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MSM and The Los Angeles Times’ “Code of Ethics”

Friday, April 21, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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Howard Kurtz and Romenesko both note the Hiltzik story this morning, but neither has yet compared the conduct of Michael Hlitzik to the Los Angeles Times’ “Code of Ethics,” or asked whether the paper is conducting a review of all of the columnist’s columns and postings. And both neglected to note the irony of Hiltzik’s practices contrasted with ex-Times’ editor John Carroll’s sanctimonious denunciation of “pseudo-journalism” in May of 2004.

From the post below:

Reading the 1999 Times’ guidelines with an eye on Hiltzik’s deceptions:

The goal of the Los Angeles Times is to publish a newspaper of the highest quality. This requires The Times to be, above all else, a principled newspaper. Making it so is the responsibility of every staff member.

In deed and in appearance, journalists at The Times must keep themselves ‘” and the newspaper ‘” above reproach.

Good thing this is in the intro. No one takes intros seriously. If they did, “above reproach” would be the end of this exercise.

If you know of anything that might cast a shadow on the paper’s reputation, you are expected to inform a supervising editor.

I’m guessing the first the editors heard of this was from Patterico, not Hiltzik.

The standards outlined here apply to all editorial employees and to all work they produce for The Times, whether it appears in print, on television or on the Web.

All product alike.

A crucial goal of our news and feature reporting ‘” apart from editorials, columns, criticism and other content that is expressly opinionated ‘” is to be nonideological. This is a tall order. It requires us to recognize our own biases and stand apart from them.

You can’t really blame Hiltzik for disregarding this. When a rule is never enforced, it isn’t really a rule.

People who will be shown in an adverse light in an article must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. This means making a good-faith effort to give the subject of allegations or criticism sufficient time and information to respond substantively. Whenever possible, the reporter should meet face-to-face with the subject in a sincere effort to understand his or her best arguments.

Hmmm. Anonymous attacks makes this hard to do.

We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value.

Even when those sources are you.

Relying in print on unnamed sources should be a last resort, subject to the following guidelines:

When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving.

Uh oh.

Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks.

“Never” is such a difficult word.

An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and stories should state those reasons when they are relevant.

The reporter and editor must be satisfied that the source has a sound factual basis for his or her assertions. Some sources quoted anonymously might tend to exaggerate or overreach precisely because they will not be named.

Fear of the editors knowing is not a compelling reason.

Reporters should be extremely circumspect about how and where they store information that might identify an anonymous source. Many electronic records, including e-mail, can be subpoenaed from and retrieved by non-newsroom employees.

Not exactly best practices in this regard.

We live and work in a media environment suffused with hyperbole. It is The Times’ intention to stand distinctly apart from that world and speak straightforwardly to readers.

Fabrication of any type is unacceptable. We do not create composite characters. We do not use pseudonyms.

Well, not most of the time.

There may be instances when hyperbole or sarcasm are used for comic or literary effect. Columnists may use those devices to make a point, as may humorists. They should be employed with care.

Cue Jon Lovitz: “That’s the ticket!”

The Times expects its editorial staff to behave with dignity and professionalism. We do nothing while gathering the news that we would be ashamed to see in print or on television. We do not let the behavior of the pack set standards for us.

In general, we identify ourselves as staff members when covering news events.

This is where the Hiltzik minimalists want the inquiry to begin and end.

The emergence of blogs has created potential quandaries for staff members who want to express themselves through that medium. No matter how careful Times bloggers might be to distinguish their personal work from their professional affiliation with the paper, outsiders are likely to see them as intertwined. As a result, any staff member who seeks to create a personal blog must clear it with a supervisor; approval will be granted only if the proposed blog meets the paper’s journalistic standards. When approval is granted, staff members should take care not to write anything in their blogs that would not be acceptable in the newspaper. Staff members should observe the same principle when contributing to blogs other than their own.

Oops.

The Hiltzik deception pales in comparison’s to the paper’s statement of the problem posed by Hiltzik’s conduct compared to its “Code of Ethics.”

The good news for Hiltzik is that no penalties are laid out for breaches of the Code. The bad news for the Times is that its actions will set a precedent for future journalistic misconduct which will be of interest to any employee who believes he or she was treated disproportionately to the punishment, if any, given Hiltzik.

My recommendation: The paper should admit that their journalists are just polemicists who carry their opinions with them into battles they care deeply about. They are as biased as the day is long and getting longer. They aren’t objective, and never have been. They should admit that Hiltzik gave as good as he got, and that this whole Code of Ethics blarney forced him into absurd deceptions because his editors wouldn’t let him swing for the fences.

Let Hiltzik be Hiltzik, and come clean about the paper and its deep commitment to the left and the left’s agenda. It is ex-editor John Carroll who is the embarassment for spreading that piffle about pseudo-journalists versus the Times. Michael Hiltzik may be the most honest guy at the Times.

Give him back his blog and give up the absurd pretensions.

UPDATE:

StrangeMonkeyDoll reminds me of this portion of my December 2005 interview with Hiltzik:

HH: Okay. You think it’s trivial, but I think if you’d voted for every Democrat, and say you voted for Barbara Boxer three times, and Dianne Feinstein three times, that your readers would know that you’re a partisan Democrat. But that by refusing to answer that, you’re trying to conceal that in fact, you might be a partisan Democrat.

MH: My readers know exactly what I think about the issues of the day. And what I don’t write about, they can probably intuit from what I do write. They can tell…I don’t hide anything. If you’ve read my…

HH: You’re hiding things right now.

MH: No, no. The last thing I do is conceal what I think about what I’m writing about.

UPDATE: RogerLSimon comments:

There’s a possible irony in all this too. It may be that blogging is more the big leagues than the mainstream media. In blogging, you’re out here on your own. It takes self-discipline that is not as necessary in mainstream venues where you are (sometimes) back-stopped by editors and by the “reputation” of your journal (diminishing though that may be). Perhaps Hiltzik, a relative newcomer to the online world, was simply in over his head.

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