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August 13, 2004

Journalistic ethics and Presidential politics

In general, there exists a presumption of ethical behavior.

If a person swears an affidavit, we presume it is true in the absence of evidence otherwise, because to swear falsely is unethical. If a doctor advocates a treatment regimen, we presume that he in good faith believes it is best, because he's sworn an oath of ethics. If a journalist writes a news story, we presume that it is unbiased, because journalistic ethics dictate so.

This presumption of ethical behavior becomes much weaker when the person has a clear motive to act unethically. We give much less weight to a person's sworn testimony about his own possibly criminal behavior, and we do not consider it ethical for a doctor to prescribe a treatment regimen for himself. What about journalists?

Several surveys have confirmed that most journalists are on the left side of the political spectrum. This cannot be disputed, and yet the existence of a liberal bias in the media is hotly disputed by those who claim that journalists who favor the election of a Democrat can still cover politics objectively.

Why should a journalist objectively cover a candidate he despises? Because of ethics. Part of the unwritten code of journalists is that stories that are not clearly marked as editorials should be unbiased. That's the way things are, and we should in general presume such.

Now, consider the current Presidential race.

If there's one campaign promise the President has failed to keep, it's his vow to be a "united, not a divider." The President has divided the country like it hasn't been in decades. This may or may not be his fault, but the politicos are far from united.

Many of those who support the President do so with an almost religious fervor, believing he is one of the greatest Presidents of history, and his defeat would be disastrous. And many of those who oppose him do so with an equal or greater fervor. These people, many of whom include very prominent Democratic politicians, pundits, and public personalities, have declared that if Bush is reelected (or elected, depending on the level of fervor involved), the country will be unrecognizable by the end of his second term, and far, far the worse. My father, a very intelligent man whom I love dearly, opposes Bush because he thinks it likely that the President will require so many more troops for Iraq that he will draft my 24-year-old brother.

Suppose you're about to sign an affidavit. This affidavit, while not really false, contains a few things that you know to be not exactly the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the affidavit will be used to prosecute someone you firmly believe with all your heart is a multiple child rapist/murderer. While it normally wouldn't be ethical to sign such an affidavit, in the circumstances wouldn't it be more unethical not to?

Suppose you're a doctor, sworn to do no harm to your patients. But this patient is terminally ill and in agonizing pain. He's clutched your sleeve and begged you to put him out of your misery. Could one not argue that to withhold the live-ending injection might be the unethical course in this case? Or at least that to give the injection isn't unethical by any reasonable standard?

Now suppose you're a journalist, and Hitler is running for re-election1. Could you really stomach your bile enough to cover him with a wholly objective eye? If Hitler did something embarrassing or made a verbal flub, could you be forgiven for being more likely to consider it "news" than if his opponent made a similar gaffe? If allegations of dishonorable behavior were raised against him by his political opponents, isn't it right that you pounce on them, investigate them to the best of your ability, and demand that Hitler produce exculpatory evidence? If even worse allegations of dishonorable behavior were raised against his opponent by Hitler's allies, would you question their motives, their funding, and their credibility?

The major news media have been objectively unobjective this campaign cycle. This is not a coincidence.

1 I believe Godwin's Law is obsolete.

August 13, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink


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