darts and laurels

Darts & Laurels

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June 12, 2007

Laurel to the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, for refusing to tie the knot without a proper pre-nup. Last August, in apparent recognition of the ever-intensifying relationship between journalism and public relations, the SPJ’s president, Christine Tatum, appeared at a national ethics committee meeting at the annual convention and pressed the committee to give its blessing to a most immodest proposal–a revenue-enhancing arrangement between SPJ and Market Wire, an outfit that distributes press releases, video news releases, and the like. In its preliminary form, the proposal called for the “partners” to develop a series of training programs whereby professional journalists would, for a fee, impart pearls of wisdom to PR practitioners “on how to better understand and work with journalists.” Some committee members, however, balked, objecting to certain terms of the proposal they deemed contrary to SPJ’s cherished code of ethics–among them, sharing the development of the curriculum, displaying each other’s logos on their respective Web sites, allowing Market Wire to send e-mail ads to SPJ members, promoting Market Wire to new members and students, and making Market Wire the exclusive newswire for SPJ. After that memorably contentious meeting, the committee sent a forceful letter to the national board and, on the basis of its recommendations, those impediments were altered sufficiently for most of its members to live with; in December, the engagement was officially announced. (Tellingly, not a word of this controversy has appeared in the organization’s magazine, Quill, including a letter to the editor from a former committee member explaining why she was divorcing herself on ethical grounds from the Society of Professional Journalists.)

Dart to NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams, for solipsistic journalism. In each of the first five segments of “Trading Places”– a highly hyped “in depth” sweeps series on the challenge of caring for the elderly parents who once took care of us–the newscast showcased a news-division luminary in a heartwarming filial scene. Beginning with Williams himself on a visit to Red Bank, New Jersey; then moving on to the Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, in Buffalo, New York; chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman in Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Today show news anchor Ann Curry in Grants Pass, Oregon; and finally, to correspondent Tom Brokaw in Orange County, California, the segments illustrated, among other things, the exemplary devotion of these network stars to their gracefully aging, financially untroubled moms and dads. Maybe the real places being traded here were between those who report, and those who are, the story. (Curiously, in a Today show interview about his reaction to the verdict in the Libby leak case, in which he had been a pivotal witness, Russert responded thus to Meredith Vieira’s query about whether he was relieved that the trial was finally over: “Yeah, I am. I really am. It’s not what I want to do. I love reporting stories and …not being part of them.”)

Laurel to Bloomberg Markets, for giving public currency to facts long banked in the vaults of corporate America. In its December issue, the magazine made some unsettling additions to the list of material comforts we all enjoy at the expense of incalculable human misery. This time, it’s automobiles, refrigerators, bathtubs–anything whose manufacture depends on steel; which depends on pig iron; which in turn depends on charcoal, a substance often obtained through a primitive, suffocating process that depends on hundreds of thousands of virtual slaves living in unimaginable conditions in the forced-labor camps of Latin America. Tracing the journey of that cost-effective substance from the rain forests of the Amazon to the auto plants of Detroit and well beyond, the report presented economic, legal, and moral challenges to U.S. government oversight agencies as well as to specifically identified U.S. businesses. Response was gratifyingly swift. Ford and Kohler stopped buying from a Brazilian pig iron producer; GM and others will now require certification that no slave labor was used in the materials they buy; Congress is on the case. Not a giant leap for all mankind, but at least one small step toward humanity.

Dart to the U.S. news media, for failing to pick up a long-distance signal. When mainstream papers in Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, Canada, and elsewhere recently rang, sometimes on page one, with the findings of a five-country study that showed a statistically significant increase in a certain type of brain tumor among people who had used cell phones for ten years or more, one might have expected the American press to at least record the message–particularly since the telecom industry here keeps hoping that the fcc and the federal health agencies will raise the levels of cell-phone radiation currently allowed. But with rare exceptions–the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was one–global expectations would have been misplaced. Instead, it was left to the independent newsletter Microwave News to provide a comprehensive, comprehensible account of the controversial findings. Memo to journalists: call waiting. 

Gloria Cooper was CJR’s deputy executive editor. For three decades, she wrote the magazine’s “Darts & Laurels” column.