Old Values for a New Landscape  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   November 1999

Old Values for a New Landscape   

Truth and accuracy are still paramount, Internet or no Internet.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Related reading:
   » Navigating a Minefield
   » Charting New Terrain


WHEN I WAS GROWING hen I was growing up, my father had very few rules. One--no ball playing in the house--my brother Jon and I ignored regularly, once with disastrous results.
Inevitably, one of us threw the football too hard and too inaccurately, and we broke a window. Dad was at work, so there was time to recoup. But, home repairs not being a Jewish skill, we were perplexed about what to do next.
Luckily, the legendary Uncle Blackie, who defied the ethnic stereotype, stopped by. Unluckily, he was hanging out the window installing a new pane of glass when my father came home from work early.
Now Rick Rieder could be very tough when he had to be, but he never was with us, and he gave us a break and pretended he hadn't noticed anything. But it wasn't easy sitting through dinner with a straight face as Blackie softly crooned a parody of a Ray Charles song popular at the time: "Putty is up to a quarter a cup, and it's busted."
Rick Rieder had another rule: never defend an indefensible position. That rule came to mind immediately as debate swirled over Edmund Morris' authorized "biography" of Ronald Reagan, "Dutch."
The author, as everyone now knows, added a little extra to the book. He inserted himself as an observer, describing his reactions to events in Reagan's life at which he could not possibly have been present.
And the phony character was just the beginning. The guy didn't even level with his readers about what he was doing. Not that that would have made everything better, but it certainly would have helped. And to compound the felony, he buttressed the bogus passages by inventing bogus footnotes.
It doesn't get much worse.
I was astonished that a respected author could even think of doing something like this. But that was nothing compared with my amazement that anyone could actually defend such behavior. It was bad enough that Morris and his superstar editor did. But it was absolutely preposterous that someone who was not a party to the farce could, or would.
I don't care how brilliant a literary device it was, or how it enabled the author--who apparently had been suffering from writer's block over Project Gipper for years--to tell a Greater Truth.
Give me a break. Fact is fact. Fiction is fiction. You want to make stuff up, write a novel. Even in these postmodernist times, there are some rules that matter, and one of them is that you don't play fast and loose with the truth when you're writing nonfiction.
That applies to Edmund Morris every bit as much as it does to Stephen Glass and Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle and Julie Amparano. And all the faux sophistication in the world can't change that.
Standards matter, whatever the undertaking and whatever the era. That's a point made forcefully by Michael Oreskes in his piece, "Navigating a Minefield".
Oreskes, the New York Times' Washington bureau chief, has spent a lot of time thinking about the implications of the Internet for journalism, for both the new media and the old. He saw firsthand the challenges the digital age poses as he steered the Times bureau through the treacherous shoals of the Clinton/Lewinsky story.
That was the first mega-scandal to unfold in a warp-speed world in which both the Internet and 24-hour cable television news were major players. The results weren't always pretty.
Significantly, some of the high-profile mistakes were made not by the Matt Drudges of the world but by respected traditional news organizations. Problems tended to stem from moving too quickly and from relying on flimsy sourcing.
Oreskes examines the notion that because the Internet is so fast, the rules are somehow different. He says he has heard journalists observe, "The Internet is about speed, not accuracy."
That, Oreskes rightfully concludes, is nonsense. Journalism is journalism. You don't go with the story until you've got it nailed down, and that rule applies regardless of how you plan to disseminate it. Sure, the Internet poses a whole new set of ethical challenges, as Barb Palser shows us (see "Charting New Terrain,"). But it hardly blows away the need for accuracy and truth.
It's not as if rapid-fire competition was invented as the computer and the modem took center stage. Try telling that to any reporter who worked for the AP or UPI in the days when the two were bitter rivals, when a two-minute beat meant a decisive victory, when filing just after the other wire meant humiliation.
Standards matter, particularly in the whirlwind of contemporary journalism. It's a message we can't hear too often.

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