Monday, February 11, 2008

Integrity in the media

The old journalist in me bristled when I read how a planned Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel series on sexual abuse by priests was apparently killed off several years ago after archdiocesan officials lobbied the newspaper's top brass when the editor refused to budge. The series never ran and the reporter who worked on it somehow was reassigned to lesser duties.

This came as a huge letdown at many levels, the obvious being the continued manifestation of a coverup by church officials, some of whom I suspect are still around. With all the revelations over the past decade or so we've perhaps become a bit accustomed to the "collar club" circling the wagons. But the media is another story.

The Journal Company, as the owners were once called, touted often the code of ethics for its employees -- standards designed to ensure impartiality in journalism.

Journalists take this stuff seriously, especially since in smaller markets it's not uncommon for advertisers to pressure owners to kill or soften potentially adverse stories. One of the "perks" of reaching the major markets was that more affluent media owners would resist such pressure. So, just as the church scandal disheartened many people, the media's lack of integrity is another erosion of trust.

This waxes very personal for me at many levels.

I am, as a Catholic, obviously saddened and enraged by clergy sexual abuse and the coverup. Pope John Paul II put it succintly when he called it "criminal" and an "appalling sin." It was also an erosion of trust. (By contrast, when a law enforcement officer here was accused of receiving a sexual favor from someone he was supposed to arrest, he was out the door within a day. It can be done.)

The media complicity is equally troubling. How can you triumph a code of ethics publicly and privately do the proverbial "one-eighty?" It, too, doesn't have to be that way.

More than three decades ago a young small market journalist got a big break by getting hired by Storer Broadcasting at its flagship station, WSPD in Toledo. (The company, which also owned WITI-TV in Milwaukee, gave me a choice of Detroit, Toledo or Cleveland. Some choice!)

It was a major shift from the small markets, including paid overtime, talent fees, tuition reimbursement, company car, etc. But when I broke a story that a major reality firm was about to be indicted for blockbusting, I couldn't help but be nervous about whether I'd catch flak because the company was an advertiser.

My fears gained credibility when I was summoned to see the "big boss" who had a couple of Storer honchos in his office when I arrived.

After explaining the interest in my story, I was asked one question: "How accurate is your information?"

"Very accurate," I replied.

"Good," he said. "Let us know when the indictment comes down so we can pull their advertising as it would offend Storer's broadcast standards."

What a difference -- and that wasn't the last time Kent Slocum stood up for integrity, carrying it to an unusual extreme.

As we were having morning donuts in the break room, I overheard the broadcast of an editorial which our editorial director based on inaccurate information. I was visually aghast.

Kent asked what was wrong and I explained that I had just done a series of stories a week earlier which were contrary to the editorial's premise. He replied, "Why don't you prepare and deliver a response?"

I was even more aghast at the thought of a young reporter publicly contradicting senior management but, as Kent explained, "If we're wrong, we're wrong."

Sadly, those days are gone. Long gone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Group criticizes involvement of convicted child molesters in state Episcopal diocese
Nina Petersen-Perlman, Duluth News Tribune
Published Tuesday, February 12, 2008