media watch

“We can’t rely on entitlement addicts to care about ethics in journalism”

By Dace Mikey

We can get into trouble telling stories.

Few things evoke more high-handed, Puritanical moralizing than someone else doing something untoward that each of us has done ourselves – like telling a story that isn’t strictly or literally true. We condemn others’ embellishments, in part, because we’re the ones who didn’t get caught.

“Lying” is inherent to storytelling: every time you tell a story of any kind, you are engaging in some act of fiction. Even when you act with the best of intentions, the process of editing and the nature of language mean that what you tell is not the same as what happened, no matter how heavy your bent toward severe literalism. That’s how stories work.

Consider Garry Kasparov’s latest tantrum in the Guardian. The newspaper itself was cautious about the crowd on a Moscow memorial rally for murdered opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, putting the number of protestors somewhere between 7000 and 50,000 (claims made by the Kremlin and the opposition, respectively). Kasparov’s laser mind quickly doubled the larger number, demonstrating just as much poker agility, as chessboard mastery. I think poor statistical science will have a hard time restoring its deserved primacy among liars, following Garry’s feat. More so because the Guardian played along, repeating Kasparov’s puny exaggeration in a picture caption for the opinion piece.

But stories are not journalism, though (again, with the question of the nature of language) we call them that. There are, however, few forms of storytelling that have the specific aspirations that journalism does: it is the attempt to do the impossible and tell the literal truth – which is what makes it noble. Once we admit that every story is fiction, it makes the attempt to tell the truth so much more important; and when we as listeners take the risk to believe, it’s incredibly damaging when that trust is violated.

Brian Williams’ and Luke Harding’s cases could not be more similar: both are prominent journalists at the top of their game; and both told war stories that contain inaccuracies so blatant that common sense says they lied. But one of these men has been heavily punished and the other will not only survive, but be rewarded because one asked for our trust, and then other never bothered to earn it nor care if he did.

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Luke Harding, his body language* and Brian Williams

Williams lied about where he was in relation to a rocket attack on a helicopter – but he was in the war zone and there was an attack. He dramatized his experience to tell a good story, though his job was to be a journalist. For that, he faces a suspension that cripples and possibly ends his career, and may be the only prominent American who has ever been punished for lying about the Iraq War.

Luke Harding told a similar story (and if reports are to be believed, more than one) – that Lugansk rebels killed themselves while shooting at a Ukrainian jet, which, supposedly, never bombed the area and never killed eight locals, including women and injured 28 people. He even provided ‘evidence’ in the form of a completely unrelated link to a pro-Kiev, Western-funded news outlet. Harding, though, has not been and will not be punished. Instead, punishment was meted on dozens of alleged ‘Russian trolls’, who tried to point out this shameless manipulation.

Of course, there’s no reputation to protect when Harding lies – if lying, obfuscating, double-talking, and stonewalling the truth were issues at the Guardian, tomorrow’s edition would be anchored by a few lifestyle journos in a suddenly quiet newsroom. NBC, on the other hand, raked Williams over the coals because they are a journalistic enterprise and their reputation demands it.

Williams and Harding told their stories in part to glorify themselves, but they also told them because they wanted to evoke vivid scenes and paint images that stay in their viewers’ minds. But that’s why we use different forms for our storytelling: context matters. A story told over a campfire is different than a story told on the nightly news. We even created forms of art and expression – like theater – which are designed to embrace the nature of fiction and dramatization.

If journalists want journalism to mean something, they are the ones who will have to do more – and they can’t rely on other people’s corporate management to do it for them. They can’t just police their own after their own get caught and hope that the public keeps trusting by default. They should clean their houses and declare what the profession really means to them by drawing a bright line between what journalism is and what Guardian is happy to publish and call “news”.

The Guardian’s claim that it’s an actual journalistic undertaking hurts no one more than real journalists who are actually trying to do their jobs, just as allowing a theater show to be presented as a journalistic undertaking hurt real journalists trying to do their jobs. Stop letting them pretend – or stop wondering why people don’t trust journalists.

If this piece sounds familiar, you can read Mike Davis’ original article here.

* For more on this specific gesture and body language in general, go here.