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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The News We Kept to Ourselves

Journalism has a credibility problem. The nature of the profession is obtaining exclusive information from important people and conveying it to the public. This process often entails bargaining with disreputable yet highly coveted subjects in order to get a scoop. To what degree is it acceptable for a reporter to sacrifice his integrity for access to a story? There seems to be no consensus among journalists on this dilemma. The profession's reputation suffers with the general public as a result, as viewers and readers remain skeptical about the concessions a journalist may have made to secure an interview with a powerful subject.

Eason Jordan, the chief news executive of CNN, recently reminded the public of the corrupt bargains that some journalists make when he penned a New York Times editorial confessing that his organization withheld newsworthy stories in order to maintain a presence in Iraq and protect his employees from violent repercussions. Jordan's mea culpa asserted that "I felt awful about having these stories bottled up inside me. Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone, I suspect we will hear many, many more gut-wrenching tales from Iraqis [There was] news we kept to ourselves."

Mr. Jordan could have reported freely from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, but the symbolism of a Baghdad bureau proved too tempting for the network. Mr. Jordan should be commended for coming clean following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, but his silence while he succumbed to the censorship of that regime raises many questions. Where else does CNN conceal news in order to maintain access? Can viewers trust its Havana bureau to report the truth of Fidel Castro's persecution of dissidents? Can any of their coverage of Syria or the Palestinian territories, where freedom of speech does not exist, be deemed credible?

It has long been alleged by conservatives that CNN omits uncomfortable facts from its coverage of select dictators. Indeed, some conservatives privately joke that it should have been named the "Communist News Network," for its biased coverage of Cuba and mainland China. While these criticisms may have some validity, CNN's predicament of maintaining positive relations with a dictator while telling the news is hardly unique in journalism. In the wake of Mr. Jordan's editorial, there has not been a consensus within the press corps regarding whether his actions conformed to journalistic ethics. A majority of journalists have taken the position that he should have reported the news despite Mr. Hussein's pressure. But a sizable minority of journalists believe his actions were no worse than countless other deals that reporters make to maintain access with important disreputable people.

The seriousness of journalism as a profession would be improved if it could provide a consistent answer to this common problem. In law, there are very carefully prescribed limits upon the actions an attorney can take in defending his client. In medicine, there are rules about which actions are permissible when a patient is near death. Moral dilemmas exist in these professions, just as in journalism, but because professional groups have created codes of conduct to which members generally adhere, the public can trust these professionals to be consistent. There seems to be no consensus about whether it is improper to maintain the veneer of newsgathering (in the form of a Baghdad bureau that selectively omits stories) in lieu of traditional investigative reporting. That is unfortunate, because it tarnishes the entire profession.

Sadly, few reporters are immune to this pressure. Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, said about his coverage of Beirut when Yassir Arafat's PLO controlled much of the area, "There were stories which were deliberately ignored out of fear How many stories were written from Beirut about the well-known corruption in the PLO leadership? The truth is the Western press coddled the PLO the name of the game was keeping on good terms with the PLO, because without it you wouldn't get the interview with Arafat you wanted." While this dilemma is exacerbated when dealing with dictators, the dynamic exists whenever a subject can deprive a reporter of crucial information for a story.

Reporters at Dartmouth also share an implicit pressure to collaborate with their subjects rather than assess them critically, in order to maintain access. Why is it that the only in-depth look at the growth in administrative spending over the past five years occurred in the Valley News instead of in The Dartmouth? The Dartmouth is financially independent of the College but it still covets positive relations with administrators, for they are often newsworthy. If not for the implicit pressure for access, how else can we explain the paucity of investigative reporting? The budget of the College has suffered wild gyrations in the past five years, from a high of a 47 percent endowment return to a low that resulted in the near elimination of the swimming and diving programs. Yet The Dartmouth's articles on the budget have been restricted to announcements of the latest tuition increases. What is the use of independence from the College if a newspaper does not use its freedom to question programs that are broken or resources that are misallocated?

CNN's complicity with the Baghdad regime demonstrates that few reporters are immune to the pressure to temper honest criticisms of a subject in exchange for access. This moral quandary will always in exist in journalism. While it cannot be eliminated, it could be controlled through a code of ethics which could outline the steps needed for full disclosure when an organization has compromised its normal standards of objectivity in exchange for access. I imagine the need to put a disclaimer on coverage that might be omitting pertinent facts would act as a powerful incentive for news organizations to bargain harder with disreputable subjects in order to avoid being tarnished with the appearance of incomplete coverage. Until there are accepted guidelines about the acceptability of trading comprehensive coverage for access, and punishment for violators, journalists will suffer from even weaker ethical standards than those of lawyers. Now that should be a cause for concern.