Media continue shooting themselves in the feet

Janet Cooke, a young Washington Post reporter, wrote a story in 1981 that rocked D.C. “Jimmy’s World,” the tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict, won the Pulitzer Prize and caused an uproar among those concerned about child welfare and a rampant epidemic of drugs in the city. Washington residents, horrified by the story and touched by Jimmy’s plight, demanded that city officials take action.
A search began to find Jimmy. When city officials started looking, questions arose about Cooke’s story. After an investigation and questioning by Post editors, Cooke admitted the story and Jimmy were fabrications and many of the impressive details on her rÇsumÇ about her education and previous experience were lies.
The Post returned the Pulitzer and Cooke left journalism in disgrace. The aftermath of this incident continues to reverberate in journalistic circles. Symposia have revolved around the incident, and Cooke is a classic case study in journalism ethics and reporting classes.
I think about Cooke often these days, in light of the news of major misconduct by journalists in recent weeks. A number of newspaper, magazine and television reporters have admitted or been accused of lying, stealing information or reporting allegations without sufficient facts.
This epidemic of unethical behavior began in May with the news that hotshot magazine journalist Stephen Glass wrote a number of articles for the New Republic in which he made up sources and organizations and described events that never occurred. Glass, a former fact checker for the magazine, was able to falsify at least 27 stories before being discovered. Glass’ contract with the magazine was terminated.
Then Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith admitted making up people and quotes for her metro column. Smith resigned from the newspaper.
The Cincinnati Enquirer paid a multi-million dollar settlement to Chiquita Brands International Inc. and printed a front page apology in June in order to avoid being sued over a series of articles. The articles contained information stolen from company voice mails. Lead reporter on the series, Mike Gallagher, was fired.
Most recently, CNN retracted a story claiming the United States used deadly nerve gas on U.S. defectors during the Vietnam War. A network spokesman said the facts obtained by the investigative team did not support the conclusions of the story, which also appeared in Time magazine. Two producers were fired, a third resigned and lead reporter Peter Arnett was reprimanded.
Although few people are making outright excuses for this behavior, the 24-hour news cycle and increased competition for a dwindling audience are cited as reasons reporters are more likely than ever to cross the ethical line. This same reasoning is being used to justify the increased use of anonymous or second-hand sources, particularly in stories related to Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of President Clinton.
It’s difficult not to view these events as a slippery slope, with the journalistic profession careening toward a tree at lightening speed.
Charges of liberal or conservative bias, stereotyping or even vast conspiracy theories about the media can and should be addressed by those in the field. These are problems that can be fixed, given the will. But what’s been happening lately goes to the very core of what journalism is supposed to be about — telling the truth and printing facts.
When a few journalists disregard these basic tenets, every journalist is hurt. Reporters who lie seem to want the snappy quote, the perfect anecdote or the big scoop in order to hold on to readers or viewers and keep up with pseudo-journalists like Matt Drudge. But reporters who lie end up losing the very audience they were trying to keep. If people can’t trust the so-called reputable news sources, then they might as well get their news from gossipmongers on the Internet.
The one hopeful sign in this ugly trend is that all the reporters involved, except CNN’s Arnett, were either fired or resigned. One can only hope that this flurry of wrongdoing was a fluke and it won’t completely kill whatever public trust still exists in the news media.
Janet Cooke’s misconduct almost 20 years ago was seen as an aberration — a scandal. Today similar actions are becoming almost routine.
In 1996 Cooke tried unsuccessfully to re-enter journalism after barely making ends meet with her job behind a counter in a department store. An article about Cooke, written by a former boyfriend, was published in GQ and Cooke appeared on Nightline to offer herself up for public thrashing by Ted Koppel. Skepticism reigned and Cooke may still be selling scarves in Kalamazoo. I wonder if it will take Glass, Smith and Gallagher 15 years to attempt comebacks. It would be a shame if the profession has become so lax, or the public so uncaring, that any of these people’s bylines ever appear again.
Press coverage of these incidents has been fairly extensive. Whether it’s because of some deep-seated need for self-flagellation on the part of journalists or an attempt by reporters to distance themselves from wrongdoing by expressing horror is hard to say. Despite this coverage, I wonder if people outside the field are paying as much attention to these events as are journalists. Are readers stunned by them or do you think it’s business as usual in medialand?
Ethicists and journalism scholars have probably already started analyzing these cases, and will continue to for years, but I’d like to hear what you think. Do these incidents shock you or is it what you expect from the news media? Have these incidents made you cynical about the news?
Call, write or e-mail your thoughts about why these incidents occur and what they bode for the future of the news.

Melodie Bahan’s column appears on alternate Mondays. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 x3282.