Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Style over substance

Posted by Craig Westover | 4:51 PM |  

The Elder over at Fraters Libertas wonders if he’s way off base believing that three-day suspensions of two St. Paul Pioneer Press investigative reporters for attending the John Kerry “Vote for Change Concert” isn’t going a bit far. No worry, Elder. You’re right on. He writes --

Yes, "Vote for Change" was a political event. And yes, reporters are duty bound to maintain their "political neutrality" (snicker). But c'mon, it's a concert. Do you really believe that just because Laszewski and Linsk were grooving to Springsteen and Stipe they are now tainted with bias? Most readers will make judgments on the integrity and objectivity of journalists based on what they write, not on what concerts they attend.

Besides all these ethics rules really do is give journalists ammo to disclaim any bias on their part, as Nick Coleman did when he crowed that he didn't have political signs in his yard and hadn't given money to candidates. Coleman used his dherence to the ethics rules as proof that he was political neutral. Just because you're not allowed to openly display your biases does not mean that they don't exist, as anyone who's read Coleman's columns can attest to.

Pioneer Press editor Vicki Gowler did issue a memo on Sept. 27, the week before the concert, advising staff that “our ethics policy prevents you from engaging in activities that would be a conflict with your employment,” including “concerts that are held as political fundraisers.”

So if the two reporters are being suspended for violating a known rule, all well and good. But one still has to consider the rule itself. The Newspaper Guild is, but after the fact.

Although the Newspaper Guild is contesting the suspensions, it appears that the two reporters read the memo and decided it did not apply to them. The union is contending that a fundraising concert "doesn't meet the definition of conflict of interest" outlined in the union's contract. "The application of this discipline is so broad that the company could decide that people couldn't do any number of things that they're entitled to do in their spare time."

But all that legal rhetoric, as The Elder points out, merely camouflages an illusion that journalists -- or bloggers -- are unbiased. If a journalist can work a beat for years and not learn who tells the truth and who slings the bull and who’s making sense and who’s rambling incoherently, then, I submit, he’s not much of a journalist. And I’d further submit that if he doesn't let that bias for truth show because he sees his job as providing balance, then he’s not providing much of a reader service either.

The Elder is right -- this is another case of style over substance where avoiding the appearance of sin is more significant than the sin itself. I agree with him --

I for one would much rather have journalists be open about what their true beliefs are, rather than hiding behind the facade of journalistic ethics. You disclose, we decide.

BTW -- It’s interesting that this story broke in “the enemy paper.”