Memo to Broder re: Journalism and Ethical Reporting

Dear David Broder,

You sir, are a role model.  You are widely known and well-regarded as both "the dean of political journalists" and as a Pulitzer-prize winning author.  I'm sure you agree this status compels you to follow the highest ethical standards of your profession.  

As a member of The Society of Professional Journalists, you also know you are obligated to follow their Code of Ethics.  It is with dismay I note you apparently violated many of these important ethical principles in your recent column, A Way Back to the High Road? 

After reviewing the attached list of particulars, I hope you will promptly correct these mistakes, thereby avoiding permanent damage to your reputation and credibility.

You began the column with the question you asked both candidates:

How do you feel about the tone and direction of the campaign so far?

That is a fair question and you provide each candidate's response.  You begin by quoting Obama's opponent:

"I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings" together, as he had suggested, during the summer months.

You then report Obama's response:

"[T]he classic tit-for-tat campaigning" of recent weeks "is part of the politics of the past that we have to move beyond."

However, you immediately place those quotes in a misleading context:

Ironically, having turned down [his opponent's] proposal for weekly joint town halls, Obama argued that the formal debates, starting in late September, may refocus the campaign on real issues.

I think it important to note that "irony" is defined as "an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs." Your characterization of Obama's actions as "ironic" implies he could solve this problem by agreeing to follow his opponent's lead.   There is no evidence for that.  By supporting his opponent's unsubstantiated claim you are directly violating the portion of the SPJ Code of Ethics that obligates you to:

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.

Unscripted town meetings are venues for citizens to directly address questions to candidates without a filter.   They are not group therapy sessions.  I specified "unscripted" town meetings because you neglected to mention the dramatic difference between Obama and his opponent when it comes to their use of town meetings.  If there is any irony here, it is that Obama's opponent is the one suggesting town meetings are an effective venue for creating harmony.  

Perhaps the "irony" you are referring to is the canard that Obama is calling for new political thinking while advocating a return to antiquated forms of campaigning.   If that is what you meant, that position would be even more deceitful than the previous one.  First, it implies Obama is deceptively using a bait-and-switch tactic without offering any evidence to back up such a charge.  That would be dangerously close to libel.  As a student of American political history, you know town meetings are a democratic institution that predates the formation of the nation by well over a century.  Thus, characterizing debates as antiquated and town meetings as "modern" only makes sense if you are willing to present debates and town meetings in a completely ahistorical context.  That would be a different ethical lapse:

Make certain that ... sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent.  They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

You return to the town meetings theme throughout the article.  That reinforces the appearance of writer as advocate.  It also creates such a distorted narrative that a wholesale rewriting of recent history is needed to support it.  For example:

Since the idea of joint town meetings was scrapped, the campaign has featured tough and often negative ads and speeches. They culminated last week in an exchange in which Obama said that [his opponent] and his supporters were calling attention to the Democrat's unusual name and the fact that "he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."

You then go on to note Obama's opponent claimed that was an example of Obama "playing the race card." While technically true, this abbreviated rendition completely distorts the historical record by overlooking significant events.  That makes it impossible to address your central theme of campaign tone in an intellectually honest way, another example of a previously identified type of ethical lapse:

Make certain that ... sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent.  They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

The nadir of this campaign was not marked by race-baiting.  Whether you want to call him African-American or not, Barack Obama is certainly black while his opponent is certainly white.  That is an important issue to some people.   Whether you agree with the tactic of race-baiting or not, at least those appeals have a basis in reality.  

The problem with your truncated chronology is that it skips over the real low point of this campaign.  I'm talking about repeated attacks based on false comparisons designed to characterize Obama as something he is not.  These attacks have no basis in reality.  They are a form of lying.  

Obama's opponent has engaged in this behavior with increasing frequency in the timeframe you claim to be covering.  This has reached such inappropriate levels that even his own supporters have publicly upbraided the Republican candidate for wasting their money and our time with his  nonsense.  

THAT IS HISTORIC.  I don't recall any presidential campaign where a candidate stooped so low as to insult both his opponent and his base of large cash donors at the same time.  If you could provide a single documented example of this happening sometime during your career as a journalist, I would be interested in seeing it.  If you cannot find such an example, ignoring this outrage is a sin of ommission on par with saying "besides that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?" That would be another clear violation of the SPJ Code of Ethics charge to:

Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

This is not an academic point of historic interest.  When questioned about the complaints of inappropriate behavior, Obama's opponent is quoted by AP as saying:

"We think it's got a lot of humor in it, we're having fun and enjoying it ... we'll continue to fight and scrap all the way to November 4."

There is only one way to interpret that response.  Obama's opponent has declared he will continue to plumb the depths of inappropriate political discourse with this tactic.  You may choose to ignore it, but everyone else sees it very clearly.  His strategic reliance on this tactic has so thoroughly diminished his stature that a consensus is developing that this race is all about Obama; his opponent has become incidental.  It is unlikely that dynamic is going to change.  I believe that will put increasing pressure on Obama's opponent to do more outlandish things to get noticed.    

For you to write a piece decrying the tone of this campaign while ignoring this increasingly outlandish behavior is indefensible -- especially when the guilty party has made it clear he is in incorrigible.  Your failure to report this makes you complicit because turning a blind eye to outrageous behavior implies a tacit endorsement.  

In light of your long and illustrious career as a journalist, it must be distressing to learn that a careful reading of your work generates the sort of disdain normally reserved for celebrity "journalists" posing as commentators.  This must be particularly painful to someone old enough to remember when "commentator" was an exalted title reserved only for mature, seasoned journalists long after they earned the privilege of being invited into America's living rooms and kitchens.  

Your colleague, Dana Milbank, has recently demonstrated how easy it is for a newly minted "commentator" to ruin his credibility in search of celebrity.  I would like to believe that is a choice you would not endorse.  Fortunately, the SPJ Code of Ethics offers you a way out of this morass:

Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
Journalists should:
-- Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
-- Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
-- Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.

In that spirit, I suggest it is important for you and your reputation to promptly address the problems described in your recent column.   Accepting responsibility for your mistakes and taking affirmative actions to correct them represents the quickest way back to the high road.  Ignoring them or trivializing them risks damaging a reputation you have spent decades building.  The choice you make will determine which type of "commentator" you will be known as by informed readers in the future.    

Good luck and good night.


Tags: Barack Obama, campaign 2000, David Broder, Ethics, journalism, media accountability (all tags)


1 Comment

The "Dean" has been having trouble

keeping his skirts down lately.

"Broder's acceptance of speaking fees was an apparent violation of the paper's policy on outside speeches"

From old roundheels himself:

"I like Karl Rove. In the days when he was operating from Austin, we had many long and rewarding conversations. I have eaten quail at his table and admired the splendid Hill Country landscape from the porch of the historic cabin Karl and his wife Darby found miles away and had carted to its present site on their land."

by ReillyDiefenbach 2008-08-08 06:26AM | 0 recs


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