Rewarding Ethival Journalism–Whatever That Is

“Quite frankly,” said Casey Bukro, discussing the ethics award he’s founding for Chicago journalists, “this comes at the right time.” Just a few days earlier, he explained, the general counsel at the Tribune, where Bukro works, held a seminar on legal trends and “pointed out that the issue in journalism these days is no longer content but conduct.

“And conduct is ethics,” Bukro continued. “You see, reporters are not being sued on First Amendment or libel issues. We’re seeing cases involving trespass, breaking promises, the way they behaved in covering the story. [The Tribune counsel] called these ‘trash torts.’ People are not coming after us in the traditional ways, which we often won. But now they say, ‘Hey, you made a promise and you didn’t keep it. You misrepresented yourself. You said you were Joe Blow, and you were really gathering facts for a story. That’s trespass. It’s a whole new way of coming after journalists, and we have to deal with it.”

I reminded Bukro that a quarter century ago reporters claiming to be Joe Blow had given his paper some of its proudest moments: Bill Mullen getting hired at the election board…Bill Jones joining an ambulance crew. Their exposes won Pulitzers.

If a newspaper risks a trash tort for the sake of a good story that there’s no other way to get–could that be the highest form of ethics? I asked Bukro. I was thinking of CBS’s recent decision to scrub a 60 Minutes interview with a whistleblowing tobacco industry insider who’d signed a confidentiality agreement with Brown & Williamson. Although the network’s decision may have been prudent, no one was praising CBS for exercising principle above and beyond.

“If you can make the case that that was the only way to get information that was in the public interest,” Bukro replied, “and you gave time and thought and arrived at that decision and it was not a kneejerk decision, I think that could then win an ethics award.” But Bukro pointed out that according to the Wall Street Journal, CBS had promised the insider not to run the interview without his permission. By backing down the network was simply keeping its word.

Bukro objects to the old philosophy of “whatever it takes.” He recalled that Chicago’s legendary Harry Romanoff used to pose as a cop, a priest, or whoever, to pry loose information no mere reporter could have gotten. “People thought it was wonderful,” Bukro said. “It’s not wonderful anymore. Standards change….I’m not saying good hard-hitting journalism is no longer acceptable. It’s still the foundation of what we do. But sometimes we run roughshod over people. Maybe we have to understand you can’t rough up people you say you’re serving.”

Bukro’s chairman of an ethics task force at the Chicago Headline Club–the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists–that toyed with the idea of some kind of news council but eventually abandoned the stick for a carrot. Sticks, the Society of Professional Journalists has discovered with its often revised, forever ineffectual Code of Ethics, don’t work.

Perhaps an ethics award would. The root of ethics, Bukro believes, is public accountability; and this conviction dictated the form the ethics award would take. Rather than journalists honoring journalists for journalism that may have pleased no one but themselves, the public would nominate reporting and commentary that it admired.

The Headline Club asked Business and Professional People in the Public Interest BPI to join it in establishing the Ethics in Journalism Award. (It’ll be given in four categories–news and commentary, newspapers and radio-TV–at the Lisagor dinner next spring.) “Our board thought it was a little different,” BPI’s Sherry Goodman told me, “but on the other hand, we have been not only a public-interst law organization for 25 years but a public policy center, and it seemed appropriate to be involved in something as important as ethical choice in covering news.”

Last month a letter over Bukro and Goodman’s signatures went out to more than 50 community organizations announcing the Ethics in Journalism Award and asking them to participate. “You can help motivate and inspire outstanding performance by pointing to good work at a time when journalism in the Chicago Metropolitan area could use some guidance from its customers,” the letter said. The organizations were asked to send representatives to an organizational breakfast next Friday in the Tribune Tower.

The nominating form these organizations will receive invites them to “take into consideration whether journalists who qualify for this award struggled to find balances in fairness, accuracy and community or personal well-being while covering the news. In effect, this award is for a job well done, possibly under difficult circumstances. But think of it as a kinder, gentler journalism–a new dimension to excellence in journalism.”

Apparently Bukro and Goodman are still having trouble expressing what they’re looking for. The day an editor sends his forces into the street with the watchwords “kinder, gentler,” and “Find your balance in personal well-being, or don’t come back!” is one that should never dawn. Ethical journalism as as Bukro and Goodman have defined it seems to be journalism whose first virtue is its inoffensiveness–inoffensiveness, at least, to the citizens groups asked for nominations. (The media can also make nominations, Bukro said, and so, for that matter, can corporations, although they aren’t being invited to. Perhaps Brown & Williamson would now like to nominate 60 Minutes for an ethics award.) I asked Goodman for an example, some piece of reporting that she thought supremely ethical.

