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Journalistic Ethics in an Era of Subjectivity

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We have covered much terrain in the first thirteen chapters, and have touched on some ethical problems–more are dealt with in a previous book of mine, Prodigal Press–but the battle against propaganda requires additional emphasis in this last chapter. Christians need to distinguish between being on the Lord’s side, by sticking as closely as we can to His revealed Word, and being the servant of any person or group of people, no matter how distinguished. Put no confidence in princes (Psalm 118:9) is good advice for everyone and especially for journalists, whom princes readily try to influence.

And yet, the tendency to confuse journalism with public relations is a common failing among Christian magazines and newspapers. God-respecting and self-respecting editors should not run pieces puffing particular organizations, especially those that offer incentives to do so. One of the most telling signs of the generally low level of Christian journalism at the end of the twentieth century is the expectation of many publicists that Christian magazines and newspapers will do their bidding. Some Christian groups express irritation at World for publishing anything negative about them, even generally positive reports that contain a critical paragraph.

Sometimes, organizations tell us not that the material we have gathered about them is inaccurate, but that we should drop an inquiry because its results could embarrass them. Allies also propose to us what appear to be the customary deals of our era: You publish a favorable piece about us, and we will be of special help to you. A firm no surprises them. Given the pressures to puff, it is no surprise that journalists are bought and sold, and that many Christian publications act in worldly ways. But Christians have already been bought with a price far greater than anything cash can match.

Ideological pressures may also pile up. Some readers want Christian conservative magazines to be hard-nosed about liberal hypocrisy but blind to that among some conservatives. The temptation to have a double standard is present because, as noted in an early chapter, biblical Christians are fighting alongside conservatives on many issues–but a publication, to receive (and be worthy of) reader trust, should treat facts as facts. Early Christian journalists such as Marchamont Nedham emphasized the importance of covering the defeats of our own side.

In this connection, there is no conflict of interest for a Christian publication staffer to be engaged in pro-life work on the side: Every Christian should be strongly pro-life. However, if you are reporting on political candidates, you should not be writing materials for a particular candidate, even if he embraces pro-life principles: Putting no confidence in princes, you need to be free to report the failures of all candidates, including your favorite.

The fear of the Lord and of violating God’s law by lying (even in a good cause) is the beginning of good reporting. Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy: Observing God’s world lackadaisically shows disrespect for his creation. This is the world that God has made; rejoicing and being glad in it means not coveting an alternative world.

An editor’s demand for specific detail should also be more than a utilitarian cry to increase reader interest. Just as Rembrandt, Franz Hals, and other great Dutch painters of their era showed Reformational understanding by painstakingly portraying humans on earth, not floating off the ground, so a search for descriptive material is moral as well as mechanical.

A lack of precise detail often reflects a murkiness of observation and thought, but it also contributes to a tendency to scream. World has never run anything as loaded as the following, but here is the beginning of one lead story from a Christian newspaper:

Ordinary Americans are increasingly living in a fantasy world created by a mendacious and cavalier oligarchy of would-be rulers . . . a haughty association of self-proclaimed demigods whose control of great wealth has provided them the means to suborn, use and manipulate morally weak human beings. Through these chattels they are creating a never-never world of Alice in Wonderland mind-boggling madness where down is up, no is yes and wrong is right. . . .

That is an extreme example, but it is easy to fall into the trap of offering hysteria, not history. As you research and write a story, you should ask yourself: Am I teaching readers to be resolute in biblical application but calm in the face of anti-Christian aggression, or am I fostering panic? For example, a story on the homosexual lifestyle could inspire us to fiery denunciations–but better to keep a grip on our feelings and present the facts of the hunt for stimulation, as the San Francisco article excerpt earlier did. Sentences like, "Dan White sated the gay community’s demand for blood by killing himself in 1985," should be deleted.

You need to exercise special caution when sensational facts that fit well with your political attitudes are revealed. For example, since the editors of World are not fans of Bill Clinton, coverage of the Paula Jones accusations that surfaced early in 1994 posed challenges. Biblical accusations demand the testimony of at least two witnesses, but Ms. Jones and Mr. Clinton were the only two individuals in the room when the alleged sexual harassment took place. Ms. Jones did tell a half-dozen people about the incident shortly after it occurred, but she did not cry out during the event and physical evidence was lacking–so there was only one witness on the record, and we did not run a story.

