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Claims that we have entered the “post-integrity age of journalism” falsely assume an “integrity age” preceded it 4/7/08

Posted by Steve Boriss in Integrity.
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On one of their excellent weekly podcasts on tech journalism, hosts David Strom and Paul Gillin elicited a profound quote from a guest. Venture capitalist Bill Frezza of Adams Capital Management said, “we are in the post-integrity age of journalism,” expressing his concern that in the new, online news environment, deep-pocketed advertisers can easily sway the published opinions of cash and attention-starved bloggers with just a little bit of advertising. This concern about advertisers influencing content is nothing new. It has been a rallying cry for a century among mainstream outlets, purportedly serving the noble cause of “journalistic independence,” but actually serving the much less noble cause of allowing journalists to write whatever they want to write.

But, it’s unfortunate that journalists have spent so much time worrying about how the private sector might distort their news, while ignoring the only news-distorter that concerned the founding fathers — the federal government. On a daily basis, journalists have been routinely cutting news-distorting deals with public figures, not in exchange for advertising, but in exchange for superior access for interviews. Even Tim Russert, admired by the press corps for his allegedly tough, adversarial journalism, testified under oath that all his conversations with government officials are presumed to be confidential, and he never reports anything unless given explicit permission in advance. Which is to say, it will be hard for American journalism to have a “post-integrity era” when they never had an “integrity era” that preceded it.

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1. Bill Frezza - 4/8/08

This is so deliciously ironic. Since participating in the podcast last week and watching the way the new New Media has digested the material in its various “conversations,” I find myself misquoted, misinterpreted, and in one report even had my name misspelled.

First, I did not say that we have entered the post-integrity age of journalism. I said we have entered the age of post-integrity journalism. That is, the lack of journalistic integrity is defining the age in contrast to the idea that the age of post-integrity is defining journalism. There is still plenty of integrity out there, you just can’t find much of it in the media.

Second, I did not lament the notion that integrity-deficient corporations were corrupting cash-starved journalists. If you listen to the podcast, I actually celebrated the honesty of an open market where people and corporations alike can buy, sell, or make coverage, as compared to the hypocrisy built in to the illusion that journalists occupy some special position in the marketplace of ideas that makes them more credible than, say, the Marxist university professors that trained them.

And finally while I agree with David that the founding fathers were concerned about corruption of the press by the federal government, recall that “the press” they were defending where a bunch of rabid polemicists, many of them anonymous, who were not reporting “the news” but were promoting the ideas of their faction. Which is, in fact, where we have returned today. With few exceptions, you can dial up your “news” sources with any flavor of built-in bias, hearing what you want to hear thereby reinforcing all your preconceived notions. Fine, no problem. But please, let’s be honest about it and not carry on the pretense that journalists are somehow endowed with unique powers that render them fair and balanced.

The age of integrity journalism represented by the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite may well have been an illusion. But it was a grand illusion, and served its purpose well.

And that’s the way it was.

2. Steve Boriss - 4/8/08

Bill,

Glad you stopped-by. I welcome the debate. On your first two comments. I will concede the subtleties of how you set-up what ages we’re in, which is affecting which, and which dominates — I accept you as the expert on what you meant. But, these issues are not germane to my point. On the other hand, we do have a profound difference on your third comment. I think that the founding fathers did very much consider the rantings of that “bunch of rabid polemicists” to be “news.” That’s what “news” was. In fact, that’s still what “news” is. Americans do not have to accept the view of a group of elites who think they are smarter than the founding fathers, and who have foisted upon the public bizarre notions that it is either possible or helpful to separate fact from opinion. Murrow and Cronkite served no purpose well, other than to help make us believe for decades that the only acceptable, objective truth came in a monolithically center-left package. Accordingly, if this was an “age,” it was an age of deception, not to be celebrated. Indeed, that’s the way it was. And, good riddance.


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