The Ethical Reporter

There can be little doubt that the news media today is a force for truth. But like most of the works of man, it is also immersed in the cycle of violence, misperception and transference that governs human affairs. The task of journalism is to grow beyond the untruth of sadism and submission, while strengthening the healthy alternatives of independent and ethical reporting.

At its best, such an ethical and independent reporting would be motivated by a desire to tell the truth and defend right, to defend the genuine moral order, rather than get revenge for past wrongs. Reporters working in such a system would be concerned with the triumph of truth, as a force that can free people and enlarge the realm of justice, rather than with the triumph of the injured self at the expense of other people.

In its ideal state, this kind of reporting is a form of non-neurotic behavior. It is the expression of a mature, adult personality, able to use its considerable powers to grow and improve the world. A reporters who fits this description can’t help but expose wrong – he does so merely by honestly describing the untruth he sees around him.

He isn't controlled by the fear of standing up to authority nor does he get satisfaction from submitting to it. Fear and favor play no role in his decisions and the desire to please or pay back has been left behind. Immersed in the corrupting world of politics, he refuses to play the game, except when he has good journalistic reasons. In this sense, he is like the psychoanalyst who refuses to take up the patient's invitation and play the role of persecuting father, doting mother, or corrupting self, but, instead, constantly points out the patient's games and throws the neurosis back on itself. He is like the family therapist who refuses to be dragged in to the family neurosis, with all its persecutions, alliances, secret roles, covert accusations, turf battles and deceptions. But like practitioners of militant nonviolence and unlike psychotherapists, he is in no way in a custodial relationship with those he covers and is thus free to place himself in an adversary relationship with his subjects when the job requires it. The refusal to be dragged into other people's games or to play one's own is an ethical advance in itself because it breaks the cycle of violence, revenge, attack and counter-attack that dominates politics and so much of human life.

The ethical journalist holds his grandiosity in check and actively works against desensitization. He is, in Gandhi's sense, aware that he is dealing with fellow souls who suffer and enjoy like himself and in Freud's sense aware that these are real people, not replays of past power struggles. Even when he exposes wrongdoers, he will look for ways to allow his audience to see that these are real people who suffer and enjoy like themselves, not merely projections of their fantasies of evil.

As is undoubtedly obvious, I do not believe the ethical and independent reporter, whatever his personal psychology, is interested in truth as an abstract entity, divorced from the passions and ideals of the period in which he lives, any more than the decent psychoanalyst is interested in his patient's associations for merely theoretical reasons. He isn't a court reporter recording events. He takes satisfaction in exposing wrongdoing and in serving the ideals most of us share, of truth, honesty, open government, efficiency and the public interest. When government breaks these ideals, as it does all the time, that is news.

Independent reporting offers its own set of pleasures that are expression's of integrity, self-esteem, independence and maturity, intermixed with the experiences of childhood. There is an adult pleasure in telling the truth that others have reason to hide, an adult satisfaction in seeing the crooks go to jail or vacate their offices in disgrace, an adult pleasure in displaying one's talents or helping other people take power over their lives, a pleasure in being admired for one's good work, or in a story well told or a phrase well turned, a satisfaction in being a force for good or merely a force.

Nor is the ideal reporter I am describing able to divorce his coverage entirely from his own psychodynamics. Reporters often find their themes and find insight by projecting the issues important to their own personalities onto the events they cover, as indeed do politicians. The question about whether their perceptions are correct can be separated from the question about the degree to which their work is also about themselves. And since we know that everything is pervaded by psychodynamics, the key is for journalists to sublimate their largely unconscious motives into ethical reporting.

Theoretically, we can get this kind of reporting by placing people in the proper positions who have achieved mature adulthood and a degree of wholeness in themselves. But we would quickly run out of available prospects. Fortunately, independent reporting doesn't demand non-neurotic psyches on the part of its creators. In the world as it actually is, we see little or no work that is pure in motive, nor are we likely to in the near future, unless our culture finds some rapid method for remodeling human nature and profoundly changing human motives. In the world as it is, independent reporting is intermixed with psychodynamics, domination, sadism and submissiveness, because there is no realm of human behavior that is entirely free from the affects of childhood. Reporters often write fair and honest investigative reports partly to please bosses, and they write articles that show independence from their publishers to get revenge.

