Editorial: Printing Money

Do you expect your news sources (Jewish or otherwise) to have integrity?

It seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? If news outlets represent our source of facts on the happenings of individuals and institutions, then we would like to think that they do so in a manner that is ethical and responsible.

But a funny thing happened on the way to some of today’s so-called journalism. Barriers between professional news organizations and amateur websites/blogs/social media broke down, with the former starting to emulate the latter rather than vice versa. Conglomerates took over big media, causing the bottom line to trump ethics in many instances.

Mix it all together and voila, you have the current scandal with Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation (see related news story on page 7). This particular one centers around a gruesome incident, the “hacking” by Murdoch’s News of the World British tabloid of a cell phone belonging to a 13-year-old girl who was abducted and murdered in 2002. (“Hacking” in this instance refers to the practice of accessing private phone messages and, apparently in some instances, of deleting messages so that more could be recorded and thus overheard.)

The despicable nature of the conduct has led to the resignation of top News Corp. executives and investigation of police officials who failed to aggressively pursue investigation of the matter.

It’s not that Murdoch and his companies are alone in their seeming abandonment of the principles of journalistic ethics.

We’ve seen blatant examples of plagiarism, for instance, in recent years at most respected publications (Jayson Blair at the New York Times, Stephen Glass at The New Republic). Tabloids, and British ones in particular, are known for their questionable conduct in pursuing stories – the sickening paparazzi chases that led indirectly to the death of Princess Diana come to mind.

But the empire that Murdoch oversees has been exceptionally aggressive in its business practices across the board. As David Carr of the New York Times noted in his column on Monday:

“That organization has used strategic acumen to assemble a vast and lucrative string of media properties, but there is also a long history of rounded-off corners. It has skated on regulatory issues, treated an editorial oversight committee as if it were a potted plant (at The Wall Street Journal), and made common cause with restrictive governments (China) and suspect businesses – all in the relentless pursuit of More. In the process, Mr. Murdoch has always been frank in his impatience with the rules of others.”

So Carr’s point, we think, is not to accuse Murdoch of being singular in his transgressions, but rather that the misdeeds appear to be symbolic of a corporate culture that not only favors results over process – shoot first, ask questions later – but treats news gathering as fungible with any profit-deriving practice.

At issue is whether you want your news sources to be held to a high standard, one that is distinguishable from the grey areas of big business ethics (can you say: Subprime Crisis?).  We say yes, it’s absolutely essential.

The Fourth Estate, as newspapers were long branded, is a societal force to keep watch on the many institutions that comprise our society: government, business and even so-called benevolent nonprofit groups (of which the Jewish Light is one).

One of the reasons that the media has collectively been branded by some as left of center (certainly not a typical criticism of Murdoch’s empire) is because it traditionally tended to attract those who saw benefit in keeping a critical eye on institutions which otherwise might not self-police.  

Journalists are trained to investigate facts thoroughly and objectively.  It’s not that others can’t, it’s just that they are not bound by the standards expected of professionals. All newspapers and media should adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct.  The St. Louis Jewish Light follows and respects the ethical rules and standards adopted by the Society for Professional Journalists as well as the American Jewish Press Association.

And when the bean counters are placed in charge of determining whether those ethical standards are to be stringently applied, and decide to loosen them for the benefit of profit, all journalistic hell breaks loose.

When unethical and unprofessional corporate and media practices get wrapped up in a package that is labeled “journalism,” we take great exception. And in the case of the conglomeration that is News Corp., it seems that may happen more frequently than Murdoch would care to admit.