This used to be a noble profession.
Still is, to tell you the truth. To hear an editor debate whether a story is fair to some deplorable individual most would consider unworthy of the effort or watch a reporter rush toward danger to tell a story that needs telling is to be unalterably convinced of the honor in this work.
But even in the saying, you brace for the derision and scorn according to Gallup, the public ranks journalists between auto mechanics and lawyers in terms of ethics that will surely follow. There are several reasons. One is the work of Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Chris Cecil, and other fabricators and plagiarizers who have besmirched the profession in recent years. Another is the trend toward an ideologically balkanized media that leaves many people thinking journalistic integrity is a synonym for that which validates my worldview. And yet another is the diminution of professional standards such that any fool with a video camera and an axe to grind now calls himself a journalist.
Now comes the implosion of media baron Rupert Murdochs empire in the wake of revelations that reporters at his British tabloid, News of the World, paid police sources for information and hacked into peoples voice mails, including those of a missing 13-year-old girl. The 168-year-old paper ceased publication a few days back, but that has hardly been the end of it.
To the contrary, the scandal is spreading like spilled ink. Thus far, there have been nearly 20 arrests and resignations. In a hearing Tuesday before Parliament, Murdoch pronounced himself humbled. There are rumbles of hearings before Congress. The FBI is investigating, amid allegations that the hacking included families of 9/11 victims. News Corp., the company through which Murdoch owned News of the World, along with Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and half the known media universe, has seen its value plummet.
All these skeins to unravel, yet your humble correspondent feels himself stuck at square one, unable to get beyond the simplest and most basic wrong of all the wrongs here: journalists are not supposed to do these kinds of things.
I feel unbearably credulous in saying that, but it needs saying. Yes, I get that nobody should do these kinds of things. But the point is, journalists are theoretically guided by certain ethical strictures. One avoids conflicts of interest. One does not plagiarize. One does not buy information. And one does not hack the voicemail of a missing child.
Indeed, one abides by a litany of constraints which, while they may sometimes compromise expedience, one accepts because they also protect integrity.
Of course, that was then. We live in a faster and more furious now, wherein standards are more flexible than Mr. Fantastic, niceties like fairness are regarded as Victorian relics and the end justifies even the most unseemly means.
Now here comes the latest ruinous result of that thinking, the latest black eye for a profession that is already punch drunk, the latest insult to our image of ourselves as practitioners of a noble craft. Now here come the derision and the scorn. You can call that hurtful, you can call it harsh, you can call it unfair.
But can we really still call it undeserved?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.