Category Archives: Ethics

Charlie Hebdo haunts the media

When Islamist gunmen killed 10 journalists and two policemen in January at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine firebombed in 2011 for its irreverent cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, media reaction to the massacre immediately after was best summed up by the headline of an article in Reason magazine: “I’m all for free speech and murder is wrong, but…”

In much of the media the “but” trumped admiration and respect for the slain journalists’ insistence that religions, along with other institutions and ideas, can and should be mocked and laughed at.

Now, five months and three Charlie Hebdo-related events later, the media remain as divided about the meaning of the slaughter in Paris as they were in January. Too, media are as uncomfortable in dealing with and justifying their coverage and stance expressed in their reports and analyses.

Typical of the hostility toward Hebdo and its band of satirists were the sentiments of National Public Radio’s former ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in an interview with the Washington Examiner. He labeled the magazine’s Muhammad cartoons “intentionally provocative form of hate speech that are undeserving of protection,” and slammed First Amendment “fundamentalists” who mistakenly suggest that the United States has “absolute freedom of the press.”

He added that he didn’t know “if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution,” unaware that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. As Eugene Volokh, professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law pointed out on his blog (the Volokh Conspiracy) in the Washington Post: “hateful ideas are as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.”

There are narrow exceptions, which primarily relate to speech leading to immediate incitement or creating a hostile workplace environment, but “hate speech” has no “fixed legal meaning under U.S. law,” Volokh notes.

None of that stopped a barrage of media attacks on Hebdo, calling the killing of its staff members not excusable or justifiable, but perhaps quite “understandable.” As blogger Kitty Striker wrote, Hebdo’s “racist, homophobic language is not satire. I think it’s abusive, and I think it punches down, harshly and often.”

Facts rarely interfered with the hits on Hebdo. A piece on the Daily Beast pointed out what French scholars discovered; namely that “in the last decade just seven of Charlie Hebdo’s 523 covers dealt with Islam.” And as one of the magazine’s supporters, Dominique Sopo, Togolese president of SOS-Racism (France’s most celebrated anti-racism organization) tried to explain: “Every week, half of Charlie Hebdo was against racism, against anti-Semitism, against anti-Muslim hatred.”

What the magazine was really about was lost in the hullaballoo and outrage over the Muhammad cartoons, or it was dismissed, as on the left-wing website Counterpunch as an “extended adolescent revolt.”

Not surprisingly, among U.S. media, the New York Times, CNN, NBC, MSNBC and the Associated Press refused to publish any of the Muhammad cartoons. The Times said it does not publish materials that “offend the religious sensibilities” of its readers, but did not inform them which of their sensibilities, if any, it was OK to offend.

Media organizations publishing one or several of the cartoons included the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, Bloomberg, HuffingtonPost, Daily Beast and the New York Post.

Our paper of record is unwilling or unable to understand what M.G. Oprea, writing in the Federalist magazine, understands so well: “Freedom of expression is worthless if it excludes speech that offends someone.”

Coverage of Charlie Hebdo, Michael Cavna observed in the Washington Post, “pulled and polarized media on opposite sides of a kinetic dividing line.” Five months after the slaughter in Paris, posthumous publication of a book by Charlie Hebdo’s editor, exposed that dividing line once again.

On April 16 the New York Times ran a story on its website about “Open Letter to the Fraudsters of Islamophobia Who Play Into Racists’ Hands,” Stephane Charbonnier’s book (only in French, so far) and headlined the story “Book by Slain Charlie Hebdo Editor Argues Islam Is not Exempt From Ridicule.”

The headline apparently did not sit well with some editors, fearful of giving offense, so the headline of the same story in next day’s print edition read: “With Posthumous Book, Charlie Hebdo Editor Proves Defiant in Death.”  Excerpts from the book, which ran in the weekly newsmagazine L ‘Obs, show him more thoughtful than defiant: “The problem is neither the Quran nor the Bible,” he wrote, “sleep-inducing, incoherent and badly written novels. The problem is the faithful, who read the holy books like instructions for assembling Ikea shelves.”

The media, in America and abroad, chose to ignore his broadside at all fundamentalist faith and blasted away at his attacks on those of his targets who misunderstood or deliberately misstated the magazine’s satire: “Charlie Hebdo editor attacks liberals from the grave,” shouted London’s Times. Britain’s Telegraph saw the book as a “posthumous attack on left-wing French intellectuals.” And our own NPR saw “Islamophobia” as the book’s main target of attack.

