Lies, Damned Lies, and Journalists: For Citizens or Pros, Intentions Matter


It pains me -- friends, it positively grieves me -- to have to point out instances in which those who chose to argue with a position of mine were ultimately proved to be in error. But sometimes it can't be avoided. So, for the record: I was right. You, my debate partners, were wrong. I told you so.

I was right about the National Enquirer when I said its campaign for a Pulitzer Prize smelled like nothing more than a publicity stunt. Now we learn that it's not the first time the tabloid has been allowed to compete for journalism's top prize, as we were led to believe, nor even the second, but the fifth. But don't feel bad about being fooled; the Enquirer is adept at using subterfuge, legal or otherwise, to get what it wants.

Fowler Play

I was also right when I said that Mayhill Fowler, a "citizen journalist" reporting on behalf of the Huffington Post's Off The Bus campaign project, was guilty of employing bad journalistic ethics to obtain juicy "gotcha" quotes from both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton without ever identifying herself as a reporter. Manyrushed to the defense of Fowler in particular and pro-am/citizen/crowd-sourced journalism in general, saying she was under no such obligation. Now we learn that Fowler hid her digital recorder in her bosom when she approached Clinton (no jokes, please) and then dissembled afterward, telling others she'd had the recorder "visible in plain sight."

It's one thing to passively allow one's interview subject to make assumptions about his or her interviewer. It's another thing altogether to take affirmative measures to deceive that subject. And it's still another to lie about it later. By lying, Fowler made it impossible for me and the other people who wanted to have an honest debate about the merits of her methods to do so. Just so, by refusing to discuss what techniques it will and won't adopt in order to, say, obtain a photo from inside a locked hotel room, the Enquirer makes it impossible for those who want to assess the overall standards of its journalism to do so.

The Worst of Intentions

But is that even necessary? After I wrote about the Enquirer last week, I got into a long debate, via AIM, with my friend John Cook, Gawker's investigations editor. John believes the Pulitzer Committee should throw out its requirement that all submissions come from outlets with "the highest journalistic principles" and judge individual entries in isolation. He argued that investigative reporters require secrecy to do their jobs properly; that reporters everywhere trade friendly coverage for access; that perennial Pulitzer winners like The New York Times and the Washington Post frequently fail to live up to their own stated standards.

John made some good points -- he's not stupid, just sadly misguided and probably a little sleep-deprived -- but failed to sway me from my belief that, when it comes to assessing journalism, intentions count. The Times and the Enquirer may both be for-profit operations; both may be staffed by reporters motivated by a desire for personal glory; both step in it royally from time to time. But only one of the two has a public-interest mission that informs everything it does. There's nothing inherently wrong with journalism that, at an institutional level, is conducted purely for commercial gain, but it's the prerogative of the Pulitzer Committee to favor journalism with a higher aim. Quibble all you want; we can all tell the difference.