What became interesting after that was the difference between media handling of Ms. Jones’s accusations and those made by Anita Hill. Ms. Hill’s complaint concerned words, not physical exposure, and was not made until a decade had gone by. Yet the Washington Post and other mainline media outlets that had lionized Ms. Hill ignored Ms. Jones; the Post even suspended without pay for two weeks a reporter who wrote a story about the harassment charge and was angry when the Post refused to publish it.

When feminist groups that had supported Anita Hill sneered at Paula Jones, and when the Post’s suppression of the story became an issue, World assigned a reporter to write a cover story not so much on Paula Jones’s allegations as on the media and feminist inconsistencies. The article, which ran on April 30, 1994 (the Post finally ran a story on May 4, and other media came through on May 6 when Ms. Jones filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit), also had to be sensitive to reader sensitivities concerning sexual explicitness.

Paula Jones was 23 years old in May 1991, working at a conference Gov. Clinton was attending; according to her sworn testimony, a state trooper approached her and said the governor wanted to see her in his room. Being a new state employee, she complied. She entered the room and found him alone, she attests, and he began making sexual advances. He asked her to perform a sex act that wouldn’t require her to remove her clothes, she says. She left the room, shocked and crying, and immediately told a co-worker, her mother, her fiancee, her two sisters, and a close friend.

Reporting such charges and others does not show a lack of respect for those in authority: The only way to maintain respect for the presidency may be to disrespect pretenders in the Oval Office. "Honoring the king" means honoring Richard the Lion-Hearted, not John who usurped the throne; in 1776, Americans realized that they could no longer obey a king, George III, who acted like a dog. Compassion does not mean overlooking the sins of others, but confronting them and suffering with them as they struggle to change–and confronting our own sins as well.

Overall, Christian publications that wish to practice biblically directed journalism should stand firm against propaganda in five ways: They should not pretend that all is well with Christian organizations that are having problems; they should be willing to criticize political allies; they should be willing to praise opponents who act rightly in particular circumstances; they should not place above criticism even great church leaders; and they should not cover up embarrassments that befall even strong organizations.

Let us look briefly at some examples of those practices of nonpropagandistic journalism. First, an honest publication needs to be willing to report on hard times for allies, as in a World story headlined, "Rescue Me," and subtitled, "Stung by Federal Law and the High Court, ‘Operation Rescue’ Is in Need of Rescue–or Reinvention":

By the time Operation Rescue National director Flip Benham and Wendy Wright, ORN communications director, arrived at the Little Rock "com center" the day after the Fourth of July, they had been beaten up by the media’s questions and by the oppressive 100-degree heat, and beaten down by the reception the group had received so far in the Arkansas capital.

Com centers in operations past have been wide, busy rooms filled with phone banks and volunteers and a sense of carefully aimed anarchy. The Little Rock com center was an empty office, 8-feet-by-20-feet, with an answering machine and only one telephone that seemed to work. . . .

By Wednesday afternoon hardcore activists from the three participating groups (ORN, Rescue America, and the Pro-Life Action Network) were showing up for the three-day "Summer of Justice" event, but whether any Arkansans would turn out remained to be seen. Miss Wright said she was keeping her expectations low; "Maybe I’ll be surprised."

She wasn’t. . . .

Second, there should be a willingness to oppose associates when biblical principles warrant. For example, World favored most of Newt Gingrich’s agenda in 1995, but still was critical at times.

Achilles’ heel number one is the tendency of the new leadership to imply that economic issues are the only ones that really matter in America today. No better proof of that has been offered than the decision by Mr. Gingrich to select New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for the high profile job of responding to President Clinton’s State of the Union address last week.

Economics is about the only thing Gov. Whitman has in common with the highly energized Republican masses who rose up on Nov. 8 to call for new directions in Washington and throughout the country. Granted, economics is a big part of that call–and was a dominant theme in the "Contract with America" that propelled Mr. Gingrich to the Speaker’s chair and so many of his Republican majority into office. But economics was by no means the only fuel in that noisy engine.

Mrs. Whitman is little more than a Democrat in Republican’s clothing–and the disguise is shabby at that. Beyond her Johnny-come-lately commitment to tax-cutting, she shares little with the Republican platform of recent years. . . . She favored abortionists by proclaiming Freedom of Choice Day in New Jersey; she endorsed condom distribution in the schools; and she wrote an open letter praising the state’s "gay, lesbian, and bisexual community."

The point is that Speaker Gingrich reached all too deliberately in Gov. Whitman’s direction. "We want to show how broad a base the Republican Party has," he explained pointedly when he asked Mrs. Whitman to take the important speaking job. How could Mr. Gingrich have said more specifically that the economic revolution matters, but the social revolution doesn’t?

