Not how journalists act

Journalism is not the best-understood work ever, and the movies haven’t always helped people to understand this strange occupation. The more sensationalistic among them would have you believe that we bribe sources for information, pay off critics to get them to shut up, and break into places to collect evidence.

For years, I’ve had to tell sometimes skeptical friends and family members that real journalists don’t do that. We are generally uncouth, sometimes lazy and screw up in plenty of other ways–not least when we drop stories because they seem too complicated or might make readers think we’re taking sides–but we don’t act like common criminals.

And now one of the biggest media companies in the world has made a liar out of me.

News Corporation’s British subsidiary, News International, is credibly accused of doing all of those things and more: bribing police for evidence, buying the silence of victims of its coverage and hacking into the voicemail systems of potentially thousands of individuals, including soldiers killed in action overseas and a murdered 13-year-old girl. It since appears to have tried to erase evidence of its own guilt. (If the Wikipedia entry is too long, the Poynter Institute and Pro Publica have posted more concise summaries of what’s gone down so far.)

Even by the sketchy standards of U.K. tabloid journalism, this is appalling conduct. Then consider that News International was so influential that police and politicians not only declined to press investigations but went out of their way to give jobs to former News executives, and we are approaching James Bond villain territory.

News Corp., as you may have heard, owns quite a few media properties in the United States. I don’t rank any of them near the level of its now-shuttered News of the World tabloid, but it’s sad enough to see the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page range from whiny to delusional on this issue while Fox News commentators try to pretend that this isn’t a story at all. That conduct suggests an organizational difficulty with looking in the mirror.

(Note that the Fox affiliate in D.C., WTTG, has had me on its news shows to talk about tech topics numerous times.)

I still say that this isn’t how real journalists behave, and I can testify that I never heard of any sort of News International-style abuse in my 17 years at the Post. But can I blame you if you now doubt me?

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4 thoughts on “Not how journalists act

  1. You say this isn’t how real journalists behave…does that mean these guys aren’t journalists? Or are you just mistaken in thinking that all (or most) journalists uphold the ideals of their profession?

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  4. This story is so shocking. You hit all the points, so there’s not much to add.

    I was always surprised seeing those polls where journalists rank so low in the public trust (behind used-car salesmen, etc.). And that was *before* this scandal came around.

    I remember, at the Post, doing a story about Apple one time. It was late and the PR people weren’t calling back. So I called the company’s customer service line and got the answer I needed from there (‘the OS will be released on this date,’ or whatever it was, can’t remember). Seemed like a reasonable way to get a basic product question answered, and I mentioned in the article that this is where the info came from, but the next day I was gently told that acquiring information this way was a no-no. So yeah, safe to say that ‘phone hacking’ wasn’t really part of the culture.

    The WSJ reaction reminds me of an old quote — ‘it is difficult to get a man to understand a thing when his paycheck depends on not understanding it.’

    I wonder if the investigators will really ever get to the bottom of all of this, but what they’ve got so far is insane. I’m just annoyed that there was a day or so there where the story was all about the freakin’ pie attack and how great it was that Rupert Murdoch’s wife slapped it away. Screw the comedian and his pie for the distraction, I say.

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