Much of the coverage ignored one target, the one exposed by Matt Welch on April 17 in Reason: “He (Charbonnier) pillories the unquestioning use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ by some journalists either out of laziness or commercial interest.”  The Washington Post stood out for also exploring the book’s condemnation of “journalists, politicians and others, whom he accused of using fear of Islam for their own purposes.”  The paper earned plaudits for quoting Chardonnier’s words: “The problem is not religions, but those who practice and distort them.”

Reading the excerpts available might have brought journalists closer to understanding what Hebdo’s satire, following is about. Charlie Hebdo was seen in France as  “the scourge of post-fascist (French) political party Front National, the enemy of Papists, cheerful anti-racist activist, fellow-traveler of the French Communist party, staunch agitator for Palestine…” as readers of the publication understand and informed those journalists (as those from the Daily Beast) willing to listen.

Most media did not bother to reach for and attain such an understanding. So when PEN, the international organization of writers, chose to grant its “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo (in New York on May 5) the media focused its attention on the dissenters within PEN.

“A Literary Honoree Splits Allies,” the New York Times proclaimed, unwilling to decide whether or not the magazine was “a misunderstood honoree, or perhaps just a bigoted outlet.” The “bigoted outlet” fans made most of the noise and so got most of the attention.

Publications printed their protests and outcries, which made much better copy than the calm defenses of the magazine and its contributions to social and political satire.

The letter signed initially by 145 PEN members claimed that Charlie Hebdo publishes “selectively offensive material that intensifies the anti-Islam…anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”

Individual members were even nastier. Novelist Francine Prose called Hebdo’s cartoons “gleefully racist” and suggested that they “conveniently feed into a larger political narrative of white Europeans killed by Muslim extremists, which is not the case.” Only a few (the Daily Beast standing tall among them) dared to point out that the families of the 10 Hebdo staffers and two police officers as well as the four customers assassinated in a kosher market, might beg to differ.

Prose continued her assault on the victims by claiming that she saw no difference in Joseph Goebbels’ anti-Semitic propaganda “spewing eliminationist rhetoric” and Hebdo’s “mocking religious radicals.” Similarly, novelist Deborah Eisenberg asked PEN if it would “grant the award retroactively to Julius Streicher’s Der Stuermer?” (The Nazi magazine that featured cartoons- of Jews as blood-sucking and blond –maiden- chasing sub-humans.)

No traditional media outlet asked viewers or readers to compare cartoons from that publication with any from Charlie Hebdo, which The New Yorker described as “blatantly, roughly sexual and not designed to endear them to Jews or Christians,” but not as viscerally racist or dehumanizing. Hebdo’s cartoons, cited by the magazine, showed the Pope kissing a member of the Vatican guard and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.

Survivor of the Paris massacre, Hebdo’s film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who missed the January 7 editorial meeting because he overslept, was invited to the PEN ceremony. When confronted with the comments of some dissenting PEN members and their comparisons of his publication’s cartoons to Nazi propaganda, shrugged and said: “They don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

It surprised few, then, that the May 2 attempted attack on an exhibit of a “Draw Muhammad” contest in Garland, Texas,  received the usual and by now tired same-old coverage. The two gunmen, killed by a local traffic officer wanted to shout “The prophet is avenged,” as one killer did in Paris over the body of a policeman, but their path to the attack was by now an old story. The mother of one slain gunman said her son “was raised in a normal American fashion.”

A few media blamed the event’s organizer, blogger Pamela Geller, for exercising “bad judgment” and inviting a violent response. And that’s what had already been said back in 2011, when Islamists firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The botched shooting will, appropriately enough, be used by Abilene Christian University’s journalism department as a teaching tool, KTXS-TV in Abilene reported in a brief bulletin.

There is much to find out about the media’s unease with the meaning of free speech — specifically which restrictions or constraints on the First Amendment the media accept or reject.

The media might want to reflect on what it means that nine years ago six in 10 Americans felt it was irresponsible for newspapers to run cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, but  that today six in 10 respondents say they are OK with papers doing just that.

The media might want to ask themselves if they are willing to “accept a gag order by a religion that can’t stand criticism or mockery.”

And they might want to ask themselves if the “negative liberty” granted by the First Amendment allows exceptions for legally irrelevant categories such as “bad taste” or “bad judgment.”

