Monday, March 22, 2004
More fabricated journalism: I was going to write about this last Friday, but my work schedule was rejiggered and college basketball was on. USA Today reporter Jack Kelley is the latest member of the journalism fraternity to have his fabrications detailed and put right. Kelley's fabrications go back at least seven (and possibly 11) years.
That Kelley's behavior was wrong isn't in dispute. That USA Today -- and all newspapers -- need to keep closer watch on their reporters is also not in dispute. Deadline and competitive pressures are not excuses for plagiarism or fabrication.
That being said, it appears that another one of Kelley's attributes is providing grist for the some on the left -- you see, Kelley is an evangelical Christian.
I don't often read his site, but one link led to another last Friday and I came across Atrios' comments regarding Kelley here and here.
The thing about the Jasyon [sic] Blair story was that it didn't matter. Sure it was egg on face of the New York Times, but his fabrications were almost entirely harmless and trivial. Kelley's fabrications were frequently inflammatory pieces on inflammatory issues. And, while Blair's agenda was just preserving his career, Kelley possibly had a much larger one though I haven't read much analysis of his fabrications in that context.
When the Blair scandal came out there were endless ruminations about the poisonous impact of affirmative action on the newsroom, and many many people who declared solemnly that "of course" his race was a factor. People like the brothers Hack, Crazy Andy, etc...
What's their explanation for this guy, who got away with the journalistic equivalent of murder for years? We'll never know, because as a quick glance at their site shows - they don't care a bit.
First, I'd like to point out that I'm disappointed that Atrios didn't include me among those who were critical of Jayson Blair and who hadn't written a word about Kelley.
Second, Atrios suggests that Kelley's sins are worse because the issues he lied about were more meaningful than those Blair lied about. That's something that can be debated endlessly -- but it's also irrelevant. The lying and fabrications were wrong. Period. It doesn't matter if it was a fabricated quote at a local utility board meeting or a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It's all equally wrong. We shouldn't even go down the path of equivocation on the subject.
Third, with regard to the impact of affirmative action in the newsroom: Unless I've missed it, no affirmative action programs are currently in place, or have been in the past, for white evangelical Christian males. Jayson Blair's race was not immediately known to me when the scandal regarding his reporting first came out. But once that was known, I was one of many who decried what affirmative action had wrought in this case. Back in May 2003 I wrote:
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Blair's ethical disaster will tarnish good, talented and honest minority journalists at the Times and other papers. Now, in an ideal world, this sort of scandal would just sully journalism in general -- certainly if Blair were white and middle-aged that would be the case. But because he's a young black man who got the job at the Times largely because he is a young black man it raises a question about the competency of other young minority journalists. Are the minority intern program's chosen few under undue pressure to perform and succeed -- with journalistic ethics on the back burner (or completely off the stove)? That's really the most insidious thing about affirmative action and diversity programs -- that the exceptions that are made in the hiring and promotion of minorities can come back to haunt the program when something goes wrong.
If Jayson Blair had come to the Times after working for ten years at a variety of newspapers then his race wouldn't even been raised by Kurtz -- or anyone else for that matter. He would have been just another cautionary tale of journalism gone wrong. But the fact is that the color of Blair's skin opened doors for him that would have been closed to white journalists.
Hopefully if Blair's story teaches newspapers one thing it will be that skin color, ethnicity or national origin isn't the most important thing when it comes to hiring a reporter -- professionalism is. For major papers like the Times, you're not going to find that in a student straight out of college, no matter how talented they are.
The Kelley case has proven my point, here's a white, middle-aged man who has sullied journalism in general -- but Atrios would like to make his religion a contributing factor. If Atrios can provide a sliver of evidence that Kelley got special treatment because he's a Christian then I'll consider his point. But I suspect that all Atrios would like to do (as is his modus operandi) is hurl mud at perceived conservatives. Evangelical Christianity is not necessarily synonymous with Republican.
Later Friday, Atrios discovers that Kelley isn't the only Christian in the news business -- and is horrified.
The source of Atrios' concern is the World Journalism Institute. I must confess I'd never heard of the group until Atrios pointed them out. Atrios highlights the group's mission statement, which reveals it to be *gasp* Christian. And then points out some objectionable articles some of the faculty members have written -- like one reporting the fact (as opposed to fabrication) that people exist who oppose gay marriage. Why would a newspaper ever want to report on those people? Fairness? Balance? Getting more than one side of an issue?
Of course, the point isn't that I think all journalists need to be secular. But, this is an organization dedicated to training journalists to push a particular conservative Christian agenda from within mainstream news organizations, and many of their people are covering religion and social issues in top organizations. Including that liberal NPR. From my first pass look at some of the kinds of stories these people crank out, it seems they're quite good at creating fairly innocuous pieces which aren't obviously slanted propaganda, but which inevitably do push the position and emphasize the things you would expect.
It's a relief that Atrios doesn't want me fired because I'm a Christian. What a load off of my back. But Atrios' concern that groups like the World Journalism Institute exist is laughable. Why? Because every group does something similar. For example, for more than two weeks, the following flyer could be found on bulletin boards throughout the Union-Tribune newsroom -- and I suspect the same was done at local TV and radio stations and other newspapers.
A larger version of the flyer can be found here. Unfortunately, I could not attend the forum because of my work schedule. But do you think Atrios would be alarmed at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association holding a pro-gay-marriage forum in the first floor auditorium at the Union-Tribune?
Frankly, this forum is more disturbing to me than the WJI -- and not just because the WJI appears to share my views. The WJI appears to be trying to get Christians to become journalists -- and that's about it.
Q: Is there a theological litmus test at the World Journalism Institute?
A: There is no theological litmus test or template set for the students or the faculty. While the administration of WJI is Reformed and would look to historic Presbyterianism for its theological understanding, the faculty and students represent all the perspectives of historic, orthodox Christianity.
Q: Are students from all Christian denominations and traditions welcome at the World Journalism Institute?
A: Yes. All that is required on the statement of faith portion of the course/workshop application is a brief written profession of faith in Jesus Christ as one's lord and savior.
Q: Is there a political litmus test at the World Journalism Institute?
A: There is no political litmus test or template set for the students or the faculty. While the administration of WJI is conservative in its politics and would embrace smaller government, strong foreign defense and Biblical virtues in one's personal life, the faculty and students are not examined as to what their political philosophy is. There is, however, the expectation that all faculty will embrace a biblical view of personal and professional ethics.
The NGLJA is trying to inform and form journalists' coverage of the gay marriage issue. Of the listed panel members, only SDSU religion professor Rebecca Moore's position on the issue of gay marriage cannot be determined from a quick Web search -- but even if she is opposed to gay marriage, the composition of the panel is hardly balanced. This isn't an effort to inform on both sides of the debate.
So, if Atrios is concerned about pressure groups trying to influence journalists, he's got a lot to worry about.