Jim Romenesko’s superlative Media
News blog has long been one of the first sites I visit every morning.
It’s interesting not only for the stories it links to but also as a
measure of what’s considered important in the US media. Judging by the
number of stories written and the number of letters which make it to
Romenesko’s lively letters
page, media ethics is right at the top of the list.
Recently, much of the debate has centred on the St Petersburg Times
naming rights to a sports stadium in Tampa. There’s an obvious conflict
of interest there: any damaging news report about the stadium could
damage the newspaper itself, both financially and by association.
Such conflicts don’t really bother me. For one thing, I’m sure the
rival Tampa Tribune is more than capable of digging dirt on the new
St Pete Times Forum; for another, we’ve long since grown used to the
fact that media outlets have business interests. You’re not going to
see an ABC special on dismal working conditions at Disney World, or
a New York Post exposé of dodgy accounting at News Corporation.
(Hell, you’re unlikely to see the New York Post write the Disney story
either, if allegations
about cosiness between Messrs Eisner and Murdoch are true.)
But I never object to serious-minded US journalists discussing questions
of media ethics: its something I’m sure the UK media world could benefit
from. At least, I never objected until today, when I saw a headline
on Romenekso’s site reading "Critic: TV reporter showed awful judgment
by delivering eulogy". It linked to an LA Times story
by Howard Rosenberg titled "A Journalist Breaks the Golden Rule".
I’m sure that journalists break the Golden
Rule the whole time, but if anybody was doing unto others as they
themselves would not like to be done to, it was Howard Rosenberg, and
not the subject of the story, Anna Song. Song’s big mistake was to deliver
a eulogy at the funeral of two girls who were kidnapped and murdered
in Oregon City. She was not the only one to do so: many others delivered
eulogies as well, including the city police chief. But she was singled
out for criticism because, in Rosenberg’s words, her eulogy "transformed
her into an activist, and would fit nicely into the ‘Conflicts of Interest’
chapter of any book on journalism ethics." He goes on to explain:
"However well meaning, in other words, Song crossed a line, violating
a basic tenet of journalism by participating in a story she was supposed
to be observing as a reporter, as an outsider."
I cannot for the life of me work out what Rosenberg could have been
thinking when he wrote those words. How on earth could a eulogy which
even Rosenberg says was "earnest, dignified and moving" have
transformed Song into an activist? Rosenberg never deigns to
tell us what Song is now an activist for, of course. That minority
group of people who are opposed to kidnapping and murder, perhaps? Maybe
it was that cultish sect characterised by sadness and sympathy when
two sets of parents lose their young daughters.
As for the idea that reporters can and should only report on stories
to which they have no personal connection, well, maybe that works if
you’re a columnist on the LA Times. It doesn’t work if you’re a beat
reporter in a city of 26,200 people. If you know your beat, you know
your community, and if you know your community, by definition you’re
going to be personally connected to many of the stories you’re reporting
on. If you’re not, you’re not doing your job.
Rosenberg is himself not exactly clean and above-board, either. He
uses a sly rhetorical device in his piece: first he mentions that Song
"became Miss American Teen in 1993 and represented her high school
as a Portland Rose Festival princess two years later"; a bit further
down, he refers to her as "little more than a callow youngster".
These pieces of deprecation-posing-as-reportage are designed to make
us feel that Song is probably just eye-candy hired by her television
station more for her looks than for her journalistic abilities.
I hope that Song and her boss, Mike Rausch, will have the strength
to refuse to be the slightest bit intimidated by the LA Times’ heavy-handed
and misdirected criticism. What Song did was both moral and admirable;
what Rosenberg did was slimy and wrong.