Ethics? For Journalists? Is Casey Bukro Serious?

The Society of Professional Journalists just took on its own code of ethics. The code lost.

The society is the nearest journalism comes to an American Bar Association or American Medical Association, but that isn’t very near. Few journalists we know belong; the Chicago chapter, which ranges from Rockford to Gary, has about 400 members, not counting students. Few read Quill, the society’s magazine, or often give SPJ a thought.

But SPJ means to serve its profession well, and Casey Bukro, environmental writer for the Chicago Tribune, is its resident conscience. Fifteen years ago he rewrote the society’s code of ethics, ending it with the pledge: “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards . . .”

Active censure may comport with a journalist’s temperament, but his inclination to police his own ranks is no sharper than a lawyer’s, a doctor’s, or a cop’s. Some journalists would say imposing any standards is unconstitutional: the First Amendment guarantees the right to be wrong, the right to fob off opinion as fact, and even, within generous limits, the right to be irresponsible. Besides, lawyers and doctors and so on can kill you or put you in jail; the journalist just whacks away at a typewriter.

So Bukro’s pledge has mostly been ignored. But he keeps at it. In 1984, as ethics committee chairman, he proposed a four-step grievance procedure that would have allowed a beef to be taken from the chapter level all the way up to the national convention. The SPJ board voted down Bukro’s plan; censure at any level made it nervous. And recently, when a Mississippi chapter asked what to do with a complaint someone had actually filed against a journalist there, the board’s reply was, nothing. If the chapter did take action and for its trouble got sued for something–defamation, lack of due process, interference with the right to do business, whatever–it would be on its own, the board warned.

“Journalists are really ethics wimps,” Bukro told us. “We hold everybody else to tough standards and hold ourselves up as having the right to criticize the whole world except each other. I’ve been saying good journalism should point out bad journalism. If we don’t, who’s going to do it?”

Well of course lots of people do it: namely everyone journalism screws and many of the people it doesn’t. A newspaperman who says that journalists should police journalists, like a cop who says that cops (and not civilian review boards) should police cops, is really saying one of two things: (1) we must take responsibility for our own behavior, or (2) everyone else should stop bugging us.

Bukro is clearly in the first camp. Which is why he was dismayed when SPJ, at this month’s national convention in Chicago, ended two years of heated debate by deciding the best way to handle his “actively censure” pledge was to repeal it.

“I said you have to face this as reporters do a news story,” Bukro told us after the defeat. “When we approach a news story we’re tough; but when we approach ethics we go soft. We might get sued. If we’re so afraid of being sued, obviously we shouldn’t be reporters. It’s a double standard and I don’t like it.”

SPJ hasn’t put ethics entirely behind it. Censure is out, but the AMA of journalism needs some way to respond to complaints that come in; Bukro’s new assignment is to come up with something “that allows people to be heard in a way that doesn’t scare journalists. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

But he has some ideas. “A chapter could create a program in which a person who has a complaint is invited to speak and the reporter involved in the story is also invited to speak. It would at least be an attempt to get complainer and reporter together.”

We suspect journalism is too messy a field to be governed by categorical imperatives. Like truth. OK, we said, suppose a reader complains the Slats Grobnik columns are made up.

“Why is Mike Royko above criticism?” Bukro responded. “He probably won’t do it [show up to defend himself], but at least we could say to the public we tried. I think nobody should be above being asked to explain himself. Some people think it’s a little screwy. But I think it’s fair.

“I do environmental stories,” Bukro went on. “When I talk to somebody from Com Ed or a steel mill I expect to get answers. I don’t give anybody a pass. But when it came to journalism I gave people passes. I don’t do that anymore.”

One of the problems some SPJ members have with active censure is that it would set journalists against each other and undermine the society. Could be, said Bukro, but SPJ’s membership is already eroding. “It’s unclear what SPJ stands for,” he said, “and journalists aren’t joiners anyway.” If it stood more aggressively for professionalism, Bukro thinks, more people might sign on.

Labor and Capital

The Tribune’s Bob Verdi got Mike Ditka to open up a couple of weeks ago, and Verdi’s column was the most interesting sports story we have read in a long time.

“Maybe history will prove that their sacrifice was made for something,” Ditka told Verdi, speaking of the recent football players’ strike, “but right now it was for nothing. And it’s like they expended so much energy on the strike that they’re tired now of the whole scene. . . .

“I say, ‘Let’s win this game for the organization,’ and it’s like they’re saying to me, hell with the organization. . . . It’s almost like when I talk to them, they don’t really want to hear me anymore.”

We thank Verdi for this interview. It is so much easier for fan and scribe alike to dismiss the strike as a cause without effects–to go back to the fantasy of grown men full of the simple enthusiasm of boys. Another writer who knows better is someone we have come increasingly to admire: the Sun-Times’s black columnist, Vernon Jarrett.

“The whole thing of owners dehumanizing the people who make money for them is always interesting to me,” Jarrett told us. He talked about the “sheer disillusionment” of the strike, about kids–“they are kids, when you think about it”–discovering they weren’t really heroes, they were “court jesters.”

He wrote recently: “Just as thousands of fans proved during the strike that they are not loyal to anything but their own indulgences, the NFL owners showed they never saw their players as ‘sons’ but only as properties to be heartlessly used up and replaced . . .”

Last week we mentioned that the Sun-Times had spiked a column by Ron Rapoport sympathetic to the striking players. In fairness we report that Jarrett’s copy has not been touched.

And more is coming. “I haven’t put the race angle in yet,” said Jarrett, “but there are some very definite sides to this that remind me of the south.”

What we were reminded of is the ending to Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, in which Tony Last, a decent fellow, is rescued in the Amazonian jungle by a Mr. Todd. Last gratefully indulges the illiterate Mr. Todd in his one pleasure, hearing Dickens read aloud.

“How soon do you think I shall be able to get a boat?” asks Last after a time. “I appreciate all your kindness to me more than I can say but . . .”

“My friend, any kindness I may have shown is amply repaid by your reading of Dickens,” Mr. Todd replies. “Do not let us mention the subject again.”

Months pass, and Last’s patience wears thin. He speaks to the natives about building a canoe, but their loyalty is to Mr. Todd.

“Mr. Todd, I must speak frankly,” says Last. “You saved my life, and when I get back to civilization I will reward you to the best of my ability. . . . But at present you are keeping me here against my will. I demand to be released.”

Mr. Todd replies, “But, my friend, what is keeping you? You are under no restraint. Go when you like.”

“You know very well that I can’t get away without your help,” says Last.

“In that case you must humor an old man. Read me another chapter.”

Editors in Space

A short course in headline writing:

Baffling arcs in sky

called only illusions

was the Sun-Times’s tepid attempt to beguile readers about “glowing blue arcs . . . created by light bent by the intense gravity of a giant galaxy.” While:

Huge New Object in Space?

Sorry, Just a Cosmic Mirage

was weirdly flippant of the New York Times, given the new evidence that “dark matter” laces the cosmos, its massive gravity pulling on anything.

The Chicago Tribune showed us how to do it:

Blue “mirages’ in space may signal eventual

collapse of universe

No sugarcoating, please. We’re adults.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.