right in.

(Got an explanation that makes immediate sense of this situation? Hit the comment button and speak.)

To me what’s remarkable is not the hypocrisy there, but the automatic quality in Fiedler-the-ethicist’s assumption that an apolitical life is the better kind of life for a journalist to lead. Better to abstain from civic activity if you have any association with the Herald newsroom. As Rosenberg notes, by that logic it would help with credibility if journalists were discouraged from voting on ethical grounds, and then announced their sacrifice so everyone in town would know about it.

Would it be ethical to demand that of news workers? No. Would it improve the actual performance of the press? Not likely. Answer quickly: do you want someone with school age kids reporting on the schools? Does participation in parenthood disqualify the reporter on the education beat—- or qualify her? Or recall the case of Jeffrey Schmalz, the New York Times reporter and editor who contracted AIDS and, once his condition became known, was assigned to cover AIDS for the Times. He died in 1993. (Obit is here.)

One would think these exceptions would shed more light on the arbitariness of the rules.

The most fascinating thing about Fiedler’s “advice,” however, is the hidden observer effect: the optics of his ethics. It’s like the editorial staff of the Herald is being watched wherever it travels in public space— watched for signs of bias in a field of vision that has somehow expanded, from the news columns proper to the bias someone might spot in the journalist’s civic behavior. “Even if your job here doesn’t entail covering politics, you do represent The Herald wherever you go,” wrote Fiedler. There’s an image of constant surveillance there. It came from somewhere.

“Cowardice in the newsrooms,” read the headline on Ed Wasserman’s Sep. 6th column for the Herald, which also ran Thursday at as “Newsrooms under siege.” That’s where the feeling of surveillance comes from, he says. “It’s hard now even to write for publication without being aware of just how thoroughly what you say is going to be inspected for any trace of undesirable political tilt and denounced by a free-floating cadre of rightist warriors.” The press has been intimidated into “an abject negotiation with a loud and bullying sliver of the audience.”

Journalists, says Wasserman, can be found telling favorable stories “not from a principled desire to deliver a factual account that is broadly emblematic of significant happenings in Iraq, but from a gutless attempt to buy off a hostile and suspicious fragment of the audience base.” Thus, the surveillance is real, and it’s having an effect, which he compares to “extortion.”

Leading Glenn Reynolds to say yesterday about Wasserman’s “siege…”

HERE’S A COLUMN by an old-media guy who isn’t happy about having his work fact-checked by the great unwashed.

What Wasserman calls extortion is just accountability to people who do their homework, Reynolds believes. Scott Rosenberg points to “consumers of journalism, who have—sadly but understandably—taken the profession’s traditional avowal of objectivity at face value, and then become outraged at its failure to achieve that pristine state.”

I draw a different connection. A feeling of being under siege would explain both the Rock Concert Credibility Blues (alternate title, “Don’t succumb to the music, newsies”) which is a policy in absurd flight from politics; and Let’s Band Together and Petition the Justice Department, which is an openly political move and a challenge to the Administration.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

In the News: Republicans in Minnesota, acting through the state party, call on the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune to fire an editorial employee: the pollster, for under-predicting Republican strength.

Tom Fiedler, Miami Herald staff warned about political concerts (Memos to Romenesko)

Scott Rosenberg, Newsroom codes of ethics: Let’s pretend our reporters don’t think at all!

For clarity here, let’s distinguish between the unattainable standard of objectivity a scientific absolute poised as subjectivity’s opposite and the entirely attainable, and laudable, standards of fairness and accuracy and honesty and transparency that any journalist of good mind and heart will subscribe to. Fairness: If you’re presenting one side of a story, you owe it to your readers, your subjects and yourself to weigh the other side’s case. Accuracy: Observation should always trump preconception, and you just don’t publish something that you know is untrue, even if it helps make an argument you cherish. Honesty: You do your best to present the truth as you have witnessed it and understand it, knowing that your witness and understanding are shaped by who you are, yet also knowing that honesty will sometimes require you to report things that make you uncomfortable or call your own beliefs into question. Transparency: You do your best to avoid financial conflicts of interest, and where you have an unavoidable interest in a story you’re covering, you reveal it up front.

“Now I see the world through the prism of AIDS,” Jeffrey Schmalz wrote.

“I feel an obligation to those with AIDS to write about it and an obligation to the newspaper to write what just about no other reporter in America can cover in quite the same way.” He spoke of his situation as a reporter in the context of women who cover women’s issues, or blacks who cover issues of importance to blacks, calling it “the cutting edge of journalism.”

“Some people think that it is the journalism that suffers, that objectivity is abandoned,” he wrote. “But they are wrong. If the reporters have any integrity at all, it is they who suffer, caught between two allegiances.”

from PressThink May 1, 2004: Of Course Ted Koppel Was Making a Political Statement. So What?

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 10, 2004 12:46 AM