Thursday, May 01, 2008

The wrong will never be punished, the right will never be forgiven

...Part a billion in a series

You'd think there would only be so much room for horrible people who cast baseless slanders against their rivals, and certainly only so much room for people like that who share the same last name. But you'd be wrong. Jeffrey Goldberg, recent arrival at the Atlantic family of blogs (and one of the most egregious of the pro-war journalists in 2002) calls Ken Silverstein "ethically challenged". As Silverstein notes, if he's referring to anything at all, he's probably referring to Silverstein's Harper's piece where Silverstein pretended to be a representative from the autocracy of Turkmenistan and got Washington lobbyists to explain how they'd improve that country's image.

There's something much more important here, but first I want to deal with this issue: I don't think you would easily get a majority of journalists to agree that Silverstein's conduct in this case was unethical. I haven't done a poll or anything, but from the conversations I've had about Silverstein's piece, I'd bet that even if you got a majority to call it unethical, it would be a slim one. And many journalists I know would explicitly and loudly defend Silverstein's actions and tactics. What journalists really shouldn't do -- and this is j-school, day one -- is carelessly try to ruin someone's reputation. Like, if you're going to criticize someone's Iraq war coverage, you better bring evidence. And if you're going to call a critic ethically-challenged, you might want a consensus opinion about that, or a clear example of a broken policy. In this little spat between Silverstein and Goldberg, only one side has risen to the level of debate. Ahem.

But really, Goldberg (and I have to remember we're not talking about Jonah for once!) symbolizes everything that's wrong with American journalism today. Silverstein breached the formulaic straightjacket of journalistic ethics, but got at the truth. Nevertheless, he's "ethically challenged". Meanwhile, Goldberg checked off all the boxes for what you're supposed to do, but got his pre-war coverage disastrously wrong. (His commentary before the war was about as wrong as it's possible to be, but we're talking about his journalism here.) So Goldberg gets rewarded.

How about this for a standard: it is possible to bend, and even break the rules of journalism, but you have to get the story right -- you have to get the truth. (God help you if you don't.) And no amount of rule-following can excuse getting a story like "Saddam Hussein has WMDs and collaborates with terrorists, so we should invade" wrong.

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