Preach press ethics abroad, but practice them at home

I was in New York last week for a meeting of the board of directors o the International Center for Journalists, a nonprofit organization that promotes the cause of a strong and independent press and responsible press ethics in lands where there hasn't been much freedom of the press.

Volunteer American journalists are sent to countries in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia where journalists who are inexperienced, or have been suppressed, are enthusiastic about learning from journalists from a free society. There is also some return flow of journalists from these countries to American newspapers and television stations whose operations and procedures they can study.

It has been a successful two-way program. The resolve and techniques of many journalists in disadvantaged areas has been strengthened. American reporters and editors, for their part, have come to be more sensitive to the problems and needs of the press in troubled areas of the world.

Most of ICFJ's board members are journalists, and, as is often the case when journalists get together in formal professional meetings, the gossip in the corridors was at least as intriguing as board-room discussion.

Corridor debate focused on two grave current lapses and one perceived lapse of journalistic ethics at home in the US.

The first of the two lapses about which there was no doubt, and unanimous disgust, was the plagiarism and journalistic fraud of a New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, the subject of an extraordinary five-page Sunday New York Times mea culpa. Over an extended period, Mr. Blair falsified interviews, made up quotes, and lied about his whereabouts.

The second was the sale for $20,000 by two Salt Lake Tribune reporters, Kevin Cantera and Michael Vigh, of fallacious information on the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case to the National Enquirer. Upon threat of legal action, the Enquirer was obliged to publish an abject apology, the reporters were fired, and their editor, Jay Shelledy resigned. As this took place at the newspaper of our competitor in the city of my residence, I was pressed for details.

The third issue for considerable discussion was the sale by reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of their Watergate notes, memos, story drafts, transcripts, and other papers to the University of Texas at Austin for $5 million. On this, opinion was not unanimous. One of our board members took a rough poll which at last report was running 80 percent critical of the sale and 20 percent approving. Those uncomfortable with the sale ranged from thinking it "tacky," to the view that the papers were probably the property of the Washington Post, rather than the reporters who covered the story on the newspaper's time.

Thousands of honest journalists across the US are not guilty of the above ethical lapses, real or perceived. But all journalists are in danger of being stained, and the credibility of their news organizations questioned, by unethical journalistic behavior.

It is hardly helpful to our preaching of high standards of journalistic ethics abroad when some of our own colleagues at home are not practicing them.

I was struck by the irony of the situation when we focused at our ICFJ meeting on a position paper outlining the challenges confronting journalists in Afghanistan as they struggle to produce a respectable press after Soviet occupation and Taliban repression. The most common ethical violations are plagiarism,conflict of interest and nepotism, failure to distinguish opinion from fact, reliance solely on government sources, self-censorship of power, abuse by warlords and officials, and corruption at all levels of government and society.

Such challenges are not peculiar to Afghanistan. They are found in backward countries where bribery of journalists is endemic and a means of economic survival. Such challenges will plague us in Iraq as we seek to establish a free press, which many of us believe to be the cornerstone of democracy.

In the US, we already enjoy a free press. In other countries, journalists are still fighting for this, sometimes at terrible cost, even the loss of their lives. That's why the defiling of it in the US by such tawdry ethical lapses is particularly unworthy.

This is not the kind of journalism that most American journalists practice. They're ashamed of it. It is not the kind of journalism they suggest others, who may admire America from afar, subscribe to.

John Hughes, a former Monitor editor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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