A Golden Rule Book for Journalists

In 1977 the Sun-Times opened a corner bar insouciantly called the Mirage and let the good times and hidden cameras roll. When the Mirage closed, the paper published a monthlong saga that chronicled in almost celebratory language a timeless local cost of doing business–paying off the inspectors. Locally, this peephole look at two-bit corruption was cheered as an ingenious new chapter in the annals of undercover journalism. But a couple of influential Pulitzer Prize Board judges from other cities were not amused. They argued persuasively that the Sun-Times had been underhanded in its methods, and the Pulitzer went elsewhere.

The Tribune took no pleasure in its competitor’s defeat. The paper’s editor, Clayton Kirkpatrick, had been the Mirage’s champion on the Pulitzer board, which Tribune reporters felt had insulted the legitimacy of what one called “Chicago journalism.” At the time editorial writer Jack Fuller agreed. Today Fuller’s publisher of the Tribune. And he’s changed his mind. “The things we’d justify 25 years ago are embarrassing today,” he told me the other day. “I’d be very, very reluctant to authorize an elaborate deception of that sort now.”

He went on, “I don’t see any particular dislike [for deception] on the part of the audience. It’s the stock-in-trade of 60 Minutes. But it became more and more uncomfortable to me to tolerate deception on the part of an agency dedicated to telling the truth.”

In part because of the personal soul-searching that accompanied Fuller’s rise at the Tribune, “Chicago journalism” is as good as dead. It isn’t only Mirage that Fuller’s reconsidered. Earlier in the 70s his own paper won two Pulitzers by sending reporters undercover, one to expose vote fraud in Cook County and the other the barbaric practices of ambulance firms. “Insinuating yourself into an organization under false pretenses is the kind of thing I’d be very wary of today,” he said. “It’s very problematic, even though the results are oftentimes socially useful. That’s what makes it so complicated.”

Fuller has just published a book, News Values: Ideas for an Information Age, that meets the complications head on. Fuller remembers himself as a City News Bureau cub reporter shameless as any other, and elaborates the guiding principles that time and experience have since fashioned. He invokes the Golden Rule. “The Golden Rule has endured through the centuries as an ethical proposition of enormous force because it offers a subjective method for determining the moral direction one’s behavior should take. It asks that an individual treat others the way he would like to be treated, to turn the tables, to empathize. This is a useful way to look at the requirement of intellectual honesty.”

Fuller inventories the petty sins reporters commit. He calls them violations of the “truth discipline.” One’s the trick of misleading a subject into revealing things he wrongly assumes the reporter already knows. Another’s the threat that someone will become “the fall guy in a story unless he comes across with information.” (Fuller doesn’t mention it, but this threat is often implicit and unavoidable. A reporter has no reason to say “Even if I don’t get your side of the story, my story will be as balanced and fair to you as if I had.”)

Ingratiation “for the purpose of betrayal would receive decent people’s contempt,” Fuller writes. And for all its obvious benefits, confidentiality fails the reader “who wants to assess the reliability of the information.” Making matters worse, Fuller contends, is the unwillingness of newspapers to explain how they got a story. A paper will celebrate its dashing subterfuge–it’s Mirage. But the little games reporters play are rarely acknowledged. He quotes Sissela Bok: “Moral justification…cannot be exclusive or hidden; it has to be capable of being made public.”

Fuller acknowledges in his book that his thoughts on honesty were influenced profoundly by Bok’s Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. To Fuller, a newspaper that deceives in any way puts its credibility at risk, and therefore its compact with the public that sustains it. What readers deserve from newspapers, Fuller argues, is not “objectivity” and “neutrality”–Journalism 101 values that deny the reality that reporters make constant judgments–but principle. Easy to say and hard to deliver.

The Golden Rule, Fuller writes, “is a corrective” obliging the reporter who’s drawn a firm conclusion or two about his subject “to play square with others’ arguments.” Not with every contrary argument, he adds, simply those “that could be held by informed, reasonable people.” He catches himself. “Of course a journalist’s bias may unduly restrict what he considers the range of reasonable, informed opinion.” Furthermore, “illegitimate claims may need to be reported as important facts in their own right–such as the racist, antisemitic, and xenophobic views that mar the political landscape from time to time.”

The reporter who swears he’ll never flout the Golden Rule again now runs into “the constraints of time, space, and reader attention span.” Nevertheless, says Fuller, the reporter’s reputation “should turn in large part upon the quality of his judgment in wisely sorting through these difficult issues so as to produce work of genuine intellectual integrity.”

However hard genuine intellectual integrity might be to come by, few reporters mind being thought to own a smidgen of it. Fuller approaches the subject with more gravitas than James Fallows did earlier this year in Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. To Fallows integrity was not taking $20,000 to speak to lobbyists, not sneering too broadly at presidential press conferences, and not making a fool of yourself on TV talk shows. Fallows’s bogeyman was John McLaughlin of The McLaughlin Group.

Fuller’s bogeyman is the academic school of radical skepticism. These are the theorists, he warns, who assert “that the audience creates the message no matter what the writer tries to do. This should send a chill through every journalist, because it amounts to an attack on the very purpose of his work. And it has a special edge in the new interactive media environment, which some people suggest will overthrow the authority of all texts.”

