|CREDIBILITY IN QUESTION|
trust in the news media has been shaken by several recent scandals and
lapses of journalistic judgment. Two experts answer your questions about
specific cases of journalistic misdemeanors and how the news organizations
in general can improve their credibility.
Special Report: Credibility in Question
Curtis Young of Upper Marlboro, Md. asks:
Regarding the scandal that ensued following Dan Rather's flawed 60
Minutes' story on President Bush's National Guard service -- if all
one has to do is assail the credibility of the news organization, legitimate
issues, such as the president's service, could go unreported because
the media outlet(s) react defensively rather than aggressively seeking
Jay Rosen responds:
Even before the 60 Minutes debacle, the story of President Bush's National Guard service had been sufficiently well developed that most Americans could make a rough judgment about it. It was favoritism and it bothered them-- or it didn't. But at the same time, potentially important parts of the story remained unproven. This invites political opportunism, and it invites investigative reporting. It's not surprising that the two got mixed up with each other in the CBS story.
It was by means of the "new information exception" that CBS justified, in its own mind, returning to the issue shortly before the close of the 2004 campaign. Why bring it up at that late date, unless there were new facts for the electorate to consider?
In the disputed CBS report, former lieutenant governor of Texas, Ben Barnes, said for the first time that he helped Bush get into the National Guard. That was new information, pitting the word of Barnes against the White House.
A far more serious brand of evidence was promised by the Killian memos. And that means the memos carried a greater weight in justifying the "late hit," which is not inherently unfair. But it becomes that-inherently unfair--if the new information turns out to be faulty, and is withdrawn. This is what went down with CBS. That's why it's a big deal, even if the information later turns out to be substantially true.
People have been "assailing the credibility" of Dan Rather and CBS news for decades. That isn't "all you have to do" to give the network a black eye. The network has to screw up big time. CBS did that. The bloggers helped bring the screw-ups to light, in tandem with the major news media, like the Post.
Can blog power be abused? Yes. Free speech always can.
Michael Getler responds:
I would agree that some of the basic elements regarding President Bush's service in the Air National Guard were lost in the fallout over the CBS scandal.
But the scandal was a very big story involving what had been one of the world's premier newsgathering organizations and so the switch in focus was hard to avoid. I doubt whether the Bush angle of that story will be pursued much more.
Things have moved on, and news organizations don't have unlimited resources to keep beating semi-dead horses. But should it become relevant again in some fashion, the earlier reporting and questioning about his Guard service will provide a base. For example, someday, somebody may discover who the real source of those documents was and where they came from and that could open the whole case again. Furthermore, we may not have heard the last word about the investigation of CBS. I read an interesting column just recently by James Goodale, the former vice-chairman of the New York Times, taking issue with the report.
One thing I think we can learn by taking the long view of journalism is that the truth, or as close to it as we are apt to get, eventually emerges. Sometimes it takes a very long time. But it usually comes out.
As for your third question, bloggers certainly have the power to add, subtract and influence news reporting at specific times and in specific cases. But for the most part, they don't have the resources of large news operations nor are they "trained," and I use that word loosely, journalists. But they are here and certainly can, and have, and will continue to make important contributions to the factual public record, and also to the analysis of events.