For tens of thousands of footsoldiers, that message doesn’t settle in very comfortably. If the new Republican leadership thinks it can reshape America simply by restructuring fiscal issues, just by realigning taxes and downloading some tasks to the states, then its analysis of things isn’t ultimately much different from Marxism. Its methods are different–and far preferable–to those of Marx, but its bottom-line message is that human beings will in the end respond to economic factors more than to any other. Such an analysis is repulsive to earnest Christians.

Third, a publication that hopes to report and teach rather than propagandize is always aware that leaders who consistently have done evil can do good once in a while. Such surprises need to be reported, in the way that World reported favorably the initiative of one ardently liberal senator.

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) reportedly was infuriated in 1989 by a Cincinnati, Ohio, case in which a black child was quickly taken from white, Christian, foster parents after they expressed a desire to adopt. The reason: The child allegedly needed a black home. The child was killed not long after by an abusive black adoptive couple in upstate New York.

As a result, Metzenbaum last summer crafted the Multiethnic Adoption Act, which originally was designed to fight discrimination against couples seeking to adopt transracially. . . .

Fourth, an honest publication should be willing to criticize even great church leaders, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. One World article that generated considerable comment, pro and con, was the cover story headlined, "Silence of the Shepherds," and subtitled, "As the Preborn Death Toll Mounts, Pro-lifers Are Asking: Where Is the Pastoral Leadership in Opposition to Abortion?" The article, as noted in chapter 4, supportively quoted pro-life leaders who criticized Billy Graham’s quiet concerning abortion. Some readers were shocked by World’s implicit critique of a tremendous leader, even though it was respectfully couched. And yet, Christian journalists should always be willing to speak up sadly if the facts warrant.

Fifth, embarrassments must not be covered up, or else Christian journalism is embarrassed. The New Era foundation scandal in 1995 was big news, but one Christian news organization did not publish any stories about the affair because its parent organization was itself involved in the financial collapse, and the parents did not want bad publicity. Here, once again, it is important to remember the great cloud of Christian journalistic witnesses: Were some of our predecessors tortured and killed so that we can live lives of fear under much less intimidating circumstances?

A commitment to avoid covering up mistakes should begin in a publication’s own letters-to-the-editor page. Some publications fill such pages with letters praising their efforts or offering minor additions to stories, but a Christian publication with spunk will receive letters that strongly criticize its stands; the publication should print them even when all the staffers believe that the letters are misguided. There is even an ulterior motive in doing so; as publisher Joel Belz wrote in World:

We aren’t thrilled when people point out that we dropped the ball in a certain instance. But we still are committed to provide a regular opportunity for people to make just those points for a very simple reason: It adds to our overall credibility.

Oddly, many Christians (and the leaders of too many Christian organizations) believe an open forum for criticism injures their credibility. So they sit on the facts and suppress discussion. They clam up and shut off the information flow.

Such folks forget, however, that light always trumps darkness. Truth, by God’s order of things, always beats out ignorance.

That tendency toward occasional self-examination, combined with a confidence in God’s providence, is not found in the liberal press these days, particularly as pressure toward political correctness makes deviations career-shortening. God saves [sinners, but] for many leaders of the liberal press there is no sin, just faults in the system of things. For many there is no personal salvation, just social restructuring. Maybe there could be a God in such a system, but he would have nothing to do.

Chapter Twelve brought our brief look at journalism history to the early twentieth century. The technological change since then has been so remarkable that there is no need to remark on it here. What is striking, though, is that amidst all the material upsurge the spiritual draught has remained. The essential combination of ideas in place among intellectual and media leaders ever since the progressive upsurge early in this century–a new, government-centered gospel–has remained standard.

Muckraker Lincoln Steffens was one of the prime molders in this regard. Modern journalism began in 1517 with the sound of Martin Luther’s hammering on the cathedral door, but in 1917 Steffens baptized the newborn Russian Revolution, writing of how Petrograd mobs made him "think of the mobs that followed Jesus about." For centuries much of American journalism had emphasized restraint, but Steffens set the tone for twentieth-century journalism by praising radicals who were willing to "lay out consciously and carry through ruthlessly [a program] to arrange the conditions of social living . . . to adjust the forces of economic life."*

Other journalists have shied away from the extremes of ruthlessness, but the emphasis on using government power to adjust economic forces has been a constant. Earlier journalists had pointed readers to the Bible, but after 1917 leading editors such as Oswald Garrison Villard argued that, "There are plain masses seeking a journalistic Moses to clarify their minds, to give them a program of reconstruction." Decade after decade, in line with such thinking, leading newspapers and magazines from the 1920s to the present have portrayed man as possessing unlimited potential that a strong and benevolent state could help to liberate, if only journalistic influence were brought to bear on the side of perceived righteousness.

