When Journalism Rises to its Best Principles

Two gigantic extremes dominate life in America to an increasing degree and journalists either slavishly serve one or the other -- or stand between them, ethically challenged.

One extreme is full bore exposure of triviality. The peccadilloes of the stars, both show biz and political, shouted and magnified by their publicist accomplices; hyped outrage at moms who let their kids have dessert before finishing their carrots; and the juicy details of exotic murders.

The voluntary side of that is the orgy of self-exposure. Accounts of troubled childhoods that spare no gruesome detail. "Biographies" that blame everyone else for everything. Revelations that pretend to shock while expecting sympathic reactions.

Secrecy, the other extreme, is even deadlier, operating in the shadows to manipulate persons and enormous resources to maintain its own privileges. Corporations thrive on it; so do universities and governments. It takes a Freedom of Information Act to pry the Federal doors open even enough to find a fraction of what should be readily available.

The surreptitious forces operate on Wall Street to keep the odds in their favor, the police files to prevent defendents from hidden evidence and the religious organizations to disguise their abuses against children, among others.

In the worst cases, journalists either exploit public hunger for gut-spilling or allow themselves to be exploited by the agents of secrecy. Collusion with secrecy avoids the risk of conflict; besides, it's easier to go along and sometimes this desire to be liked delivers rewards, pyrrhic though they may be. There's not much risk in going after Tom Cruise, who thrives on rumor anyway, but probing the character of General McChrystal isn't only infinitely tougher but it can be personally costly to a reporter.

Martin Luther, founder of the "other" Christianity, said ordinary Christians had a "calling" or vocation through which, by God's grace, their work could serve higher causes in the world. He never specified journalism as a valid choice, and maybe he wouldn't have done so in any case, but I think there's a good reason to do so.

While too many journalists do become the lackeys of one extreme or the other, in my experience there is a core value that goes beyond the lazy or spineless versions of it that is distinctly ethical. Most every publication, print or web, has people drawn to it because of deeply held moral principles, often not articulated but exemplified in pursuit of the truth. They are the ones willing to endure endless rejections, threats, deceptions and obstacles too numerous to mention in order to wrench vital facts from the shadows of secrecy. They are the ones who find the cheats and expose the lies that have direct impact on society's welfare. I dare say that journalism is one of the remaining repositories of moral passion, no matter how misguided or ill passioned many of its practitioners may be.

The disclosure of the priest abuse scandal by the Boston Globe is but one example of the best journalistic instincts. Jason Berry, writing on his own and for NCR, has done equally stellar work. These initiatives have created a climate of insecurity in the Catholic church that in my view explains Benedict's edgy squeal of complaint against Belgian authorities for invading church premises to collect evidence in its pursuit of priest abusers. There is such a thing as unjustified intrusion but this doesn't seem to be one of them. When you keep evidence in the dark for so long you don't deserve special protection. Maybe the Belgians violated something but my hunch is that it doesn't begin to violate anything as serious as that which the Belgian church has covered up. Without investigative reporting on the secular side, such a raid would have been unthinkable.

The first rate reporters with morality in their belly exist, of course, in a media atmosphere rife with insecurity about its future, where ethics succumb to survival too often.

The editor of Lavender magazine, a gay advocate publication in Minneapolis, demonstrated the worst of the sell-out mentality by sending a reporter into a legitimately secret meeting to scandalize a Lutheran pastor. The Rev. Tom Brock, senior pastor of Hope Lutheran Church, was the target. Brock was a radio personality on a Christian station who had made a name for himself by attacking homosexuality and blaming a tornado that destroyed part of the city on the decision by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to ordain open gays. Brock had dropped out of that denomination because of that decsion.

The Lavender editor, at the recommendation of a Catholic priest, send reporter John Townsend to a group that supports gays with the agreement that the group acted like a 12-step group, requiring anonymity and confidentiality. Townsend saw Brock at the meeting and violated that code by portraying the pastor as a hypocrite. The pastor was suspended temporarily by his church and says he was attending in a professional capacity.

That was journalism gone wrong. It's too easily generalized as the standard. But it isn't. The same week Rolling Stone published the thoroughly documented story by Michael Hastings on Gen. McChrystal and his cadre of officers sniping at their superiors in Washington. Without that quality of journalism, America becomes a total prisoner of entertainment and secrecy. Done right, as Thomas Jefferson said, journalism is the lifeblood of democracy, even, perhaps, a religious calling.

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