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Austin Cline

Abandoning Journalism

By September 1, 2004

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One of the problems with the media coverage of conservative smears and lies is that the so-called "journalists" often don't make an effort to evaluate the credibility of the claims being made. Indeed, they sometimes deny that they have any obligation to evaluate the credibility of what they report.

Editor & Publisher explains:

[Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.] said he believes the Swift Boat Veterans coverage had been fair and properly scrutinizing. "We have printed the facts and some of those facts have undermined Kerry's opponents," he said. "We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the (Swift Boat) Veterans, we just print the facts." He defended a lengthy Post story that ran Sunday which appeared to give equal credibility to both Kerry's version of the events in Vietnam (which is supported by his crewmates and largely backed up by a paper trail) and the Swift Boat Veterans, despite the fact that previous stories in the Post and the New York Times had debunked many of the group's accounts.

The standards for becoming an executive editor at the Washington Post must not be very high. For one thing, he can’t claim that the SBV group provided any “facts” to report unless he first evaluated their claims. We are, after all, only talking about claims being made.

Of course, he might say that he was just reporting the “fact” that the claims were made and that in doing so he has no obligation to evaluate the credibility of those claims — that it’s sufficient to simply repeat whatever he’s being told. Well, what if someone tells me that Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. molests goats — do I have no ethical obligation to evaluate the credibility of that claim before publishing it? He might think so, but if he insists on that standard when he’s being targeted, he’s a hypocrite for not applying it when others are being targeted.

Either way, Downie doesn’t come off as being too terribly bright here — but, even worse, he definitely doesn’t come off as any sort of real journalist. A machine can regurgitate what it is fed and that’s what he is defending. A real journalist, however, exercises critical thinking about what they have learned and has the ability to evaluate what may or may not be true. If Downie doesn’t think that WP reporters should evaluate claims they are fed, but rather just regurgitate them, then he doesn’t believe in the basic principles or values of journalism.

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