It is this fact more than any other that creates reason for hope in reform, because it means we can create a social system in the news media that will bring about the results we seek, even though most of its members, like the rest of us, are profoundly flawed. We can create incentives and disincentives, and a set of mores and values, so that neurotic reporters will engage in relatively non-neurotic journalism, and become better people as a result and help create a better society. The same yearnings to please editors, get promotions, be admired, and get revenge for past slights can be used to motivate reporters to do better journalism. Ultimately, it is a work of culture, a matter of the professional values in news organizations more than it is a matter of resolving Oedipus complexes.

But such a project would impose other requirements. One would need owners, publishers and editors who understand that readers will flock to those who tell truths they can't get elsewhere. One would need owners, publishers and editors who are willing to exercise courage in the face of intimidation and publishers willing to pay salaries to attract better qualified and older professionals, and editors with the clearness of vision to carry out such a project.

Ethical or independent reporting would break the symbiotic and parasitical relationship that now exists between the press and political establishment. Today, most news organizations wait for some issue to enter the public realm before it is registered in coverage. It waits for damning reports to be released about government agencies before it conducts its own investigations and for energy crises before it focuses on the need for a policy. Independent journalism wouldn't shy away from become a mover in its own right. Instead of waiting to be fed, a truly independent press would dig up what is really going on in government and expose it to the light of day, routinely, without the fanfare that accompanies investigative reports. It would expose and help the public understand waste and fraud, along with the manipulations, secret deals, power plays, political and bureaucratic turf wars, influence peddling, career enhancements, expediency, timidity, lack of foresight, errors, disorganization and passing of the buck that interfere with government's ability to properly manage our affairs.

It would send its reporters into the endless halls of the bureaucracy, with all necessary mobile life support systems attached - tape recorder, laptop computer, notebook, pen, telephone directory - like explorers entering a dark continent where deals are made in secret meetings, where people with money influence events, where bureaucrats create sovereign domains and ward off intruders, where tax dollars are wasted because of negligence rather than incompetence and where outright fraud and theft are still routine, and ask them to report back what they see and sense, what they read and are told. A reporter simply assigned to hang out in a large bureaucracy, to get to know the players, make alliances, find the disgruntled and browse through files and memos will come up with amazing stories of intrigue and influence, of power plays and territories and major blunders that someone making a quick, surgical strike into the bureaucracy to get one particular story will miss. A good reporter going into any situation and any institution will do the same.

As a result, the subject of contemporary news coverage would undergo a partial shift, from policy to implementation, from public events to what happens behind the scenes that brings those events about. It would focus more attention on the vast realm of administration, bureaucracy and action, where decisions are actually implemented and where most of the public actually comes into contact with government, though this realm doesn't have larger than life players who stride the world stage, engaging in combat with other players. In short, it would willingly do without some of the ingredients for easy-to-use plot lines and drama that it now has and would no longer rely on the interchangeable news stories about City Commission actions and government decisions that fill local news sections, revealing only the uppermost layer of the institutions it is supposed to cover.

In all its coverage, it would focus more attention on what goes on behind the scenes. It would pay more attention to the way candidates for office have handled positions and situations in the past, to who their advisors and staff are, to the power brokers who influence decisions, and to the substance of their vision. It would truly expose the way image is manipulated by exposing both its own role in this process, and by exposing the way candidates tailor their actions for coverage. It would give less attention to the petty and daily photo opportunities that candidates create in an attempt to manufacture news. If nothing else, it would have less time and space to do so, because other, more genuine concerns would demand coverage.

