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Pseudo-journalists betray the public trust

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ONE REASON I was drawn to my chosen career is its informality. Unlike doctors, lawyers or even jockeys, journalists have no entrance exams, no licenses, no governing board to pass solemn judgment when they transgress. Indeed, it is the constitutional right of every citizen, no matter how ignorant or how depraved, to be a journalist. This wild liberty, this official laxity, is one of journalism's appeals.

It is also one of its myths. I've come to realize that the looseness of the journalistic life, the seeming laxity of the newsroom, is an illusion. Yes, there's informality and there's humor, but beneath the surface lies something deadly serious. It is a code. Sometimes the code is not even written down, but it is deeply believed in. And when violated, it is enforced with tribal ferocity.

All across America, there are offices that resemble newsrooms, and in those offices there are people who resemble journalists, but they are not engaged in journalism. What they do is not journalism because it does not regard the reader -- or, in the case of broadcasting, the listener or the viewer -- as a master to be served.

In this realm of pseudo-journalism, the audience is regarded as something to be manipulated. And when the audience is misled, no one in the pseudo-newsroom ever offers a peep of protest.

You may have guessed by now that I'm talking about Fox News. I am, but I am also talking about a broad array of talk shows and Web sites that have taken on the trappings of journalism but, when studied closely, are not journalism at all. Deceptively cloaked as journalists, these marketers of opinion are playing a nasty Halloween prank on the public, and indeed on journalism itself.

Last fall, the Los Angeles Times did something rash. Alone among the media that covered the California recall election, we decided to investigate the character of candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The recall campaign lasted only two months, so we had to hurry in determining whether, as rumored, Mr. Schwarzenegger had a habit of mistreating women. It turned out that he did. By the time we nailed the story down, the campaign was almost over, and we had a very tough decision to make: whether to publish the findings a mere five days before the election. We decided to do so.

Long before we published the story, rumors circulated that we were working on it, and the effort to discredit the newspaper began. On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly's program embarked on a campaign to convince its audience that the Times was an unethical outfit that attacked only Republicans and gave Democrats a free ride.

The worst of the fictions originated with a freelance columnist in Los Angeles who claimed to have the inside story on unethical behavior at the Times. Specifically, she wrote, the paper had completed its Schwarzenegger story long before Election Day but held it for two weeks in order to wreak maximum damage.

The idea that the newspaper held the story for two weeks was a fabrication. Nothing remotely resembling that ever occurred.

But we live in changed times. Never has falsehood in America had such a large megaphone. Instead of being ignored, the author of the column was booked for repeated appearances on Mr. O'Reilly's show, on MSNBC, and even on the generally trustworthy CNN. The tale of the two-week delay earned the columnist not infamy but fame. Millions of Americans heard it and no doubt believed it. And why not? It sounded just like journalism.

An interesting study published in October explored public misconceptions about the war in Iraq. One of those misconceptions was that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction had been found. Another was that links had been proved between Iraq and al-Qaida. A third was that world opinion favored the idea of the United States invading Iraq.

The study did not examine what had actually aired on specific media outlets, but the results spoke for themselves. Among people who primarily watched Fox News, 80 percent believed one or more of those myths. That's 25 percentage points higher than the figure for viewers of CNN -- and 57 percentage points higher than that for people who got their news from public broadcasting.

How could Fox have left its audience so deeply in the dark?

What we're seeing is a difference between journalism and pseudo-journalism, between journalism and propaganda. The former seeks earnestly to serve the public. The latter seeks to manipulate it.

It is the netherworld of attack politics that gave us Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox News. Having spent much of his career smearing politicians, he now refers to himself as a journalist, but his bag of tricks remains the same. Over time, I believe, the public will become increasingly aware of the discrepancy between what it's told by pseudo-journalists and what turns out to be the truth. They may even grow weary of the talk-show persona -- the schoolyard bully we all know so well.

Recently the Los Angeles Times had the good fortune of winning five Pulitzer Prizes. I'm not sure we're worthy of all that, but we won't turn them down. I wonder how the news of the awards struck the talk-show fans who know the Times only for its ethical outrages. Surely they must have been scratching their heads over that one.

But they probably didn't worry about it long. My guess is that they sat back on their sofas and consoled themselves with more soothing thoughts, such as the way President Bush saved America from catastrophe by seizing those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq while the whole world cheered.

John S. Carroll, a former editor of The Sun, is editor of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, where a longer version of this article first appeared. It is excerpted from a speech he delivered at the University of Oregon on May 6.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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