Friday, December 22, 2006

The accountability problem

Atrios names the Washington City Paper the "Wanker of the Day" for its treatment of Murray Waas, and for good cause. Waas' account of the paper's behavior is a journalistic horror story:
During the course of reporting his story about me, Jason Cherkis, a City Paper reporter working on the story about me with Wemple, badgered me to consent to an interview.

When I expressed concerns for my right to privacy, and said that nobody had written about me being a cancer survivor, he screamed at me over the telephone: "You told every single person you have had a conversation, `I had cancer!' Don't tell me it was a secret because you told every single person you have ever come in contact. Don't you lie to me! You told people if you really didn't want to keep it a secret, you shouldn't have told."

He then glibly added: "You wouldn't have like passed it out like part of your business card."

Cherkis called later with the discovery that the high costs of medical bills and health insurance had been one large reason that I went bankrupt--something hardly uncommon that for young people who have been cancer survivors.

He then badgered me over the telephone: "So are you a deadbeat of a cancer survivor? So which is it? Which is it?" Then attempting to bully me, he says "You're like begging me and Erik [his editor] not to write about it. Now you're like the poor cancer patient. Now you are falling back on your whole fucking tale of woe, dude. Feel sorry for me! I had the cancer thing."

Later, Cherkis told me that this was all a lie, and that I really went broke because I was living high off the hog. He screamed at me: "Don't tell me that in 2005 that the effect of your cancer survivorship made you bankrupt! Maybe it was living in fucking house where the rent was $2,800 a month!"

As if that weren't appalling enough, Waas goes on to explain the reasons for this bizarre behavior:
One thing that became certain over time was that they became determined to somehow get me on tape screaming or acting inappropriately as they have been to me. When yelling me at me himself did not work, Cherkis adopted a new tact: He began to ominously suggest in emails that all sorts of people have said horrible things about me -- then emailed or called those people to say that I might be calling soon, and asked them to tape the conversation -- in hopes that I would I blow my stack.

In the case of Keefer, Cherkis suggests to me over and over again that Keefer has handed over to him all sorts of confidential files to him.

Then Cherkis emailed Keefer hoping that I would call him: "if Waas does call, please try and tape it," Cherkis emailed Keefer, in one of the emails made public by Wonkette earlier this week.

I have to say, just as a longtime denizen of various newsrooms, this behavior -- which is unethical in the extreme, as Waas notes in his HuffPo piece -- shakes me up. It's just a grotesque abuse of the public trust, a gross abuse of their positions, and is the kind of thing that should forever brand these guys pariahs.

I mean, really: Passing along the identities of confidential sources held by your former employer. Harassing a cancer victim about his medical bills. Screaming at them in an attempt to get them to scream back. Those are just the most obvious.

There are others. I imagine a lot of us old city-editor types raised our eyebrows at a couple of other aspects of this story, including letting the subject of a story read it beforehand (this is very, very rarely ever done, and its ethics are dubious at best -- it indicates that WCP had no confidence in the factual accuracy of the story) and then bargaining with him to alter the information in the story if he'll drop damaging countercharges against them. That's the kind of deliberate manipulation of reporting for nontransparent purposes that is very much frowned upon -- by ethical journalists, anyway.

The trio of actors here -- Eric Wemple, Jason Cherkis, and especially Bryan Keefer -- should be summarily fired from whatever journalistic positions they hold for the behavior that Waas describes -- and I'm assuming that Murray is as accurate as he ever is here, which is to say very.

In an ideal world, their next jobs should be flipping burgers or cleaning toilets. The only publication they should be allowed to edit or write for in the future would be the newsletter for the sanitation department of Bone, Idaho. And even then its factual content would be dubious.

But I'm sure the Wise Men of Washington will little note nor be bothered by any of this. Indeed, one can assume that this behavior will continue to be rewarded, because the City Paper crew is part of a snug little Beltway crowd of Kewl Kidz who view any attempts to hold them accountable with growing disdain.

Look, we've known ever since the New York Times completely blew off Gene Lyons' findings in Fools for Scandal that we have a serious accountability problem within the journalism trade. The problem only intensified during the Clinton impeachment brouhaha and Bush's ascension to the presidency, and in the ensuing years Beltway journalism has become an ethical and reportorial cesspool, largely because there is simply no accountability for this kind of misbehavior. It's also a major factor in the utter failure of the press to report adequately on the Iraq war, either during the runup to the invasion or in its aftermath; the same lack of accountability on the part of the press has translated into a complete lack of accountability within the goverment -- the Bush administration and its cohort in the Republican Congress.

The journalists who have placed themselves atop the media food chain, including particularly those inside the Beltway, no longer see themselves as accountable to the "little people" further down the chain, especially not to their readership. In the new environment they've created, all that matters is making a "score," whether truthful or not. And any way you can get that score is OK. Ethics are for suckers.

That's the chief reason the Beltway types are so hostile to the blogosphere; all those noisy rabble-rousing critics keep interrupting their prefabricated narratives, which represent the collective wisdom of the ruling classes. Similarly, anyone like Murray Waas, whose serious and well-grounded work slices through the heart of their narratives and exposes them for the phony crap they are, is going to be subject to the most vicious kinds of attacks -- and the media's ruling class will wink, nudge, and nod.

Serious journalists need to start taking this problem seriously. We need to start working together to stand up for the ethics that really are the root of whatever credibility any of us might enjoy. We need to start finding new ways to create real accountability in the profession.

Organizations like Media Matters are a good start. But at some point the ethical and factual issues that are increasingly tainting whatever good work the rest of us might do need to be confronted by journalists themselves. There need to be consequences within the profession for this kind of malfeasance of the public trust.

I have some ideas myself for how to do this. But if anyone else (other journalists especially) has ideas on how we might achieve that, I'd sure like to hear from them. Post them in comments and I'll compile some of the better ideas in a later post.

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