Down East 2013 ©
A friend of mine asked me recently if there was much difference between covering the two subjects I write about regularly, Maine politics and the state’s media.
“Yeah,” I replied, “the politicians are much nicer people.”
I was kidding.
It’s not as if candidates, bureaucrats and elected officials haven’t had some really nasty things to say about me. They have, although a lot of the time, they’ve had the guts to detail my perceived shortcomings to my face or in letters to the editor that they signed.
It’s not as if politicians haven’t been two-faced with me, greeting me warmly in public, while plotting in private to pass legislation requiring my immediate disembowelment without anesthesia. They have, but they’re politicians. I don’t expect them to behave in ways that are contrary to their genetic makeup.
And it’s not even as if pols find it beneath themselves to make emotional appeals for my dismissal to my editors, claiming I’ve intruded on their private lives, tainted their innocent children and spouses with scandal, and caused their family dogs to become so upset they’ve ruined their expensive living-room rugs. They have, but it’s not as if politicians have a lot of limits.
As for journalists, they do all the same things. They just use a different excuse.
Unlike our elected leaders, members of the news media pride themselves on not only having a constitutionally protected mission, but also a strict code of ethics. This code makes them feel special. Better than factory workers. Superior to cab drivers. And far, far above mere politicians.
I know. I’ve felt that specialness – and been guilty of it – nearly everywhere I’ve ever worked in this business.
Trouble is, media ethical standards (which vary significantly in content from one newsroom to another) lack an enforcement mechanism. As a veteran editor told me many years ago, “This ain’t golf. You’ll never see a reporter call a violation on himself.”
So, other than making journalists feel good about themselves, their codes of ethics don’t always mean much. Reporters and editors have been known to bend the rules enough to allow them to decry politicians taking money from big contributors, while also accepting financial support from the subjects of their stories. They can insist corporate leaders correct their false statements, while neglecting to run corrections of their own errors. They can write columns complaining about the unpleasant tone of anonymous comments posted by online readers, while launching their own unsigned personal attacks on the Web.
It’s all OK because we journalists are special.
I mention all this in the wake of last week’s storm of criticism over my coverage of the still-pending Blethen sale.
There’s no question I got it wrong when I said the deal for the Maine newspapers would close on April 30. I deserve to take some knocks for that. So, let’s be clear: I’m not whining about the dozens of insults, either personal or professional, posted after my story ran. Comes with the territory.
What does bother me, though, is that among the screeds about my failings are a few comments that claim I’ve somehow done deliberate damage to Blethen employees and their families by jerking them around about the sale. In a typical comment, an (anonymous, of course) poster said I was responsible for “hurting a lot of hard working people who fear what their future holds.”
I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s true. My question then is: How does what I did differ from about 90 percent of the news stories written in this state?
Doesn’t it cause distress in the community when a newspaper reports the local paper mill might close? I’ve seen a lot of those stories lately. Some of them have turned out to be right. Others haven’t.
How about stories on proposed state budget cutbacks? As the husband of a state worker, I can testify that such reporting is capable of causing considerable distress. But those cuts haven’t always happened.
Crime reports, environmental updates, even coverage of town meetings or a dispute at the local historical society can lead to outrage and confusion among the populace. It’s an everyday consequence of what we do, and it’s generally unavoidable. The only difference between that and my coverage of the Blethen sale (which has been going on for over a year with reasonably high levels of accuracy) is that some members of the news media are personally involved in the latter.
It would appear that journalists aren’t all that comfortable when subjected to the same consequences of media attention as lesser mortals. The reason for that may be that we’re not used to having our weapons turned on ourselves.
Or it could be that privilege thing. We’re special. We don’t have to put up with the crap we subject everyone else to.
Like I said above, feel free to criticize me for my errors, my opinions or my shortcomings as a human being. But before you post your fearless – and anonymous – recitations of my failings, consider whether your own work meets the standards you claim to espouse.
Are you as guilty as I am of upsetting your readers, listeners or viewers? If the answer is yes, you might give some thought to coloring your criticism with a little empathy.
And if the answer is no, maybe you ought to be in some other business, one where you won’t be considered so special.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.