Has “Ethical Journalism” Become an Oxymoron?
Journalism is a profession under siege. Among the concerns are whether there are meaningful journalistic ethics and standards — in other words, whether journalism is a “profession” at all.
Revelations by New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman in her forthcoming book about Donald Trump, titled “Confidence Man,” caused an uproar among Haberman critics and media critics in general. They castigated her for failing to report information in the Times about how Trump routinely (and unlawfully) destroyed government documents by flushing them down White House toilets, choosing instead to withhold the information and publish it in her book.
Author Amy Siskind was especially harsh. She accused Haberman on Twitter of “knowing Trump was actually destroying information” and “hiding that story before he ran for re-election” in order to “[profit] off a book deal.” Based on what we know about Haberman, Siskind may well be correct.
Haberman earned the ever-lasting enmity of anti-Trumpers by her fixation with and frequent stories on the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” a fixation shared by her editors at the Times. The over-the-top coverage of the issue by Haberman and her colleagues lent undeserved weight to accusations of wrongdoing and did considerable damage to the Clinton campaign in 2016.
Her overreporting on the subject also curried favor with Trump, which Haberman parlayed into extraordinary access to the former president while he was in office. And that access resulted in a lucrative book deal after he was gone.
Part reporter, part book author and entrepreneur
Most of the criticism directed at Haberman tracks the allegation by Siskind that Haberman withheld information on outrageous conduct by Trump that she should have reported in real time. In other words, that Haberman allowed her desire to write a book containing bombshell disclosures to override her obligations as a reporter.
Indeed, a case can be made that Haberman helped Trump win election in 2016 by her decision to give excessive, real-time attention to Clinton’s emails, and then tried to help Trump win re-election in 2020 by deciding not to report the story about his unlawful destruction of documents at all. It is little wonder that people are questioning her motives.
The deferred disclosures in her book also heightened suspicions that Haberman pulled her punches while Trump was in the White House to preserve her access to him. In other words, holding back reportable information not only gave her juicy material for her book, it also kept her relationship to Trump intact.
In the 1930’s, the Associated Press struck a deal with the Nazis that allowed it to remain in Germany after Hitler rose to power, the only British or American news agency permitted to do so. It signed the so-called Schriftleitergesetz (editor’s law), promising not to publish any material “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home.” Consequently, the stories and photographs that the AP distributed to the rest of the world gave a misleadingly benign portrayal of Hitler’s intentions and methods.
The AP traded the right to publish the whole truth for access. Trump is not Hitler, but Haberman’s actions leave her open to accusations that she made the same type of bargain with Trump, and that as a result she withheld the full scope of Trump’s pathology and contempt for the law from the public.
In a 2019 piece defending Haberman from attacks by the left, writer Jonathan Chait pointed out that the public would not have known as much about Trump’s aberrant behavior without Haberman’s reporting. The AP made a similar claim in defense of its actions in the 1930’s.
Was a watered-down account of Trump’s actions in the White House better than no account at all? In my opinion, No. Trump was and is dangerous, and the public deserved and needed the unvarnished truth to help it understand that.
An inherent conflict of interest
Many of the journalists criticizing Haberman state that trying to be both a reporter and a book author at the same time creates an inherent conflict of interest. Other journalists rallying to her defense claim that it does not. This defense by so-called “professional” journalists illustrates the serious troubles facing journalism, and calls into question whether it still deserves to be called a profession.
It is nothing less than absurd to suggest that wearing two hats while doing exactly the same thing does not create the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not an actual conflict of interest. A newspaper reporter interviews people and gathers facts for purposes of telling a story. A book author does the same.
Suggesting that the role of reporter and author can be distinguished, and conflicts avoided, when a reporter/author is interviewing a person who serves a source for both newspaper stories and books demonstrates a startling misunderstanding of human nature. Not to mention a lack of appreciation of fundamental ethical principles.
A reporter’s loyalty is to his or her newspaper, and through that newspaper to its readers. An author’s loyalty is to what’s best for his or her book. Those interests are not necessarily the same.
A lawyer is precluded from representing clients whose interests may diverge. It is not that most lawyers could not or would not take the course of action in the best interests of each client — it is that the appearance of a conflict of interest would always be there.
The situation facing a journalist trying to serve two masters — a newspaper and a book deal — is no different. The argument that we should trust a reporter/author’s judgment on what should be reported immediately and what can wait for the book misses the point entirely. The judgment of the reporter/author will always be suspect because of the potential conflict of interest.
A “profession” in transition
The allegations against Haberman come at a time when the reputation of the national news media could not possibly be any worse, and I am not just talking about Fox News. The mainstream media did a profound disservice to the country by clinging to a “both sidesism” approach to covering Trump that had the effect of distorting the truth.
Why did it take so long for the media to realize that covering a megalomaniacal, malignant narcissist who lies compulsively in the same manner that it covers other politicians served as a vehicle for repeating and amplifying his lies?
And why are many members of the mainstream media still covering Trump as if he is an ordinary politician, rather than a would-be autocrat trying to seize power through non-democratic means and an existential threat to democracy?
I am becoming more and more convinced of a disturbing explanation. Professions are distinguished from other businesses because professionals have a duty that transcends marketing their services or selling their products. Physicians owe a duty of care toward their patients, and lawyers have a duty to represent their clients’ legal interests.
Professional journalists have a duty to the public to report the truth that takes precedence over commercial and self-promotional interests. Fewer and fewer journalists, at least those covering national politics and events, appear to acknowledge that. They have forfeited the right to be called “professionals.”
Some journalists have excused their failures over the past six years by asserting that it is not their job to pick sides in “political” fights. That is true as far as it goes, but it must be applied in the context of the sanctified role of the press under the First Amendment. The concept of the press as a disinterested chronicler of events comes from journalism professors, not from the framers of the Constitution.
The framers of the Constitution believed that it was the role of a free press to help preserve the Republic. That role requires journalists to pick sides when the stakes go beyond mere politics. The fight to save democracy in this country is one such fight that no responsible American journalist — or any other American — can duck.