While news organizations are reassessing our business model, perhaps journalists need to reassess the journalism model.
As the media reaction to the Rolling Stone story on Gen. Stanley McChrystal has shown, journalists have become too cozy with the people they are supposed to cover. The prowlers have taught the watchdogs to roll over.
Michael Hastings uncovered the contempt that the commander leading the Afghanistan war effort had for his commander in chief and other civilian leaders. In a healthy Fourth Estate, such a scoop would merit praise and admiration from colleagues, or at least silent, respectful jealousy.
Instead, Hastings has been savaged by military brass speaking anonymously to coddling reporters and by fellow reporters questioning his ethics.
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi had pretty much the same reaction I did to the shameless attack on Hastings by CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday. Logan ripped Hastings for violating the “trust” McChrystal and his aides placed in him. Taibbi responded with an important reminder for Logan and other reporters who trade access for silence:
You do not work for the people you’re covering!
As economic and technological changes (and failure to innovate) are causing upheaval on the business side of media, everything must be re-examined. Renewed independence and credibility could become an important asset for individual journalists and for new and transforming news organizations.
I suggest a new rule (that I thought was an old rule) for reporters: Everything is on the record unless the reporter agrees it is off the record. And conditions for going off the record (or requesting any level of confidentiality) must be strict:
- Top officials should never be off the record (with the exceptions noted in the next two bullets). They are in positions of authority and should stand by what they say.
- Anyone can go off the record in passing along information of which they don’t have first-hand or other factual knowledge (reporters need to get better sources on that information anyway, but the tip might help them find those sources).
- Reporters can protect sources who provide documents (but the reporter needs to authenticate the documents).
- Mid-level and lower-level officials can go off the record in whistle-blowing situations where their jobs or safety would be in jeopardy. This should never be an assumption, but a detailed discussion in advance of disclosures. Personal attacks made from the safety of this cover should not be published. And if the allegations are not about someone who is in a position to harm the source, no confidentiality should be granted.
Maybe I have left out a condition or two. But the promiscuity in granting confidentiality is harming the credibility of journalists, and I would be fine with the pendulum swinging too far the other way.
If the price of access is inaccurate and incomplete reporting, then access is no bargain. Our nation’s founders did not protect the press so the press could protect the government.