She’d been asking people the same question. “It’s interesting,” she said. “The name that comes to their minds all the time is Eric Zorn, and how he’s handled the Cruz matter. It’s come up several times unexpectedly from people who I hadn’t realized had thought about it.”

There was nothing “kinder, gentler” about Zorn’s old-fashioned crusade. He’d simply worked his ass off trying to save the life of a powerless and victimized man. Zorn deserves every honor there is, and if he’s the archetype of a winner, the Ethics in Journalism Award should enjoy a long and distinguished life.

What people responded to in Zorn’s torrent of columns, Goodman surmised, was his choice of subjects and his determination to stick with it. “Frequently, more frequently than not, what we get are pieces of news. We get a story once and there is no follow up. The sort of widespread depression people now seem to feel comes from the fact we are bombarded with information about news and problems and there’s no way out. And I think what people admired about that series is that he pointed a way out.

“Is that ethical journalism? I’m not the one to judge.”

The Babble Battle, Round Two

The last time I looked in on Babble, Chicago’s ebulliently tasteless gay weekly was being hounded into extinction. One A.J. Bruno, who’d sent in some pictures of himself that showed up in a nasty parody of a modeling agency’s book, had gone to court. Plaintiff suffered “personal contempt, ridicule and humiliation,” said Bruno’s suit.

I reported in mid-October that Babble’s publisher, known to me then only as “Malone,” had lost the legal battle by default, never having bothered to respond to Bruno’s suit. Babble now owed Bruno $100,000, of which the first $4,000 were by far the most significant to Malone, since he actually had that much money to his name.

Legal documents have since revealed to me that Malone is one Malone A. Sizelove, His personal fortune was $4,049.03, held in a Northern Trust checking account that had been frozen by court order as Bruno’s attorney and collection agency attempted to make inroads on the $100,000 debt.

Feeling penniless even by his own standards, Sizelove now found himself an attorney and returned to court. The attorney pointed out that Bruno’s suit, unfathomably, had neglected to name Sizelove personally as a defendant. Surely it was wrong to garnish the assets of someone who was not a party to the suit.

The judge emphatically agreed.

“I went to the bank today and got all my money back,” Sizelove told me afterward. “So I guess now they have to start all over.”

Where’d you put your money? I said.

“I stuck it in a hole in the ground in a coffee can. I’m not telling you where it is now!” he said. “It’s going in a Swiss bank account. I don’t know why they don’t understand I don’t have anything. If they’re going to do it I don’t know why they don’t do it right. I’m sure Mr. Bruno is very pissed.”

Bruno has let counsel do the talking for him, so I called his attorney, Paul Kesselman. I hear the judge quashed the garnishment against Sizelove, I told him. Not correct, he said. “I withdrew the garnishment.” To amend it? “Correct.” Have you refiled it? I asked. “I’m choosing not to answer that question. I don’t want to tip Mr. Sizelove off as to where to move his assets or not move them.”

“He hasn’t served me any papers,” said Sizelove. “I’m hoping he just leaves it alone.”

As was widely predicted, the week after Sizelove killed off Babble to foil Bruno he opened a new magazine, Gab (“predictably unsavory”), that’s virtually identical. The big difference between Gab and Babble is that gossip columnist Richard Cooke has disappeared.

Cooke wanted to be paid.

News Bites

Last week Cincinnati’s Barry Larkin was named the National League’s most valuable player for the ’95 season. “Surprise choice,” said the AP story that the Sun-Times and Tribune both carried. “Larkin…in Surprise,” said the headline in the New York Times. The next day Boston’s Mo Vaughn nudged Cleveland’s Albert Belle for the same honor in the American League, and newspaper accounts wondered if Belle had done himself in by being a rancorous jerk around reporters.

MVP’s, of course, are elected by baseball writers. It’s not clear why reporters should profess puzzlement or astonishment at news that they made happen in the first place.

Earlier this month Hot Type noted that on October 30 the Sun-Times didn’t publish a single word about the referendum being held that day in Quebec. In response, David Radler, chairman of the American Publishing Company, sent me a copy of his paper’s front-page story that a day later, October 31, reported the separatists’ narrow defeat. As Radler didn’t send me a copy of the story that I said the Sun-Times didn’t publish, I gather he was conceding my point. And I’ll concede his.

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