And finally, they might want to think about how their answers, and their conduct based on those answers, touch on the survival of an open and free society and laws designed to keep it open and free.

Perfect storm reporting

Several tornadoes hit the state of Oklahoma on March 25 in a regional outbreak of severe weather. In addition to the well-televised tornado hitting Moore, a city hit nearly half a dozen times since 1999, another tornado hit near Tulsa in northeast Oklahoma. This tornado was noteworthy largely due to the actions of a well-known storm chaser who took shelter beneath a highway overpass when the tornado got too close and he was unable to safely flee. His video of this event was posted within a couple hours and went viral almost immediately. In addition, the chaser sold his video to several major news organizations across the country.

Highway overpasses are one of the most dangerous places to be during a tornado.  An overpass affects the winds interacting with it in such a way it creates a wind-tunnel effect, often increasing the wind speeds under the overpass to extreme levels. In addition, debris is often siphoned beneath the overpass where it collects and can trap those seeking shelter.

What is not being shown in the video are the results of these dangerous actions. Parking under overpasses creates a bottle-neck of traffic, leaving many motorists stranded in the path of potential danger. This not only leaves people out in the open, but it prevents emergency crews from using the roadways.

The most notorious video captured from beneath an overpass came in April 1991 when two photojournalists attempted to outrun a tornado along the Kansas Turnpike and eventually sought shelter beneath a highway overpass. The tornado made a glancing blow of the structure, and none of the nearly dozen people hiding there were injured. This video gave the impression to the public that overpasses are safe. This was brought to light during the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado in May 1999 when a massive tornado, the strongest on record, struck an I-35 overpass and killed one and injured nearly everyone else seeking shelter.

Since then, it has been hammered into tornado safety talks, booklets and webpages that overpasses are unsafe. Not hiding under overpasses is the second-most mentioned tip behind getting into a basement in terms of safety information conveyed to the public.

When the March 25 overpass video was posted, the backlash from chasers and meteorologists began almost immediately. While the overpass shot made for dramatic, television-worthy video, the chaser shot plenty of newsworthy footage away from the overpass that would have easily been salable. And while his decision to be close was brought into question, it was the editing of the video that took most of the criticism, particularly the inclusion of the overpass scene.

The chaser responsible for shooting the footage stated that his options were limited only to this one, mostly due to being too close and not allowing himself more chance of escape. He went on the Weather Channel the following morning to discuss the video and contradict his actions by saying overpasses are not safe places to take shelter. However, that isn’t the message people will remember.

It is essential that storm chasers demonstrate safe practices during severe weather because their footage is what is distributed by the media. Public awareness of tornado chasing has increased in the last decade due to popular TV shows and media coverage. This has inspired the public to become involved in their own chasing endeavors using the chasers’ videos as a guide to “how to chase,” even if the practices are unsafe.

Chasers have been posting close calls and “being hit” videos for years, which the public sees and digests, leading them to make similar dangerous decisions. Had this tornado, or any of the dozens that have been captured, been stronger, lives would have been lost or adversely affected by these choices. As storm chasers continue to post such close calls, the public continues to lose respect for the true danger of these events, leading them to take chances and put themselves and others in great danger.

With storm season in full swing through the end of June, more and more chasers will hit the road to document these forces of nature. Their videos will keep showing up across news sites, social media and TV specials documenting not only storms, but chasers’ own procedures. Inevitably, when something goes wrong, these chasers will be left with a choice of what to do with their video. They may not be able to fully control the circumstances around them in the field, but what they do in the editing is something they can control. That choice will be between the sale of an entertaining, yet foolhardy video, or the responsibility of keeping those unsafe practices out of the viewing of the public.

Tony Laubach is a meteorologist with more than 17 years of storm chasing experience. He has been featured on TV programs for National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel as well as had his severe weather video featured on news networks all over the world. 

Missouri capitol reporters still trying to police their own

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri State Capitol is a very busy place in April as the annual legislative session nears adjournment and lawmakers hawk dozens of bills in frantic attempts to make them law.

Journalists sweat to cover the chaos.

But despite the pressure, the reporters who make up the Missouri Capitol News Association were not too busy to come together again earlier this month to consider problems with one of the press corps’ members, the Missouri Times, a newlyformed organ published by former Poplar Bluff Mayor Scott Faughn.