The story of the past seven decades is one of muckraking become common, and mainstream journalists claiming that they are for liberty but in practice promoting new forms of oppression. In doing so, they often neglected the sacrifices of their courageous predecessors and genuflected before a future that claimed to work. American journalism, which had developed as an antiestablishment force, became part of a new establishment that did not have the self-understanding to recognize itself as one.

Mainline journalists considered themselves the watchdogs of government, but many went from keeping watch over government to keeping watch over their ideological interests. In the 1920s, when liberal educators tried to install evolution as the established religion in public schools, reporters at the Scopes trial in Tennessee refused to take seriously opposing views and cast William Jennings Bryan as a redneck menace. In the 1930s, many correspondents in Moscow, believing that they had a greater purpose than accurate reporting, became shills for Stalin and launched scurrilous attacks against those few who were determined to tell the truth.

Every decade has brought with it notorious examples not only of journalistic intolerance but also heroism: There always will be members of the great cloud of journalistic witnesses. Perhaps the most outstanding of these in twentieth-century America was Whittaker Chambers, a Communist Party member and spy during the 1930s who went through two major life changes at the end of that decade and the beginning of the next: He became a Christian, and he became a superb writer for Time magazine at a time when it was not the vehicle for the left that it has since become.

In the late 1940s, with the cold war and concern about Soviet espionage growing, Chambers was called to testify about the Communist Party’s work for the Soviet Union and did so, bringing out facts about former State Department official Alger Hiss that Hiss denied. A jury eventually found Hiss guilty of perjury, but newspapers such as the Washington Post were not happy. (One reporter told Hiss, "Do you want to know the verdict of the press? Not guilty–in fifteen minutes.") Chambers received extreme abuse, but his Christian faith enabled him to persevere; in 1951 he wrote a best-selling book, Witness, that is still well worth reading. He died ten years later. Archives from the former Soviet Union support Chambers’s reports and suggest Hiss’s guilt.

The courage of Chambers and others slowed down the journalistic rush to the left, and during the 1950s the press bent to a generally conservative era; during the 1960s, however, a new stampede began. Pride in shaping the news was everywhere; by 1965, correspondents were noting that they did not write stories unless they could include "analysis and interpretation." For a long time newspaper home offices had held the reins on Washington reporters who tended to favor more centralized power, but by the mid-1960s a typical correspondent was able to say, concerning his relationship with editors, "I make a hundred decisions where they make one."

The long-range journalistic triumph of Horace Greeley and Lincoln Steffens became evident in many areas of coverage; for example, as reporter Robert Elegant has noted, his colleagues in Vietnam during the 1960s overlooked the record of Communism and, attracted by the vision, saw the North Vietamese as "righteous, magnanimous, and just." The herd mentality was in evidence as most correspondents spent most of their time at a comfortable Saigon hotel and, in Elegant’s words, talked "chiefly to other correspondents to confirm their own mythical vision of the war."

Some reporters did get out in the field, where they practiced a new objectivity. New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson has written about how she accompanied four Vietnamese "students" on their mission to firebomb an American vehicle and burn to death the American soldiers inside; she figured that since she had gone along on U.S. patrols she should go with the other side as well. The plan was for one member of the ambush team to race into a busy intersection and wave his arms until a jeep stopped; then a second member would throw in a plastic bag full of gasoline, and a third member would toss in a lit match.

Emerson and the ambushers waited for twenty minutes; in an autobiographical account, Winners and Losers, she wrote about "warning myself over and over again to stay out of it and not to interfere, not to remember the crusts and the smell of burned men I had already seen in hospitals." When an American jeep came by, "There was that second when I could have screamed, yelled, rushed forward to warn him, given the plan away." But she did not. Providentially, one of the "students" had bad aim: His bag of gasoline splashed against the windshield, and the GI escaped. But the incident nevertheless was a defining moment for a new journalistic ethic: Since reporters had gone out on ambush-setting by U.S. soldiers, not to go to the other side’s ambush would be a biased act. American reporters were not Americans but citizens of the world, superior to the morality by which their fellow citizens lived.

