More blows to credibility of news media

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- We news gatherers and opinion spewers in what is now loftily known as journalism are a pretty defensive lot when it comes to outside criticism of how we conduct our business. But in two recent episodes, the circumstances have made it impossible to take the side of fellow members of our fraternity.

CBS News' handling during the 2004 campaign of apparently fake evidence that President Bush failed to fulfill his Texas Air National Guard responsibilities brought about anchorman Dan Rather's early retirement from the show that aired it. Now an independent report has led to the firing of four CBS staffers who pushed for the airing.

If the perpetrators of what has now been dismissed as the use of apparently bogus documents intended to hurt Mr. Bush, it certainly backfired. The stories about CBS News jumping the gun and Mr. Rather strenuously pushing the yarn worked in the end to cast the president as victim, possibly assisting his re-election. Other news organizations chasing the same story seemed to be scared off.

Only days before release of the independent report, USA Today disclosed another case of indefensible conduct by a member of the news fraternity. Armstrong Williams, a syndicated newspaper columnist and TV and radio talk-show host with a public relations operation on the side, took $240,000 from the Bush administration to peddle its No Child Left Behind education legislation and other programs.

No money changed hands in the CBS blunder. But because of the involvement in the midst of a political campaign of high-profile figures such as Mr. Bush and Mr. Rather, the mishandling of the National Guard allegations understandably has grabbed more headlines and sparked more criticism.

But that episode concerned poor and hasty judgment compared with Mr. Williams' unethical behavior in accepting the lucrative government contract from the Education Department. He was paid not only to run commercials for the child education program on his television show but also to talk it up with fellow black commentators and then peddle Education Secretary Rod Paige as a pitchman for No Child Left Behind.

Some of the criticism in the Williams case has been leveled at the administration for trying to propagandize the public through the news media, but there's not much new in that. Governments, Democratic and Republican, have always sought to do that in various ways.

What sets this latest deception apart is the direct payment to an ostensibly legitimate news commentator to shill secretly for a government program. As if taking the money wasn't bad enough, Mr. Williams first defended it on grounds he believes in the No Child Left Behind program, which he could have continued believing in without the outrageous payoff.

Only when an avalanche of criticism fell on him did he express regret, but he declined to return the money to his government customers, saying to do so "would be ludicrous" because "they bought advertising and they got it." Others, however, were quick to see the severe ethical breach. The syndicate running Mr. Williams' newspaper column dropped it, prompting him to say it was "the price you pay" for making a mistake.

He will be fortunate if that's the only price, but he probably will go on his merry way, defended by those who share his conservative views and dismiss criticism of him as nothing but "liberal" slander. By the same token, there will be liberals who deplore the CBS firings as "conservative" retribution.

But the price that will be paid as a result of both the CBS News and Williams affairs will not be borne only by those who made the mistakes. A seeming epidemic of plagiarism, exaggeration and flat-out inventions of stories in the last few years has led to confessions, apologies and firings that have left our whole business wrestling with a major credibility problem, growing with every new disclosure of professional or ethical malfeasance.

Readers and viewers all too ready to believe the worst about reporters, editors and commentators in the business of spreading the news will seize on both of these incidents as more confirmation that the messenger is the problem, not the unwanted message he or she often brings.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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