A lesson in humility

In recent weeks, the debate over the imprisonment of Judith Miller has crystallized into a fierce disagreement between those who are content to see her punished for unrelated sins -- i.e. her reporting on non-existent WMDs -- and the many, especially in the media, who see it as a constitutional travesty. In some ways, the Miller affair serves as an "identity test," where those who view themselves as members of the media are more inclined to support her cause than those who come at it as ordinary citizens.

And that split may in fact point to the greater moral of this unhappy affair. A moral that was summed up in today's San Francisco Chronicle:

"The willingness of prosecutors to prosecute journalists has changed dramatically in recent years,'' said Charity Kenyon, a Sacramento media attorney for nearly 30 years. "It seems reflective of the general public attitude that freedom of the press is not a protection that is critical to the success of our democracy. If you look at polls, people have said they view freedom of the press as not as important as the press would like to think.''
In part, that's because the media have undermined their own credibility by repeated ethical lapses, observers say.
"I'm not sure that the public sees Judith Miller as having anything to do with them at all,'' said Aly Colon, an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "The press frankly has not done a very good job communicating what it does and why it does the job of standing up for the public.''
What the polls show, in fact, is that most Americans do not think that the media "stands up" for their interests -- and no one is to blame for that sorry situation except the journalists themselves. Since the Watergate era, journalists -- especially at the national level -- have developed an exalted self-image of themselves as guardians of democracy, even as they have refused to subject themselves to any standard of public accountability. In other words, we want all the constitutional rights accorded to us, but none of the duties.

Take, for example, what happens when a smear campaign destroys a political candidacy by creating a media feeding frenzy. When the din subsides, most reporters are quick to blame everyone -- the politicians (most often the victim for being a 'wimp'), the state of politics, and, yes, even voters -- except themselves. This refusal to take any measure of responsibility -- beyond a minor and fleeting bout of hand-wringing -- sends the perhaps unintended message that serving the public good is not part of the media's job description.

The coverage of the invasion of Iraq has unsuprisingly eroded the credibility of the mainstream press with the political left. While many progressives are angry, most of us simply feel bewildered and, worse, powerless.

Susan Taylor of the St. Petersburg Times recently called me as a source for an article on anger among progressives over the lack of media coverage of the Downing Street Memos.
Here's a rough paraphrase of one of her questions: Isn't it true that a lot of the information in the memos was already out there?

My response: Okay, so the newspapers didn't put that information on the front page before the invasion because it was considered partisan or ideological. And now that it's proven fact, the same editors don't want to put it on the front page because supposedly we knew it was true all along. Here's my question: What does it take to get that information on Page One? Just explain the rules to me because I don't get it.

The truth is that I really don't get it any more -- and I'm a journalist. So I can only imagine the confusion amongst the reading public, irrespective of their political affiliations.

Journalists are peculiar creatures who serve as employees of a private entity, and yet are afforded protections as members of a public institution, i.e. the free press. And in recent years, many journalists have behaved more as paid professionals rather than public servants in the sense that they've been ruled by the norms set by their industry and peers than the needs of the American people.

This detachment from their democratic role has at times expressed itself as outright contempt for the public. Here's an example. Last month, Washington Post's Dana Milbank got into a pissing match with Democrats.com over one of his articles, where he referred to a certain set of lefty activists as "wing nuts." The details of this ugly incident and Milbank's own impeccable credentials as a reporter aside, what shocked me was Milbank's response to his paper's own ombudsman:
While you have been within your rights as ombudsman over the past five years to attempt to excise any trace of colorful or provocative writing from the Post, you are out of bounds in asserting that a columnist cannot identify as 'wingnuts' a group whose followers have long been harassing this and other reporters and their families with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech.
Take note of Milbank's blatant lack of respect for the role of the ombudsman, whose job -- as defined by ONO -- is to receive and investigate "complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports." In an almost entirely self-regulated industry, the ombudsman is the one person within a news organization who represents the idea of public accountability. Milbank's characterization of his role speaks volumes for his disregard for that very idea.

It's clear that the national press corps today seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of a democracy: public support its constitutional rights is inextricably linked to its willingness to serve the public good. As the Judith Miller case shows, we ignore that connection at our own peril. All Americans should be worried about the very real threat posed by her incarceration. But journalists should worry a lot more. Issuing dire warnings to the public -- a la Newsweek's Jonathan Alter -- doesn't excuse us from the unpleasant but necessary task of doing some honest-to-god soul-searching.

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