J-Ethics, Broadcast and Fairness Doctrine

The advent of radio and later television challenged print journalism in ways that helped alter the ethical norms of gathering and presenting news. The shits that occured over the last 80 years, which made “objectivity” the journalistic gold standard, offer insights into how the rules of journalism may be shifting today as Web media challenge both broadcast and print.

Radio as a popular medium became feasible in the 1920s as receivers became affordable, and television really began to take off in the 1950s. Aside from the audio/visual nature of these media, the salient fact about broadcast as regards journalism ethics is arguably the fact that they were regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and subject to the Fairness Doctrine — which, the Museum of Broadcast Communications said, was designed to make sure that broadcasters “did not use their stations simply as advocates with a singular perspective.”

I do not wish to debate whether the doctrine worked or was even wise. My point is that forcing broadcast outlets to adopt a neutral slant put pressure on newspaper barons to restrain their naked power grabs, as exemplified by William Randolph Hearst, who tried to be a political candidate and kingmaker, and whose legend lives on in the thinly veiled fiction, Citizen Kane.

This is not to suggest that the fairness mandate imposed on broadcasters was solely responsible for the rise of objective journalism — the current standard from which the rules of ethics flow. There are scores of articles and websites that chart the centralization and corporatization of media, and no shortage of laments about how this has watered-down journalism, such as this 2002 interview in which Harpers’ Magazine editor Lewis Lapham says:

“The media always wants to reduce it to a fairy tale. You can’t tell the difference between the war in Afghanistan and ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ Even the names are similar.”

But two episodes from the last 50 years serve to crystallize the best and most ethical reasons that objectivity became the journalistic norm — and both exemplify the notion that with great power to influence public debate comes the great responsibility to behave dispassionately. The first is Edward R. Murrow’s March 9, 1954 “See it Now” broadcast attacking Sen. Joe McCarthy. The second is the 1970s Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, a complex series of events whose mythic interpretation is filtered through the lens of the movie, All the President’s Men.

So now we stand on the far side of the Iraq war, in the midst of a new “light at the end of the tunnel” debate, compounded by scandals like Rathergate that put the investigative eye on the media rather than the government, and symbolize the rise of a new force, a citizen journalism corps — and with it, I would argue, a new slant on journalism ethics.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media