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December 2007: Is ‘Journalistic Ethics’ an Oxymoron?

December 1, 2007

One of the saddest things I’ve observed in 23 years as the head of a “think tank” is the decline in the quality of American journalists. If you think I’m being unkind or too judgmental, read on.

One of the saddest things I’ve observed in 23 years as the head of a “think tank” is the decline in the quality of American journalists. If you think I’m being unkind or too judgmental, read on.


‘Dear Colleague’

In early November, I asked my friend Dan Miller if he would send a letter to other journalists asking them to “keep an open mind” on the issue of global warming. He agreed to do so.

Dan is one of the country’s most respected and accomplished journalists. He began his career as a reporter for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, then was editor and associate publisher of Crain’s Chicago Business, and then served as chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission from 1994-1998.

For one year, from 1998 to 1999, Dan served as publisher at The Heartland Institute, and then he became business editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the nation’s largest-circulation daily newspapers. In 2006 he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.

Dan agreed to send two DVDs on global warming -- Al Gore’s propaganda film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the far superior British documentary film by Martin Durkin titled “The Great Global Warming Swindle” -- with a “dear colleague” letter to some of his fellow journalists. This sort of thing is done all the time and is considered a professional courtesy in every profession except, apparently, journalism.

Because it caused quite a controversy, the entire text of the letter appears on page 15. I think you’ll agree with me that it was a model of neutrality and discretion.


The Low Blow

On November 18 the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times’ cross-town rival, ran a column by Phil Rosenthal, who (interestingly) was dropped by the Sun-Times a few years ago, accusing Dan Miller of violating journalistic ethics. The column starts with this snarky line: “Chicago Sun-Times Business Editor Dan Miller apparently believes this paper doesn’t have enough editors to guide its staff.”

Rosenthal admits Miller’s letter “does not explicitly urge a stance,” but he then quotes Bob Steele, “an ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute,” saying Miller “is actively urging a particular examination, and I would suggest a point of view, on a substantive public policy issue. He’s also pitching it in a problematic way to other journalists, using his journalistic connections in doing so.”

According to Steele, Miller’s offer to share both sides of a controversial issue with other journalists “raises serious ethical concerns.”


‘Journalistic Ethics’

Could it really be unethical for a newspaper editor to communicate with editors and reporters at other newspapers? Is asking people to “keep an open mind” the same as advocating “a point of view”? It seemed incredible to me.

So I sent Steele an email posing these questions. On November 20 Mr. Steele called me, and we had a long and interesting conversation. Steele said it is indeed unethical for an editor at a newspaper to communicate with reporters or editors at other publications about any issue that might have public policy implications, except perhaps in “one-on-one conversations.”

But other professionals communicate all the time with their colleagues on work issues, I said. It’s how they learn and improve their skills. Editors, he told me, are different. When editors communicate with other editors and with reporters, it creates the appearance of taking an advocacy role, which is contrary to the “independence” that is so important to the role of journalists in society.

Steele said “I don’t have a doubt in my mind” that Miller was “advocating a position” by sending out the letter and DVDs. I asked what position Miller was advocating, and he couldn’t say. I asked if there was anything in the letter that expressed anything other than a neutral stance on global warming. He couldn’t name a word or line. Nevertheless, he was “absolutely sure” Miller was “advocating something.”

How could he be so sure Miller was “advocating something” if he couldn’t name it or even point to where the letter “crossed the line” into advocacy? Because, he said, Miller chose a product of The Heartland Institute, and Heartland is an advocacy group. But, I said, he also chose a product by Al Gore, who anchors the left side of the global warming debate. Doesn’t that speak equally to his motives? He demurred, saying he wasn’t familiar enough with the global warming issue.


Objectivity Is Obsolete

At one point Steele delivered a long monologue on the meaninglessness of “objectivity.” I always thought journalists were supposed to be objective, and I thought being “open minded” was a necessary first step toward being objective. Apparently not anymore.

Facts are no obstacle to someone who believes his or her perspective or “narrative” ought to be validated, no matter how wrong-headed it is. An advocate’s knee-jerk response to a fact that contradicts his or her world view is not to think “maybe I’m wrong,” but to reply “yes, but” or “well, anyway,” and finally and more currently, “yeah, whatever.”