The press group, which represents about a dozen news organizations that cover state government, had put the Missouri Times on notice in late January that it had to come up with a policy that demonstrated editorial independence while at the same time giving assurances that it was no longer hosting lobbyist-sponsored parties.

While Faughn told the group the parties were a thing of the past, the policy he delivered fell short of expectations. His acknowledgement that a member of the state House had used a sleeping room for lodging in the Missouri Times business office did not add to Faughn’s credibility.

But while one member of the press corps wanted to suspend the Missouri Times from the group, the vast majority agreed to give him more time to come up with a stronger written policy that separates the financial side of the Missouri Times from the reporters who cover the news.

The policy statement that Faughn sent by email on March 30 said, in part, “The newspaper and its staff should be free of obligations to news sources, newsmakers, and outside interests. Conflict of interest should be avoided. Newspapers should accept nothing of value from news sources or others outside the profession. Gifts and free or reduced-rate travel, entertainment, products and lodging should not be accepted.”

Some reporters at Monday’s meeting said the constant use of the word “should” was too weak, and that a blanket prohibition against conflicts, gifts and political activities should be part of the policy. They also said a stronger “firewall” should be demarked between Faughn, who solicits ads and sells subscriptions, and his two reporters who cover the capital.

Question from reporters seemed to reflect a concern that some lobbyists are positioned to influence news coverage.

“If a lobbyist calls you to complain about a story, what do you do?” asked Bob Watson of the Jefferson City News Tribune.

“They do, a lot,” Faughn responded. “I have to read the story to see if they may be right, especially if it’s a factual thing. We won’t put something out that’s incorrect.”

“Is someone who bought a full page ad in the paper more likely to have a story written about them?” asked David Lieb of the Associated Press.

“No,” Faughn responded. “They wouldn’t even know that’s happening.”

“But don’t you assign stories though?” asked Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch.

“If I get tips,” Faughn replied. “But I don’t assign stories or what to write about them.”

In response to a question from the Columbia Tribune’s Rudi Keller, Faughn admitted that state Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Republican from Springfield, had lodged in a sleeping room at the Missouri Times’ business office in Jefferson City.

“He stayed for a little bit between places, and again it was about two years ago maybe,” Faughn said. “I wasn’t there. He moved on.” Haahr did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The Missouri Capitol News Association, founded in 1988, is responsible for allocating parking spaces near the state Capitol and offices within it for legitimate news organizations. The association’s bylaws state that members must be “editorially independent of any political party, institution, foundation, lobbying entity or business group.”

The association allocated facilities for the Missouri Times shortly after it was formed two years ago by Faughn and former House Speaker Rod Jetton. At that time, Phill Brooks, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and the KMOX radio reporter covering the capital, asked for a written policy describing the Missouri Times’ editorial independence. He has never received an acceptable statement.

During the most recent meeting, Brooks moved that the Times be suspended from the association until it came up with an acceptable ethics policy while still keeping its access to a parking space and office. At stake, Brooks said, was “our credibility as an organization as to whether or not we will uphold the standards we espouse as journalists.”

“I feel like I tried to do what you asked,” Faughn said.

After no one would second Brooks’ motion, the group approved another Young offered that gave the Missouri Times until the end of May to produce “an updated policy that addresses concerns about establishing a firewall between financial activities of the Missouri Times with its sources and the people covering the news.”

The Missouri Times publishes a weekly print product that’s distributed free of charge and makes stories available on an Internet website. Its two reporters are Collin Reischman and Rachael Herndon, whose Republican connections and political activities raised questions during the association’s meeting in January.

Faughn said this week that the problems with Herndon’s independence had been addressed and resolved. “Anybody who works for the Missouri Times cannot be involved in partisan politics,” he said.

Jetton is no longer involved in the publication of the Times. Faughn also owns the SEMO Times in Poplar Bluff and has a show, “This Week in Missouri Politics” on KDNL-TV Channel 30 in St. Louis.

In 2007, Faughn was convicted by a Cape Girardeau County jury of three counts of felony forgery. In that case, he was accused of forging checks for an account for a highway expansion project.

Other journalists at Monday’s meeting represented the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Public Radio, the Missourinet and Politicmo.

How many Muslim readers hath the New York Times?

A note on the paper’s decision not to show the Charlie Hebdo cover after the attack

The decision of The New York Times not to depict the cover of Charlie Hebdo after ten of the French magazine’s journalists had been murdered by Islamic terrorists has drawn much deserved criticism in the United States and abroad, in comments from the editorial page editor of the Denver Post to a reporter’s charge of “cowardice” in the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL.

