Journalism 101

Glenn Greenwald and other liberals in the blogosphere have been criticizing respected Time reporter Joe Klein for writing a piece about attempts to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that had a few minor factual errors and accused the Democrats of giving "terrorists the same legal protections as Americans." Time's Managing Editor Rick Stengel eventually responded to the criticism by appending a "correction" to the piece that said, "In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would allow a court review of individual foreign surveillance targets. Republicans believe the bill can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don't." That should have ended the controversy right there, but Greenwald persisted, writing, "All Time can say about this matter is that Republicans say one thing and Democrats claim another. Who is right? Is one side lying? What does the bill actually say, in reality? That's not for Time to say. After all, they're journalists, not partisans." Now, like Joe Klein, I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right, but I do know a little something about journalism since I once saw All the President's Men and I worked on my high school newspaper, so I think it would be helpful if bloggers knew the 20 basic "Rules of Journalism" so that they won't pester Joe Klein and other professional journalists too much about journalistic ethics in the future. If any real journalists think I've written something that is inaccurate, let me know and I'll just append a correction way down at the end of the post or delete the inaccuracy altogether and hopefully no one will notice.

The Rules of Journalism

1. Journalists must be completely objective. This is the most important rule of journalism. Objectivity means not having any opinion or feelings whatsoever no matter what the circumstances. This rule was best expressed in a line I recently quoted from Washington Post columnist David Broder, the dean of American journalism, about his response President Kennedy's assassination: "As an ordinary man, I wanted leave the scene, hide somewhere, and weep," Broder said. "But I managed to calm myself and to report the event in the most objective way." As I explained in my earlier piece, "Broder refused to take sides after the President was killed. Was he for the assassination or against it? It was impossible to tell from his reporting. No matter what his personal feelings might have been, as a reporter he had to be objective when it came to whether killing Kennedy was a good thing or a bad thing."

2. There are two sides to every story and a journalist must give both sides equal weight even if he or she knows one side is completely false. Weighing one side against the other violates a journalist's objectivity. (See Rule No. 1.)

3. The only exception to Rules 1 and 2 is that during wartime journalists must be patriotic and not write anything that might undermine the government or the war effort or lower morale. Wearing a flag pin on one's lapel is a good way to demonstrate you are adhering to this rule. Reporters should always remember that they are Americans first, journalists second and human beings third.

4. Because most journalists are liberals, they have to bend over backwards to consider the conservative viewpoint in their articles so that it all evens out in the end. (See Rule No. 1.)

5. If you criticize a Republican you must also criticize a Democrat. If you criticize President Bush, you must also criticize President Clinton.

6. If both liberals and conservatives criticize you, that must mean you are doing something right. If moderates criticize you, too, it probably means that they are leaning one way or the other and aren't really moderate at all. The more people who say you are wrong, the more objective, and hence right, you are. (See Rule No. 1.)

7. Journalists should avoid using anonymous sources unless those sources have a reasonable fear of retribution or have political agendas that would be compromised if their identities were revealed or if refusing to grant them anonymity would limit the journalist's access and give his or her competitors an unfair advantage, which could damage the journalist's career.

8. Journalists must always protect their anonymous sources no matter what those sources' agendas might be and even if those sources misled them or were using them to get back at a political opponent. As Richard Cohen has pointed out, using journalists to publish leaks to assassinate the character of an anonymous source's political opponents is a time-honored tradition and the life-blood of Washington journalism. A journalist's job is to facilitate what Cohen calls "the dark art of Washington politics" not pass judgment on it, which would compromise his or her objectivity. (See Rule No. 1.)

9. Rule No. 8 is so important that journalists should be willing to go to jail to protect anonymous sources, unless someone pressures those sources to sign a waiver or the reporter thinks going to jail would just be too much of a hardship to endure. Besides, you can't do any reporting when you are in jail.

10. Journalists should be as accurate as possible, but sometimes there is not enough time to dot every i and cross every t. Getting the story first is more important than getting it completely right because mistakes can always be fixed with "Corrections" in very small print in another edition, in online "updates" or buried in the "Letters to the Editor" section, which no one ever reads.

11. Journalists should not give money to any political campaigns, participate in any political activities or even vote. Former ABC political director Mark Halperin and Washington Post editor Len Downie don't vote, which is why they are so trustworthy and so respected by other journalists. Just as Catholic priests give up sex, journalists should give up their right to participate in the political process so that they will not have to think too much about whether one side or another is correct. Thinking too hard threatens their objectivity. (See Rule No. 1.)

12. Journalists should not censor a story unless the government or a big advertiser asks them to.

13. Because space in newspapers and magazines is limited there is no room for ideas that are too far out of the mainstream or that challenge the conventional wisdom unless the ensuing controversy would sell more papers or magazines.

14. Plagiarism is strongly discouraged and anyone caught plagiarizing should be fired immediately and never be allowed to work as a journalist again, unless they are prominent or distinguished or a close personal friend of the editor and have a really good explanation, in which case they should be given a second chance or even a third.

15. What someone says is not so important as how they said it, what they were wearing when they said it, or their body language. As long as the details are accurate, it makes no difference how trivial those details are. Journalists should just report the facts, especially facts that give their story "color," and not worry about how important those facts are. (See Rule No. 1.)

16. Reporting on people's personal lives should be avoided unless the Drudge Report or the National Enquirer has already written about it, in which case you can report that they reported on it, which is not the same as reporting on it yourself.

17. Every prominent person should be assumed to be not gay unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary or they are dead, and usually not even then.

18. Victims of sexual crimes should never be named, but those accused of sexual crimes should be named even if their reputations are ruined because they probably wouldn't have been arrested if they weren't guilty of something. Shaming people accused of sexual crimes on television is a good way to discourage other people from committing such crimes, even if it leads to unfortunate consequences.

19. Ruining people's lives is generally frowned upon and should be avoided if at all possible unless the public has a right to know. A journalist must be completely dispassionate and not worry too much about the impact of the story they are writing on the people they are writing about or on the world in general as that would compromise their objectivity. (See Rule No. 1.)

20. If someone criticizes a journalist's reporting, especially if it is a blogger, the best response is to dig in one's heels and deny there is a problem, attack the critic as biased, concede a minor point or claim the criticism itself is trivial. A journalist must defend his or her credibility at all costs because without credibility, a journalist is no journalist at all.

Crossposted at Jon Swift

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