Holding the press accountable

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 13, 2003

If you are a surgeon or a stockbroker you can’t practice without a license, and if you make mistakes you can be disciplined by a professional review board. That’s not true for journalists, whose independence is protected by the First Amendment, so it’s very important that we police ourselves. Our customers have to be confident that when we make a mistake, we admit it and correct it.

In this spirit of accountability, we want to analyze three controversial decisions recently made by the news media. The first involves Robert Novak, the seasoned columnist and TV commentator. A Bush administration source leaked the name of Valerie Plame, a covert intelligence agent married to former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Novak, who published it last July.

Wilson had carried out an investigation for the CIA and concluded that there was no evidence supporting administration claims that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy nuclear material in Africa, and reported his findings in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed piece. Novak defends his naming of Plame as accurate and &uot;newsworthy,&uot; because Wilson’s wife’s job helps explain why Wilson, a partisan Democrat, was given such a sensitive assignment.

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The test for any journalistic decision is weighing the benefit against the cost, and the costs were high. Plame’s career was damaged and her contacts jeopardized. But readers received little benefit from learning her name, so the call is not even close. Novak was wrong to reveal her identity.

Still, we strongly support Novak’s decision to protect his source’s identity, even if that source committed a crime by blowing Plame’s cover. Guaranteeing confidentiality is a solemn journalistic obligation, and for good reason.

The second case involves the Los Angeles Times, which published two stories on the eve of the California recall election documenting more than a dozen complaints of sexual harassment against Arnold Schwarzenegger. Camp Arnold complained that the stories came too late for him to reply effectively, and that they might have been a Democratic plot.

Times editor John Carroll conceded that the timing was not ideal, but the stories were not published until the paper was sure it had convincing evidence of Arnold’s behavior. &uot;We put it in the paper on the very first day it was ready,&uot; he said.

Yes, politicians deserve a &uot;zone of privacy.&uot; But voters make choices based not just on speeches or policy positions, but also on character and temperament.

The final case involves radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, who served briefly as a football analyst for ESPN’s Sunday pre-game show. Limbaugh suggested on the air that the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated by the mainstream media because &uot;the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.&uot;

Limbaugh made his comment on ESPN, where a lot of listeners are not &uot;dittoheads,&uot; and in fact many found his position offensive. That was his mistake. But it was also ESPN’s mistake.

After his comments, ESPN fired Limbaugh and cloaked itself in righteous indignation. But they knew what they were getting when they hired him. They wanted him to be outrageous, they thought he would boost ratings, and he did.

Limbaugh was wrong to believe that the rest of America, beyond Dittoland, would accept his racially provocative rants. And ESPN was wrong to think that they could play with matches and not get burned.

Journalists and media outlets have a right to say or publish virtually anything. But with those rights come profound responsibilities. In our judgment, the L.A. Times used its rights wisely, while Novak, Limbaugh and ESPN did not.

Copyright 2003, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.