Within the ranks of Times editors the decision not to depict the cover, which showed a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding up a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, was defended by Executive Editor Dean Baquet:

“My first most important job is to serve the readers of The New York Times, and a big chunk of the readers of The New York Times are people who would be offended by showing satire of the Prophet Muhammad…That reader is a guy who lives in Brooklyn and is Islamic and has a family and is devout and just happens to find that insulting.”

Some might be surprised that among Brooklyn’s Muslim population (3.73% or 95,000 out of 2.5 million) there can be found a “big chunk” of the Times’ readership. Among them would be the paper’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan who voiced her disagreement with Baquet’s decision and observed:

“The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive.”

It’s got to be either that “big chunk” of Times readers potentially offended by the cover, or just a “small percentage” among them whose sensibilities would have been disturbed. Curious minds do indeed want to know and may not be satisfied with a Bill Clintonian explanation: depends on what your definitions of “big chunk” and “small percentage” are.

Parties and the press

JEFFERSON CITY – The Jefferson City press corps has voted to give the Missouri Times until the end of March to clean up the news organization’s ethics mess or face the possibility of losing credentials to cover events in Missouri’s state capital.

Ten representatives of wire service, print and broadcast news organizations met Monday to discuss the lobbyist-sponsored parties that Times’ publisher Scott Faughn had held for lawmakers at the newspaper’s office in Jefferson City. While some press corps members appeared ready to vote to take away the Times’ allocation of capital office and parking spaces, the group approved a motion giving it the chance to draft a newsroom policy of editorial independence as well as time to demonstrate that the lobbyist-sponsored parties were no longer taking place.

Collin Reischman, the Times’ managing editor, told the group Faughn was not a journalist and was unschooled in ethics policies. And Reischman said Faughn was trying to hire a consultant to give advice on the development of a mission statement, an employee handbook and “best practices” that would prevent problems in the future.

“I do take issue with the way Scott does things,” Reischman said. “I told him fifty different times that he shouldn’t do them again. If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be any parties.”

While capital city reporters and lawmakers had been aware of the Times’ parties for months, the issue became public Jan. 4 when Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune reported details of as many as six events, including the fact they “went largely unreported to the state Ethics Commission.”

James Klahr, the executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, said Tuesday that “it would be a good idea” for lobbyists who spend money on lawmakers, either individually or in a group settings like the Times’ parties, to report it to the commission.

The reporting requirements aside, several reporters present for Monday’s meeting said the parties violated journalistic ethical standards by creating an apparent, if not a real, conflict of interest.

“This has raised credibility questions for us,” said Phill Brooks, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and the KMOX radio reporter covering the capital. “We uphold standards of editorial independence and the avoidance of a conflict of interest.”

Brooks noted that two years ago, when the press corps first accredited the Missouri Times, he requested a written policy that described its editorial independence since both the Times’ founders, Faughn and former House Speaker Rod Jetton, had been involved in politics. Brooks said he never got the policy.

POLITICAL ACTIVITIES

The Times publishes a weekly print product that’s distributed free of charge, and makes stories available on an Internet website: http://themissouritimes.com. Reischman said the press run is usually 1,000 to 2,000 issues, but sometimes has been as large as 5,000. The publication has two full time reporters, Reischman and Rachael Herndon, whose editorial independence was questioned during Monday’s meeting.

Herndon was identified as the president of the Cole County Young Republicans as recently as June of last year. Copies of emails were distributed at Monday’s meeting showing that prior to the November general election, Herndon was going door-to-door campaigning in behalf of Bryan Stumpe, the Republican candidate for Cole County circuit judge. In encouraging others to work for Stumpe, Herndon’s email said, “The current judge is one of the last Democrats holding office in Cole County.” The incumbent judge, Patricia Joyce, retained her seat.

“Standards that we expect are not being met when a company is soliciting lobbyists for parties and a reporter working for a paper is a party operative,” Keller said.

“I’m not denying that that was problem,” Reischman responded, “But we are rectifying that now.”

In an interview, Reischman said he had been aware of Herndon’s prior political work and that he had told her she had to stop it. But he said he apparently hadn’t been emphatic enough on that point. “I should have been more clear,” he said. Since then, Reischman said, he had had a “come to Jesus meeting” with Herndon, and she remains a reporter.