Ironically, if independent reporting were to became the norm, the cries of persecution and accusations of liberal bias and unfairness would increase dramatically, at least at first, as an increasing number of politicians found their mishandling of the public trust exposed to public view. Then, many of the manipulations that pervade government would start to wither away under pressure from public outrage and social and legal sanctions, and government would become more democratic, in place of the hybrid of democracy and secret influence that rules today.

Independent reporting would also cover the genuine surface of events more vividly. In place of boilerplate stories about announcements and decisions, with quotes carefully balanced on each side, it would describe the process of decision making, with vivid descriptions of the actions of players. How did the City Commission come to take a certain vote? What was the interplay of discussion: what maneuvers were used: what did each side say to press its case; who was in the audience calling the shots; how did they act; how did they look, what did they do to press their position?

Independent reporting would also provide more details about events in other nations, about the players, the terrain, the technology, the strategy, in place of general summaries. And it would seek to make the sprawling and imperfect nature of the world more obvious, instead of always obscuring the ambiguity and lack of symmetry in life with perfectly designed reports.

The cause of independent reporting would be strengthened by laws providing greater oversight and access to government. Here, we see that America needs competent and courageous performance and financial auditors to examine every phase of government, at all levels, to focus on procedures and the way government handles money and the way its workers handle time, so it can save hundreds of billions of wasted dollars. Good auditors and good reporters have a way of finding each other and forging alliances, because both have an interest in publicizing what is wrong with government. Auditors discover that news coverage and the threat of it enhances their power to bring about change by mobilizing public opinion and intimidating those with something to hide. Reporters discover that auditors provide them with a window into government and a source of expertise to help them evaluate what they observe. Reporters are thus able to avoid being snowed into playing down or omitting discrediting facts, by government officials who feed them phony rationalizations and fake explanations and lie as a matter of course.

Similarly, the nation needs a system of public access laws that require government to make most of its documents public and not just when someone who knows a particular document exists, asks for it. And it needs laws at all levels that reveal the influences at work on government officials.

Just as we need auditors to provide oversight of government, so do we need a news media to cover the news media, one that will be as unabashed in publicizing discrediting information about the press as the press is about publicizing such information about other people. More media critics and ombudsman would help, but what we really need is a change in the definition of news so the news media covers the news media as a matter of course, when it makes legitimate news. Government and news media alike are now closed institutions, their method of operation mostly a mystery to the public. We need to press each of them between two panes of glass so the tunnels and connecting links can be observed at most points, while preserving enough privacy to make it possible for people to do their jobs.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that this approach to challenging authority would not in itself result in human emancipation and the maturing of our society. There are more profound questions about why so much press coverage is negative, about the importance that is placed on discrediting reputations, about why government and social disorder occupy so much time and space, about the models of human motivation and society that are used and about why so many regions of human life such as the positive emotion, empathy, the appreciation of life and beauty, art, philosophy and social science are defined out of most news coverage.

A truly independent press, one that is unimaginable today, might want to tell more difficult truths about the nature of society and personality, about the role of sex and power and love and hate, about the need for acceptance, order, safety and the fear of death, about the misuse of power and position that pervades society, about ethics and how all these affect both public and private life. It might become a forum for discussions of what society and, ultimately, what humanity, can become.

Still, the introduction of more independent reporting in the coverage of government and public life would itself result in dramatic change. Government, revealed and reformed, would improve and all those sectors of society that rely on government to create a holding environment in which they can prosper would improve as well. In addition, news would provide a model of legitimate action that would strengthen the forces for good that already exist.

The United States and the world would get better government and a better administration of their wealth, if the politicians and the bureaucrats would decide to go straight on their own or if the people would demand it or if the press were to become an irresistible force for good against our very moveable politicians. None of these is likely to happen but, of the three, the last seems at least not entirely farfetched. What we will probably see, if human progress continues, is a gradual improvement in all these realms. Still, it is no mere utopianism to believe that the press, by itself and entirely of its own volition, could become a force for human emancipation and help break the cycle of violence, untruth and confusion that now governs our affairs.


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