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Will MSM Circle the Wagons Round Their Pulitzer Prize Winner? Or Come Clean At Last?

Thursday, April 20, 2006  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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[I have updated this post with a close examination of the Times’ “Code of Ethics,” (dated in 1999, but clearly updated as it refers to “blogs”) as found on the web by Independent Sources. Scroll down to locate that analysis.]

LAObserved scoffs at my invocation of Janet Cooke, another Pultizer Prize winning deceiver. Fine. But Kevin, what exactly is the offense in both cases? Deception of the paper’s readers, right? At what unwritten point does the offense go from small to medium to big? This is where perhaps lawyer-journalists are more severe than mere journalists, and more rigorous about ethics. Small, medium and large lies all undermine credibility, as to lie about small matters is almost certainly to lie about large ones.

What ex-Times editor John Carroll thundered against in his condemnation of pseudo-journalism was deceiving readers. The Hiltzik offense is deception, nothing else. Fraud. Carroll’s piece was titled “The Wolf in Reporter’s Clothing: The Rise of Pseudo-Journalism in America”

I wonder if some energetic MSMer will track down Carroll to get his reaction to his legacy at the Times?

And are the Times’ guidelines written down somewhere? I requested them hours ago but have not received a response. Independent Sources points to this 1999 document, but I can’t be sure it is the controlling document. (Independent Sources also buys into the characterization of the Hiltzik offense as failure to identify oneself as a Timesman as opposed to the knowing publication of false and misleading material in the Times. I’ll look at the 1999 guidelines with both issues in mind.)

There is no misdemeanor/felony distinction when it comes to a news organization’s credibility. Either you are an organization that insists on honesty and can be trusted to report just the facts, or just the opinions in their true voice, or you can’t be trusted.

You can’t trust Hiltzik, and his deception in this matter is the same as every deception by every reporter who has misled readers who rely on journalists to honestly state their view of the facts and opinions.

So the only question is whether the Times is an honest organization.

I won’t be holding my breath to see if any MSMers call Hiltzik on this, and don’t expect any ringing denunciations from the Spring Street gang –the guild will kick in, because there are just too many past incidents that a lifer at the Times will know the particulars about.

One additional correction to LAObserved’s post. Michael Hiltzik isn’t my nemisis. I hadn’t heard of him until a few months ago, and after a couple of exchanges, judged him –accurately– as not a serious participant in the debates of the day, and uniquely mean spirited, especially towards women. Any political or journalistic opponent of mine has got to have an audience and influence, of the real sort, not the Harvey category.

And even then I wouldn’t feel any deep personal hostility towards such an opponent, or desire for revenge.

Like many on the left, Hiltzik’s style of writing is poisoned, and qualitatively different from media critics from the center-right or the conservative polemicists I admire and cite.

If Hiltzik had a nemesis, it was himself. If he had a parallel force on the right, that would be….well, you decide.

UPDATE:

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: You have got to read Ace, and especially the comments. Hiltzik deserves at least parole for the amusement he has brought us all.

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