The good, the bad and the in-between

In this age of instant communication, innuendos travel fast and seem to have universal appeal. The term “presstitute” has travelled all the way from New Delhi to Cincinnati in the U.S. A field report by Politico ’s Ben Schreckinger was disturbing: “As the Republican nominee has resorted to more extreme denunciations of the press in recent days, his supporters have followed suit. Chants of ‘CNN sucks’ have become commonplace at Trump’s rallies this week and members of the travelling press were called ‘whores’ and ‘press-titutes’ as they filed out of a Thursday afternoon rally in West Palm Beach.” This raises some fundamental questions. Is the media a monolith? What distinguishes a responsible media organisation from its sensationalist sibling? Is it fair to shoot the messenger if the message is bad?

A concurrent reading of four developments over the last fortnight — a Nobel Prize announcement, a new series in Columbia Journalism Review titled “Media in the Age of Trump”, the retirement of an excellent reporter who used tried and tested methods for his investigations, and a court conviction of another reporter who adopted means that were neither fair nor ethical — seems to provide answers to these questions.

There was wide coverage of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2012, a promising young writer, Jonah Lehrer, of The New Yorker magazine used Bob Dylan’s iconic status to manufacture quotes. His book, Imagine: How Creativity Works , was released with much expectation in 2012. However, The Tablet magazine soon revealed that Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes of Bob Dylan. After an initial denial, Mr. Lehrer accepted that he had indeed lied, and had to quit The New Yorker. His publishers pulled out the book from the shelves. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker , issued a statement: “This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”

At a deeper level, Bob Dylan represents an inspiring American public discourse, which includes Edward Murrow’s powerful television shows, the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate investigations. “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it,” said Mr. Murrow while exposing Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. The Columbia Journalism Review is exploring how that vibrancy gave way to Donald Trump. In the first article of the series, Lee Siegel argues that the present phase “is without historical analogy, and therefore without precedents to navigate by.” According to him, the reach of the Internet and the spread of social media have created a situation where entertainment masquerades as information. Mr. Siegel’s conclusion is rather chilling: “It is long past time to stop covering the culture as a click-baiting set of diversions, and to start seeing it for what it has become: the breeding ground for a growing political malaise. The Apprentice , it turns out, was a political event.”

Nick Davies, The Guardian reporter who meticulously investigated and wrote about, between July 2009 and July 2011, the phone hacking journalism practised by Rupert Murdoch’s News of The World (NOTW), retired after 40-plus years of excellent journalism. The Leveson Inquiry that looked at the culture, practice and ethics of the press was a direct result of Mr. Davies’s work. He was one of the earliest media commenters to warn about the methods adopted by NOTW’s star investigative reporter, Mazher Mahmood, who called himself ‘Fake Sheikh’ and often used subterfuge as a journalistic tool. Early last week, Mr. Mahmood was convicted by a British court for tampering with evidence in the collapsed trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos.

An interesting piece of information that was cited at the Leveson Inquiry provides the yardstick that separates a respectable publication from a popular rag. It was an article by Michael Williams, the former news editor of The Sunday Times , for the British Journalism Review . Mr. Williams wrote: “I summarily dismissed a reporter [Mazher Mahmood] who was caught trying to cover his mistakes by offering a financial bribe to the staff in the newspaper computer room to falsify his copy... Shortly afterwards he went seamlessly on to a senior job at our sister paper, the News of the World, where his ‘scoops’ were celebrated. This autumn he was re-hired by The Sunday Times as an ‘undercover reporter’. All corporate memory of scandal had been erased.” Even the conviction did not pose any ethical and moral dilemma for his employers. The Financial Times report read: “Mahmood’s employer News UK, which owns The Sun , the newspaper for which Mahmood was working at the time of the sting on Ms. Contostavlos, said it was ‘disappointed by the news’ of his conviction.”

The response of The New Yorker to Mr. Lehrer’s fabricated quotes and News UK’s response to Mr. Mahmood’s conviction give us an idea about different ethical standards within the news media environment. It is unfair to use “media” as an umbrella term to denote all news organisations. One way to break the ‘hold-all’ term blackening the entire profession is to have a proper media beat in our daily coverage. While it covers the other three estates rather extensively, the media’s coverage of its own affairs as the fourth estate is minimal. For instance, this newspaper carried a very strong editorial, “Media, where is thy sting?” in 2012 on L’affaire Naveen Jindal versus Zee network. After four years, we still have no clue about the status of the investigation.


While it covers the other three estates rather extensively, the media’s coverage of its own affairs is minimal

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