Neither Faughn nor Herndon responded to a Gateway Journalism Review reporter’s requests for comment.

According to the Missouri Times web site, Herndon studied communication and art history at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and previously worked as a campaign staff member. Reischman has a journalism degree from Webster University.

The web site also describes Faughn as the Missouri Times’ publisher and president of SEMO TIMES, a weekly newspaper in Poplar Bluff, Mo. It also describes Faughn as a member of the St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The code also says journalists should “refuse gifts” and shun “political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”

Faughn is the former mayor of Poplar Bluff. In 2007 he was convicted in Cape Girardeau County of three counts of forgery.

ALLOCATING SPACE

Journalists covering state government are members of the Missouri Capitol News Association. The organization meets infrequently as the need arises, usually to allocate resources for reporters such as office accommodations, parking spaces and a spot at the Senate press table.

The organization’s bylaws require that for an entity to be credentialed, it must distribute news to a broad segment of the public, be independent of any lobbying activity and demonstrate its ability to cover the capital for at least six months. In addition to the Missouri School of Journalism, KMOX and the Columbia Tribune, journalists at Monday’s meeting represented the Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Public Radio, the Missourinet, KRCG-TV, and the Jefferson City News Tribune.

After agreeing that Monday’s meeting was open to coverage by the Gateway Journalism Review, the group discussed plans by the Republican-controlled state Senate to remove reporters from a press table on the floor of the chamber and sequester them in a spot in an upper gallery. It also voted to accredit Eli Yokley, who writes for a blog Politicmo and supplies news to the Joplin Globe, KY3-TV in Springfield and the New York Times.

After airing the controversy about the Missouri Times, the group agreed to reassess the news organization’s performance at a meeting that will be scheduled some time around the legislative Spring break, the last week of March.

Skeletons in the closet? Uncovering embarrassing Wiki edits by Pentagon, Congress

A recent movement to track in real-time edits government organizations anonymously make to Wikipedia has also turned up deep archives of changes made dating back more than 10 years. For instance, thanks to Jari Bakken, lead developer of a Norwegian parliamentary watchdog account, a database of 1,843 edits made at Pentagon IP addresses from 2004-2010 is now publically available. Exploring this reveals Pentagon employees contributed uncivil language to the pages for John Kerry, Valerie Plame and Marion Berry. One editor put words in Keith Olbermann’s mouth, inverting his quote from “I’m not a liberal, I’m an American,” to “I’m not an American, I’m a liberal.” Regarding the “First Battle of Fallujah” article, an anonymous editor added “WHAT LIBERAL, PACIFIST, JAG-OFF MEMBER OF THE OBAMA CABINET WROTE THIS POLITICALLY SLANTED PUFF-PIECE?” Homophobic slurs were inserted into pages for “gay pride,” “LGBT symbols,” and bizarrely, Evian water. A global warming skeptic quibbled over the language of the article dedicated to the scientific phenomenon from his office at the Department of Defense headquarters. In general, Pentagon employees’ more notable edits addressed what they perceived as Wikipedia’s liberal bias. The history of Congressional edits (13,269 total from 2003-2014), also now available, provides evidence of more ideological alterations. In 2005, for example, someone on Capitol Hill removed a reference to the War on Terror from the page for “crusades.” In 2007, the entire page for “abortion law” was blanked. Some sling mud: One anonymous editor called Noam Chomsky a “dangerous radical” and “undoubtedly a shifty Communist gulag-master.” Another – or possibly the same – labeled Eugene V. Debs a “whore.” Other changes seem more geared toward electability: Joe Lieberman’s lobby connections disappeared; Nancy Pelosi was noted as “extreme” and hypocritical for accepting corporate cash. Some are just silly, such as changing John Boehner’s age to 88 years old. While it appears that the majority of edits emanating from the Beltway have been made in good faith, with a few vandals making alterations without strategic aim, there have been more deliberate changes originating from Congress than the DOD. Still, these are more likely to indicate pettiness than evil. At the very least though, the records indicate a severe misuse of public time, equipment and ultimately tax dollars, according to Stephen Potts, chairman of the Ethics Resource Center during the Meehan embarrassment. It’s fitting, then, that one Pentagon employee apparently spent many hours contributing to the Wiki for Joseph Heller’s classic novel, “Catch-22,” which skewers the absurdity and waste of the military and bureaucracy at large.

