Media Scandals…or ‘Status Quo’?

Aug 30th, 2012 | By | Category: Ethics

Two media scandals have made headlines this week – not scandals in Pakistan media, but in US media. So what do these have to do with a blog called ‘Pakistan Media Watch’? We thought they were interesting to highlight because they raise the question whether these would even be considered scandals here.

Both stories hit the headlines on Wednesday, the first a report that Yahoo News fired its Washington bureau chief after he was caught on tape making a political attack on one of the American presidential nominees.

“David Chalian’s statement was inappropriate and does not represent the views of Yahoo!. He has been terminated effective immediately. We have already reached out to the Romney campaign, and we apologize to Mitt Romney, his staff, their supporters and anyone who was offended.”

In an update to the story, it was reported that even after being fired for his comments, the reporter published a full apology to the subject of his political attack.

I am profoundly sorry for making an inappropriate and thoughtless joke. I was commenting on the challenge of staging a convention during a hurricane and about campaign optics. I have apologized to the Romney campaign, and I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gov. and Mrs. Romney. I also regret causing any distraction from the exceptional coverage of the Republican convention by Yahoo News and ABC News.

We found this story remarkable for two reasons. First is the most obvious, which is that a media group immediately fired a senior journalist – no less than their Washington bureau chief – for making a politically biased comment off the air. We wonder, if certain media groups here enforced the same high ethical standards for their employees, would their be any senior investigative journalists left?

The second headline involves not political attacks by a reporter, but collusion with national agencies. American transparency group ‘Judicial Watch’ exposed emails that show New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti shared advanced copies of an article with the CIA.

Buried in the files were emails from Mark Mazzetti, a national security writer for the Times, to a CIA spokeswoman named Marie Harf. Harf had apparently emailed Mazzetti on August 5, 2011, to inquire about a forthcoming column of Dowd’s which mentioned the movie flap.

In one email, Mazzetti tells Harf that he is “going to see a version before it gets filed.” In the next, he emails Harf the entire column, saying, “this didn’t come from me… and please delete after you read. See, nothing to worry about!”

The New York Times public editor responded by publishing a strong reaction to the reporter’s working with CIA that is worth reading for its own merits.

Whatever Mr. Mazzetti’s motivation, it is a clear boundary violation to disclose a potentially sensitive article pre-publication under such circumstances. This goes well beyond the normal give-and-take that characterizes the handling of sources and suggests the absence of an arm’s-length relationship between a reporter and those he is dealing with.

The second boundary violation relates to the oft-cited wall separating news from editorial. After all, in this case a news-side person was fact-checking for a colleague working on the opinion side. The wall is extremely important to The Times because it insulates the news side, which embraces a standard of neutrality in news coverage, from the opinion side, which is free to take sides.

This story is also remarkable because not because a journalist would be working hand in glove with intelligence agencies, but because it is considered a scandal and that the newspaper’s own Public Editor has taken such strong notice of the act. In closing his response, the editor wrote the following:

The facts and appearances of this case strongly suggest that The Times should redouble its efforts to strengthen the boundaries that are so essential to cultivating reader trust.

This is advice that New York Times and Yahoo News should certainly take. Our own media groups should also heed this advice and strongly consider the effect that political bias and collaboration with national agencies among journalists and media employees has on reader trust and the credibility of our own media.

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