There is certain to be much soul-searching in newspapers everywhere following the exposure of a fabricated story that won a Pulitzer prize. The infuential Washington Post, which published the story about an 8-year-old heroin addict and submitted it for the coveted award, no doubt feels the embarrassment most keenly. But editors all across the counttry are examining their own standards, reflecting on whether they have on occasion failed to keep laxness and dishonesty from creeping into the profession of journalism.
The self-examination is important. It is no secret that the American public in general is critical of the press. Polls in recent years have shown journalism, like government and other institutions, losing public confidence. Yet the press is supposed to be -- and usually ism -- the watchdog and guardian of the nation's democratic way of life. If the news media have lost credibility with the public, this is a sad state of affairs which ought to concern every member of society. The nation needs a strong press. It also needs a responsible one. The fiassco of the "Jimmy" story merely underscores the obligation of newspapers and broadcasters to ask constantly: Are we accurate? Are we fair? Are we ojbective? Are we fulfilling our First Amendment rights responsibly -- or are we misuing them by coloring the truth in order to complete better?
It migt be said, however, that the press does not operate lin a moral vacuum. No less than any othe institution, it deals with the general attitudes of society. And while it may seek to help shape attitudes in constructive, informative, enlightened directions, it can also be the victim of slipped ethical standards and what seems to be the growing trend toward mental manipulation.
How much truth-telling is there in society at large? how much integrity in government, the business world, even religious institutions? How often is the truth shaded in the interest of entertainment, profit or personal ambition? One need not go far to descern the extent to which falsehood and fabrication are part and parcel of everyday life.
Think of the ubiquitous world of advertising, for instance, which inculates in adults and children alike the notion of a utopian life if they but use the right deodorant or eat the right cereal food.
Think of the shabby entertainment fare on television and in films which glorify the "thrills" of violence, horror, sex -- or, at the other end of the scale, prettify life unrealistically. Today many people must wonder where reality lies, so blurred has become the line between falsehood and truth, between fact and fantasy, between manipualation and freedom of thought.
Evem broadcast news reporting too often has fallen into the trap of shallow and deceptive entertainment.
It is the whole climate of society that needs wortking on. Parents should be asking how really honest they are with their children, or teachers with their students, or corporate executives with their stockholders, or government officals and politicians with the public. To the extent that falsehood is practiced --whether a petty cheating one's income tax, or an exaggeration of damages on an insurance claim, or a blatant fraud -- it all adds harmfully to the tone and quality of society, draggign it downward. If individuals tolerate dishonesty in their own lives, can they logically expect their intitutions to manifest integrety?
To say all this is not to call into question the basic integrity of America's citlizenry and institutions. It was, after all, honesty and con science which brought to light the hoax of the "Jimmy " story. Americans do care about the truth and about probity in private and public life. These do not come for the mere wishing of them, however. They come from hard work , from a commitment to those profound moral and spiritual principles which regenerate human nature and which, when lived, keep society truthful individually and collectively.
The press, in short, cannot be absolved of its accountability for truth-telling. Neither can the public