Fuller makes them sound like New Age book burners. He may have tossed a shovel of dirt on Chicago journalism, but to defend the authority of texts I’ll follow him to the barricades. Let Fallows bewail the toxic effects of celebrity anchors; if radical skepticism “is right about the impossibility of a reader understanding what a writer meant,” Fuller argues, “the center of the journalistic enterprise collapses.” He spends pages pondering epistemology and rallying his profession against the skeptics’ threat. He thrusts wickedly. Observing that by the radical skeptics’ lights the reader of a text is the true author, Fuller aims for the gut. “Of course, this…serves neatly to elevate the critic over those he interprets, which must be a solace for a group of writers almost nobody reads.”

Fuller describes the “balance of power” that he thinks should prevail (but doesn’t) between the media and government. “The media should have no authority to require government to do anything (even to compel it to reveal information it has not chosen through legislation or the exercise of official discretion to reveal), but the government should certainly have no authority to regulate the media other than through the extension of generally applicable laws (like the income tax).”

The context of this problematic formulation is Fuller’s libertarian plea for government to withdraw and let private enterprise sort out who runs the “information superhighway” and how. Although I don’t doubt Fuller’s convictions, here he seems to be carrying water for his employers. To get government to give up its authority to hamstring expansionist corporations such as the Tribune Company, Fuller seems to propose that the media renounce powers they don’t possess. How can the Tribune compel government to reveal information except by shaming it or by filing a Freedom of Information request?

Are you objecting to FOIs? I asked Fuller. Not exactly, he said. “In FOIs the government has defined some categories where it says public disclosure is appropriate. But I don’t believe there’s a constitutional right to access. That’s what I’m saying there. I’m inclined to the [Alexander] Bickel view: they can’t do anything to us and we can’t do anything to them.”

He went on, “Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But I’m much less of an FOI partisan than many of my colleagues. If that’s what you detect in that passage you’re right….I hate people talking about a right to know. There’s a right to say, but there is no right to know. I believe if you give us all a right to say, we’ll end up knowing.”

A right to know would make newspapers answerable for everything they decide not to print. They are regardless, when what they do not print betrays a lack of conscience or a lack of nerve. Times come when a paper that protects its moral capital must say plainly things some readers will not want to hear and will refuse to know. Fuller writes:

“Here is the tension: A newspaper that fails to reflect its community deeply will not succeed. But a newspaper that does not challenge its community’s values and preconceptions will lose respect for failing to provide the honesty and leadership that newspapers are expected to offer. Such a newspaper may even end up following its community into evil. One does not have to look to pure tyrannies like Nazi Germany for examples of newspapers that reflect community sensibilities straight to Hell. The behavior of many newspapers–including the Tribune–during the civil rights movement and the McCarthy era provides a lesson uncomfortably close to home.”

More often than it challenges, a successful paper binds the wounds. It draws people together even when it seems to be doing the opposite. Fuller notices that despite what people say, there is a clear public preference for bad news over good. “Disaster always becomes the talk of a community in a way that good fortune less commonly does. Trouble touches some people’s empathy and others’ sense of doom.” Fuller doesn’t wonder why, but perhaps the reason is that good news is bad news; it spreads envy and division through the community. Bad news is communal. It unites the tribe. If there were no bad news there might be no future for newspapers in an age whose “social dynamic,” Fuller observes, “seems to favor fragmentation.”

Yet Fuller believes “people are looking for more coherence, not less. They want guidance about the meaning of things.” They also want daring undercover exposes, but for that there’s 60 Minutes.

News Bites

Whenever Dennis Byrne threatens to change some minds with his Sun-Times column he torches his own argument. Last week he set out to persuade his readers that Al Salvi is no more conservative than Richard Durbin is liberal. “Conventional political wisdom” has it that Durbin is a “thoughtful centrist,” Byrne argued, and this perception is wrong.

But not merely wrong. It’s “garbage. Bunk. A lie. Crap.” And it’s been spread by reporters “too lazy, biased or stupid” to look up the facts Byrne proceeded to enlighten us with, now that he’d persuaded us to read him with open minds.

Those reporters were later described by Byrne as “Durbin’s media toadies” and as “liberal media acolytes.”

Byrne went so far as to attack the Sun-Times: “Even in my own paper,” he mourned, “references to Salvi were automatically preceded with the words ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing,’ while I have not once seen the words ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing’ appear before Durbin’s name.”

A decent respect for the opinion of others is a fine thing, but the least I’d expect from a columnist is a decent respect for his own. If Byrne takes seriously what he thinks, why does he write what he thinks in language guaranteed to alienate everyone who reads it?

The report that “mad cow” disease in Britain may have spread to humans probably needed to be put in perspective in America. But the reassurances of Orion Samuelson on WGN radio last Saturday raise the question of whether all the truth is always worth telling.

“There’s no cause for alarm here in the United States because the disease does not exist in the United States,” Samuelson told his audience. “We have not been importing live cattle or beef or processed beef products of any kind from the United Kingdom since 1989.” He added nonchalantly, “And of course I’ve been in England since 1989 when they discovered it. I’ve eaten beef over there.”

What the British government acknowledged last week was that there may be a link between mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare but always fatal human malady. Creutzfeldt-Jakob does exist in the United States, and the incubation period lasts several years. Someone who ate British beef products as recently as 1989 is better off feeling fatalistic than hysterical; but he may not be out of the woods.

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