Jewish World Review March 1, 2006 / 1 Adar, 5766
Media ethics: An oxymoron?
CONWAY, Ark. What a pleasure to be back in school again, this time at the University of Central Arkansas. Maybe this time I'll get it right.
I'm here to talk at a program called High Table, which has a nice Oxbridge ring to it. In the dining halls at Oxford and Cambridge, the students in their scholars' gowns would sit at long tables in the dining hall, while the master and fellows of the college were served at a raised table at one end of the hall, or the High Table.
Happily, things are a good deal less formal at UCA, where students gather 'round in a large, homey den. There's a chess game going on over to one side, and I wish I could play the winner instead of having to listen to myself talk about, of all things, Media Ethics.
The phrase has the sound of an oxymoron. Like military intelligence. Any time a prefix is tacked onto ethics, as in congressional ethics or bioethics . . watch it! Specializing ethics risks losing contact with ethics in general.
By now I've read a lot of articles in journalism reviews about Media Ethics, but they tend to have more to do with media than ethics.
Except when they're used for decorative purposes, I don't recall seeing many if any references in those articles to Aristotle's "Ethics," or Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations," or the teachings of Confucius or Bonhoeffer . . . .
Or to my own favorite guide, "Pirkei Avos," the talmudic tractate on ethics. It contains a useful, three-part admonition for today's journalists, even if it was meant for interpreters of the law a few millennia ago:
1. Love creative work.
2. Do not seek domination over others.
And, last and most useful of all:
3. Avoid intimacy with the ruling authorities.
The big problem with reading articles about the professional ethics of journalism is that, no matter what they say in journalism schools, we're not a profession which is a darned good thing. That way, we're not licensed by the state, and therefore cannot be disbarred by same.
Thank goodness and the First Amendment, anybody can commit journalism in this country.
Despite our occasional demands for special treatment, freedom of the press doesn't belong just to the press. And the more the press insists on being above the law, the more trouble awaits. That's no way to win friends and influence people.
And neither is calling ourselves a profession. When the word is applied to inky wretches, it has an unavoidably counterfeit feel to it. I'd rather be just a newspaperman. Even the title Journalist sounds a little hoity-toity to me. I always picture somebody who writes for a quarterly, smokes a pipe and thinks a galley proof is a nautical term.
George Bernard Shaw once said every profession is a conspiracy against the laity; at its best journalism is a conspiracy on behalf of the laity.
The first ethical rule of political commentators, I tell the students, is: Know thyself.
Yes, I know that's not original advice. But it still holds. The opinionator should know what his convictions are, so he won't be blown this way and that by changing fashion. When he finds it necessary to alter or refine or deepen or abandon a conviction the process is called growth he should at least be aware of what he's doing, and maybe even why.
That's why he or she needs a liberal education, so he'll keep his bearings in the great whirlwind of just a little wheat and a whole lot of chaff that we call the news. So he can separate it out for the reader. (Adlai Stevenson once said a journalist is someone who carefully separates the wheat from the chaff, then prints the chaff. G-d, the truth hurts.)
Readers don't need to have their own mercurial feelings mirrored and magnified every morning, much as we all enjoy the experience. For a little while. Then it grows boring. And we begin to crave opinions other than our own, and search for insights that compel instead of platitudes that just comfort.
A lapsed editorial writer here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette named Chris Battle he's now managing a gubernatorial candidate's campaign in Arkansas once told me a story about his grandfather. It seems that, as a young sophisticate, he was once explaining to the old man that not all issues are black and white, that there are different shades of gray, that there's not always a right and wrong, yadda-yadda . . . .
To which his grandfather replied, "Son, there's always a right and wrong. You just have to find it."
Even if it takes time and effort. That's ethics. In and out of journalism.
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