Convoluted story’s tragic ending reminds journalists to be human

The problems with Caleb Hannan’s article, titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” started almost immediately: “Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.”

That’s Hannan’s lead. The story he wrote about Essay Anne Vanderbilt proved to be strange, at the very least. It also was convoluted. Broken down to its pieces, the story was about a putter and the woman who invented it. It also was about Hannan’s quest to find the backstory of the inventor who lied to Hannan about her credentials. Finally, the story became about his search to uncover Vanderbilt’s misrepresentations. As Hannan delved deeper into the story, he uncovered the fact that Vanderbilt used to be a man. He wrote that “a chill actually ran up my spine” at that moment.

This news became the focus of his piece, accompanied by some rough editing (either by mistake or on purpose) that kept switching genders on Vanderbilt. It also contributed, at the very least indirectly, to Vanderbilt’s suicide – a fact Hannan placed at the end of his story.

Reaction to the story was slow, with many initially praising Hannan’s reporting, but it didn’t take long for the reaction to change. Readers were appalled that Hannan was so insensitive toward the issue of transsexuality. Gawker wrote about it; the Guardian wrote about it, too. Eventually, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of Grantland, apologized for the thoughtlessness of the story.

Most piled on and reported about the inherent problems of the article. Hannan became too intent on the sexuality issue and lost track of his original story. He also outed Vanderbilt, an act that was wrong on many levels. Hannan lost all form of compassion in his search for the truth of the story. Finding the truth is important for journalists; it’s the root of all of our jobs. But sometimes the truth is nuanced – and Hannan never looked for that. He treated Vanderbilt’s sex change as the biggest lie in a story of lies. He didn’t understand the situation – and, therefore, hurt this woman irreparably. The early reviews concentrated on the reporting and Hannan’s unending search into the truth.

But didn’t he have a responsibility to Vanderbilt?

After all, from the beginning she agreed to do a story that was focused on the science and not the scientist. He also wrote that, even though Vanderbilt’s credentials didn’t check out, physicists said the science was sound. Yes, he had a responsibility to fact-check his work; if he didn’t nail down the discrepancies in her story, he would have been accused of shoddy reporting. But when he found the truth, Hannan’s responsibilities changed. He didn’t live up to those responsibilities.

Instead, he outed Vanderbilt.

Reporters have a responsibility to the truth. That responsibility leads to uncomfortable moments. Journalists also have a responsibility to their story. Hannan’s story was about a putter. It also was about the false credentials used by the inventor of the putter. Vanderbilt’s sexuality didn’t need to be part of the story. At the very least, it didn’t deserve to be Hannan’s “Eureka!” moment.

Truthfully, the story still doesn’t have an ending. Although Hannan states that he stopped using the putter, was the science sound? Was the putter worth using?

He never told us that. Instead, we learned a lesson on insensitivity – and we were served a reminder that journalists need to be more than just dogged reporters. We have to be human, too.

Pointing and clicking is not enough

AFP photographer Emmanuel Dunard’s photo of a praying Aline Marie at a Newtown, Conn., church brings up an issue where many photojournalists and members of the public disagree.

Marie considered her praying outside the St. Rose of Lima church on the night of the shootings to be a private moment. She says she “felt like a zoo animal” when she realized that a number of photographers from across the nation and world were photographing her.

In this and other similar circumstances, photojournalists often seem to think that a good photo trumps a person’s privacy. Accordingly, they often hide behind the “I’m shooting from a public space” rationale to justify their actions. But the “public space” position is a legal argument – and one that most members of the public either do not understand or with which they disagree.

The “privacy” issue is, for most people, one that has little to do with the law.  Rather, people tend to think that their private activities – whether or not they happen to take place in or near a public place where photojournalists might congregate – are simply that: private activities.

Members of the public – what First Amendment cases refer to as “private” rather than “public” individuals – simply see it as the decent thing to do for a photojournalist to ask to photograph, or use/publish an already taken image. Photojournalists employing such sensitivity generally tend to discover that private individuals are grateful to have been asked and gladly grant permission.

Few photojournalism ethics codes and policies require or encourage photographers to get permission from members of the public before publishing their images. Were such policies encouraged, they would make the professional lives of photojournalists more difficult. But the end result would be a public feeling better about its media. And such an outcome would justify the few extra minutes of time a photojournalist would take on an assignment.

zp8497586rq