It is seldom a good thing when the news becomes the news.
We’ve seen that twice in recent weeks. First there was ABC News’ ill-fated flirtation with blogger Andrew Breitbart.
In the face of heavy criticism, ABC backed off its decision to make Breitbart part of its election night coverage. How prominent a role he was to have played is a point of contention between the two parties; ABC has said it canceled the plan because Breitbart kept exaggerating the role he’d been asked to play.
(Breitbart exaggerating? Wow. What are the odds?)
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Of course, the size of his role wasn’t the problem. Rather, it is that Breitbart is neither a journalist nor an analyst, but an activist and provocateur best known for his involvement in two video hit jobs (Shirley Sherrod and ACORN) that turned out to be riddled with misleading and flat-out false claims. So it is shocking any news organization worthy of the name would allow him within 100 feet of its coverage.
As for the second contretemps: Last week, MSNBC suspended Keith Olbermann for two days after it was revealed he had given $7,200 to three political candidates “without getting permission” from his superiors, per MSNBC policy.
In the first place: Two days isn’t a suspension, it’s a long weekend. In the second place: really? So it would have been OK for him to give money had he gotten approval first?
Allow me to quote from my employer’s ethics handbook: “Staff members should not personally and publicly endorse political candidates or take part in political campaigns. We should not make contributions to political candidates or political parties, directly or indirectly, or run for office.”
Here’s the funny thing: I had never read that passage before looking it up to quote. I didn’t need to. I knew it was there. How could it “not” be there for any news organization that is serious about protecting its most vital asset? Meaning, obviously, its credibility. I make no apologies if that sounds old school. It seems to me that in the rush to new school, to reinventing journalism according to the frothy dictates of the infotainment era, some of us (ABC, MSNBC and, most assuredly, Fox, where donations to politicians are a matter of course) have forsaken some fundamentals.
Chief among them the requirement that a journalist do nothing that puts him — or “appears” to put him — in the pocket of those on whom he reports.
The issue is not objectivity. The standard that word implies is impossible and undesirable. Who’d trust a reporter who was “objective,” betrayed no feeling, in the face of a child rape or terrorist attack? News is a series of judgment calls: what story to cover, how big to play it, what angle to take, and a functioning humanity is required to make those calls properly.
While that precludes objectivity, it doesn’t preclude — in fact, it “demands” — disinterest, demands that you have no tangible stake in a given outcome. An emotional or intellectual stake, yes; again, that’s inseparable from being human.
But a journalist who has a financial stake like Olbermann, or stakes an entire career on achieving a certain political outcome by any means necessary like Breitbart, forfeits any expectation of being taken seriously by serious people — and yes, that applies even to a pundit.
Granted, there is a history back to colonial times of journalists functioning as the propaganda arm of this political party or that. In that sense, Olbermann, Breitbart and Fox are nothing new.
But there is a critical difference between propaganda and news — or even propaganda and opinion. When you want the former, you now know where to go. But when you just want to know what’s going on in the world, it might be best to look somewhere else.
Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.