SOLOMON: Truth or Consequences for News Media
We like to think that journalists will pay a heavy price if they tell lies or promote deception. But it ain't necessarily so.Consider the case of former Newsweek writer Joe Klein.Throughout the first half of 1996, Klein denied that he was "Anonymous" -- the author of the hot new political novel Primary Colors. Klein's denials were frequent and vehement. But last summer, the world learned that he'd been lying the whole time.As this summer begins, Klein is riding high as Washington correspondent for the prestigious New Yorker magazine.Klein built his career largely by accusing inner-city blacks of "dependency" and "pathology." He often stereotyped them as dishonest. In retrospect -- considering his awesome display of dishonesty -- the ironies abound.A few days ago, I asked Klein whether those ironies had caused him to reassess the superior tone of his numerous articles that looked down on the moral standards of poor African Americans. He replied: "Are you out of your mind?"Klein wasn't the only Newsweek journalist implicated in the Anonymous subterfuge. The editor of the magazine, Maynard Parker, knew that Klein was the author of Primary Colors all along -- and stayed silent. In fact, Parker allowed his magazine to print misleading speculation about the author's identity.When his complicity came to light, Parker was unrepentant. He urged critics to "get a life."Today, Maynard Parker is still the editor of Newsweek. And though Joe Klein took a great deal of flak from colleagues, he told me that his exit from the magazine last November was purely voluntary: "I quit." Without any delay, Klein was comfortably ensconced at The New Yorker, covering politics.From the outset of his Anonymous gambit (calculated to hike book sales), Klein might have guessed that he wasn't risking much. For comfort, he may have thought of columnist George Will.Will is "perhaps the most powerful journalist in America," according to the Wall Street Journal. But back in October 1980, Will skated over some very thin ice when he went on ABC's "Nightline" to praise Ronald Reagan's "thoroughbred performance" in a crucial debate with incumbent President Jimmy Carter.There was something that Will didn't mention. He had helped coach Reagan for that debate -- and had read Carter's briefing materials stolen from the White House.Will's devious role remained a secret for years. When it finally surfaced, other journalists politely chided him and dropped the subject. Instead of slumping, Will's career gained star quality."What brought him to outer space was exactly the thing many thought would bring him down: coaching Reagan," observed Jeff Greenfield of ABC News. "To the skill and style he'd always had, it added the insider magic."Perhaps few journalists have outdone Klein and Will for brazen duplicity. But many of America's eminent news reporters make a habit of presenting deceptive claims from government sources as credible.Predictably, a lot of Washington-based journalists with long experience in misleading the public have denounced the San Jose Mercury News series that linked the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras with the spread of crack cocaine in the United States during the early 1980s.In recent weeks -- ever since the top editor at the Mercury News, Jerry Ceppos, wrote a column backing away from some aspects of the series -- we've heard plenty of media pieties about how the series failed to include more than one interpretation of facts. Yet news pages and broadcasts often contain just one limited interpretation -- drawn from official sources.Late last month, an article by veteran journalist Daniel Schorr in the Christian Science Monitor put the uproar in perspective. Usually no maverick, Schorr stepped out of the media herd this time, writing that "big newspapers lost sight of the fact that Ceppos had said the series was right on many important points."Schorr went against the prevalent trashing of a courageous, truth-seeking journalist: "Odd man out in this controversy is investigative reporter Gary Webb, the hard-working author of the series. He was left to twist in the wind while the press glorified his editor for having some second thoughts about the explosive articles."Meanwhile, Joe Klein isn't twisting in any wind. Neither is George Will. And neither are the journalists who never tell lies -- but pass them along from official sources and avoid the risks of telling hard truths.