Is this how we want journalists to behave? Steele apparently thinks so.

I’ve concluded that the Tribune’s Rosenthal is just a disgruntled former Sun-Times employee who sought to stir up trouble for Dan Miller, and he found a head-in-the-clouds “ethicist” to make his case. But reactions to Dan’s mailing by other journalists show they are not alone.


A Closed Mind in Houston

Eric Berger, a science writer for the Houston Chronicle, wrote on his blog, “As a journalist I can say the last person I would expect to receive such a package from is another journalist. It would not surprise me if Miller gets fired for this. Oh, and I already have an open mind about global warming, thank you very much.”

Odd that someone with an “open mind” would then call Heartland “essentially a right-wing policy institute” and then repeat Steele’s brainless non sequitur, “In this case Miller didn’t actually endorse a position, but it’s pretty clear what his motives were.” Odd, too that rather than link to Heartland’s Web site, where people could judge for themselves what our perspective is, he linked to Sourcewatch.org, a left-wing front group devoted to attacking all groups to the right of Greenpeace. One wonders if Sourcewatch paid him to do that.


A Blind Pig in St. Petersburg

Far worse than Berger is Craig Pittman at the St. Petersburg Times, who blogged, “the content [of Miller’s package] was dictated by a right-wing group called the Heartland Institute that has relentlessly questioned the existence of global warming.”

“The institute gets a lot of its funding from ExxonMobil,” Pittman writes. “A lot”? Try less than 5 percent. “An ExxonMobil executive serves as Heartland’s ‘government relations advisor.’” Utterly false. Five minutes on Heartland’s Web site would have shown him the error of both assertions.

Pittman goes on: “A Heartland-created website asserts there is no scientific consensus on global warming and features a list of experts and like-minded think tanks, many of whom have received funding from ExxonMobil and other polluters.”

I’m reminded of the saying, attributed to Lyndon Johnson, that “even a blind pig can find an acorn sometimes.” Yes, our Global Warming Facts Web site lists 66 experts, with bios, who say global warming is not a crisis and has links to an international survey showing fewer than half of climate scientists believe human activity is responsible for the modern warming. None of them is on ExxonMobil’s payroll.

Either Pittman was too lazy to write that, or including this information would have contradicted his biased opinions on global warming. Is that ethical journalism?


Stunned in Detroit

My favorite response was from Tina Lam, an environment reporter for the Detroit Free Press, who wrote to me to say, “I was stunned to get [the DVDs] in the mail, and on stationery with no return address, email or phone number, making me wonder if he was even a real person or just someone Heartland invented. Unfortunately, I see he is a real person. I’m donating mine to our annual freebies sale, since as ethical journalists, we never keep such stuff.”

So I spent some time reading Lam’s articles for the Free Press and was “stunned” to discover that, so far as I can tell, she has never written a balanced article on an environmental issue, not even one. She’s alarmed by dioxin in rivers, pollution from mining and coal-burning electric plants, etc. etc. etc. But she never cites experts or data showing, e.g., plummeting levels of dioxin, advancements in mining technology, and the de minimis threat to human health posed by coal-burning electric plants.

Lam shamelessly cheerleads for politicians who announce initiatives to combat global warming and who oppose industries using more water or planning to “dump more pollutants into Lake Michigan.” You would think a reporter would ask politicians tough questions about whether or how their plans would work, rather than simply rewrite their news releases, but not Lam. Their word seems to be Gospel, so long as it promises a cleaner and safer environment. Is that ethical?


Conclusion

The Founding Fathers thought a free and skeptical press was essential to the preservation of our political and economic liberties. The First Amendment is first for just that reason. What would they think of today’s generation of reporters who hide from the truth, parrot the slogans of left-wing advocacy groups, fail to do their own research, and routinely give politicians a free ride?

My guess is they would be stunned.


Joseph L. Bast (jbast@heartland.org) is president of The Heartland Institute.

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Joseph Bast is the president and CEO of The Heartland Institute, a 33-year-old national nonprofit research center located in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
jbast@heartland.org @JosephLBast