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Post Columnist Sparks Media Ethics Debate, Criticism

Broder’s column, entitled “The Media, Losing Their Way,” cited a litany of journalistic failures from The New York Times’ former reporter Jayson Blair and USA Today’s Jack Kelley to more recent campaign shortcomings by 60 Minutes in their report on President Bush’s National Guard service and by the media generally in covering the Swift Boat Veterans’ allegations. The political news veteran blamed the incidents on an overall decline in newsroom ethics.

In particular, he slammed news organizations for neglecting serious campaign issues in favor of covering partisan attacks ahead of the presidential election and for failing to adequately report on the sources of allegations.

In this election year, Broder charged, the public should be able to depend on news organizations to cover important issues — such as health care, the war in Iraq — but journalists have been “diverted into chasing sham events: a scurrilous and largely inaccurate attack on the Vietnam service of John Kerry and a forged document charging President Bush with disobeying an order for an Air National Guard physical.”

Broder contended that news executives have put more emphasis on sensationalistic stories, gossip and “infotainment” as a “quick fix” for their falling circulation or ratings. He also faulted news organizations for their “star system,” or bringing in “a feisty advocate, a belligerent or beguiling political personality” instead of hardworking, experienced journalists.

Because of this decline in standards, the media are failing American voters, Broder summarized.

“Time was when any outfit like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who came around peddling an ad with implausible charges would have run into a hard-nosed reporter whose first questions – before he or she ran with the story – would have been, ‘Who the hell are you guys? What’s your angle? What’s your proof?’,” Broder wrote.

Broder cited the 60 Minutes report on the president’s National Guard as a case when journalists should faced their sources with skepticism instead of rushing to break the “big story” for the sake of ratings.

“Any Texan with a grudge against George Bush and the National Guard who suddenly produced a purported photocopy of an explosive 30-year-old order signed by a dead man would have been treated with the deep distrust he deserved by the reporters to whom he offered his wares,” Broder wrote.

“And no professional journalist would have made a call to the Kerry campaign encouraging a flack to contact this dubious source,” Broder added, referring to how 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes put the Kerry campaign in contact with Bill Burkett, their now discredited source and long-time critic of President Bush.

Broder’s dismal assessment of the media prompted an immediate response from traditional and new media writers.

Jack Shafer, an editor at large and media columnist for Slate.com, dismissed Broder’s comments, suggesting Broder was “confused by the modern era and wishing for the simplicity of the good old days.”

Instead, Shafer contested that “what appears to be a collapse of professional standards is actually a rise in ethical standards and an increase in the arrest rate of journalistic reprobates thanks to technology,” such as computers, the Internet and news databases. This new technology, Shafer wrote, make it much “easier to expose plagiarists and fabulists whose crimes would have gone undetected.”

Shafer also reminded readers that “the reporters working in the good old days were not as skeptical as he remembers, nor were they more ethical than today’s,” and referred to a number of cases in which the Post erred.

Broder, however, did not embrace such technology in his column. Instead, he blamed the erosion of newsroom ethics, in part, on the influence of self-published Web loggers, or “bloggers”:

“When the Internet opened the door to scores of ‘journalists’ who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations. That is how it happened that old pros such as [CBS anchor] Dan Rather and former New York Times editor Howell Raines got caught up in this fevered atmosphere and let their standards slip.”

As can be expected, Broder’s mention of bloggers — albeit relatively brief — opened a floodgate of criticism in the blogosphere.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian monthly magazine Reason, rejected Broder’s thesis that the traditional media have become sloppy. Instead, Gillespie said, the media are now being held accountable for their errors.

“[T]here’s little reason to believe that mainstream journalism is any more corrupt than it ever was… Indeed, the only thing that has probably changed is that it’s easier to get caught, which should be a good thing in anybody’s book,” Gillespie wrote on his blog.

Andrew Sullivan, a conservative blogger, said he largely accepted Broder’s complaints against the media, but strongly disagreed with Broder’s remarks about the impact of the Web.

Rather than degrading the standards of “old-line media organizations,” Sullivan argued Internet columnists have improved the accountability of such news organizations by acting as online whistleblowers of journalistic fraud — notably the forgery of the 60 Minutes documents.

Sullivan wrote: “Without the blogosphere, the arrogance and folly of Raines and Rather would have continued long past their expiration dates… Blogs have helped bring these ‘stars’ back to earth.”

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