William Randolph Hearst in 1898 succeeded in his plan to use press sensationalism to push the United States into conflict with Spain. He had sent Frederick Remington to Cuba to draw victims of Spanish atrocities; when Remington cabled from Havana that he could not fulfill the assignment because the facts did not support the allegations, Hearst purportedly cabled back, "You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war." In Vietnam, reporters tried to sucker servicemen into incidents that would show American brutality, such as cutting the ears off of a corpse or throwing a body from a plane.

Journalists learned to "falsify with credibility," according to Elegant. They furnished the pictures, and America abandoned Indochina.

The result was truly gruesome, and unexpected by reporters who, brought up to believe in the natural goodness of man, found it difficult to gauge depths of depravity. Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times wrote from Cambodia in 1975, just before the Khmer Rouge took power, that for "the ordinary people of Indochina . . . [it] is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." His failure of imagination was corrected too late: On May 9, 1975, he wrote about the "maniacal behavior" of the Khmer Rouge, but by then there was nothing the United States could do to save several million Cambodians from execution. On May 3, 1976, Schanberg received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

The search for foreign heroes of the left continued into the 1980s. Karen de Young, foreign editor of the Washington Post, acknowledged that "Most journalists now, most Western journalists at least, are very eager to seek out guerilla groups, leftist groups, because you assume they must be the good guys." In Nicaragua, La Prensa editor Pablo Antonio Cuadra wrote that he was "forced to endure for nine years of the Sandinista regime the almost daily visits of American journalists. They always ask the same questions–almost all of them fervent admirers of what the Sandinistas have told them . . . after the questions and answers, the result is always the same: a total lack of comprehension."

In domestic politics as well, reporters over time (as journalist-professor William Rivers noted) became "prime promoters or offstage prompters of the Congressional hearings, legislative battles and other events they are chronicling, theoretically with detachment." One Washington Post editor described the practice of "not only getting it from the horse’s mouth but being inside his mouth." Another Post editor, Philip Foisie, described how staffers at meetings had agreed on the key issues for the 1970s and 1980s–establishing limits on resources and growth, and other aspects of the liberal agenda–and would "use these trends more methodically to line up our sights on the news. We should reach out more for the news, and not wait until it comes to our doorstep, until it ‘happens.’ . . ."

That degree of editorial self-consciousness was unusual; most journalists simply and unthinkingly fit the bits and pieces of daily events into a grid that excludes God. Benjamin Harris in 1690 saw every story as a piece of the heaven-designed quilt; latter-day liberal reporters of 1995 see a feminist triumph in Vermont or the establishment of a day-care center in Texas as part of a progressive etching-in-progress. Cotton Mather’s report on a New England earthquake in the 1720s began, "The glorious God has roared out of Zion." Mather surely did not have to ask himself, before composing his report, how the earthquake fit into his worldview. Similarly, experienced reporters rarely stop to think about the way a particular event fits within their larger understanding; they know that it does.

If mainline (or should they be called oldline?) newspapers continue in their ideological cheerleading, the function of biblically directed journalists will become even more significant–and not just for Christians, but for any who desire alternative voices. Twenty years ago many cities boasted feisty "alternative" news voices: They were criticizing liberalism from the left, but at least they were able to perceive some of the emperor’s nakedness. In 1994, however, the Washington Post reported that, "what began as the alternative press has been completely assimilated now."

Christians have always resisted assimilation. Today, those who are bold and courageous can stand with the great cloud of witnesses, made up of Christians who spent their livesand sometimes gave them up–in the pursuit of God-directed writing and teaching. Directed reporting, based on faith in the Triune God and not in man, is a lever for toppling modern journalism’s idols and bringing readers back to a Christ-centered press. Every Christian journalist should look in the mirror and ask: Will I stand with John Foxe, John Stubbes, Alexander Leighton, John Twyn, Increase Mather, John Peter Zenger, Samuel Adams, and many more, or will I follow the ways of the world?

There will be opposition, but–as the writer of Hebrews begins chapter 12–"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (vv. 1—3 niv).

The Washington Post article on the seventeenth annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies was filled with mournful quotations. "I look at these papers and detect a lack of passion," one radical editor commented. "No one is on the ramparts because they’re not sure what they should be fighting for. Do we have an ideology other than being pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-Grateful Dead?"

No, the passionless alternatives do not, but passionate disciples of Christ’s passion do, out of gratitude for the sacrifice that transcends the daily news, because it lasts for eternity.


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