Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Getting lectured by Hyman on journalistic ethics is sort of like . . .

. . . being lectured about law and order by Tony Soprano (to borrow an analogy from the 44th President of the United States).

The whole “Stolen Honor” fiasco seems to be taking a toll on poor Mark Hyman. In his latest "Point," Hyman flails wildly at journalists in general, but fails to land a punch. It’s been a while since we’ve had a thoroughly bizarre Hyman commentary (rather than one that was merely simple minded, poorly argued, and false), so we must admit to particularly enjoying this bit of schadenfreude as the Sinclair implosion continues.

Oddly enough, the commentary is framed around the revealing of Valerie Plame, the C.I.A. operative who’s husband, Joseph Wilson, discovered the shadiness of the “yellow cake” uranium rumors that served as a central part of the Iraq/WMD myth that the Bush administration used to lead America to war. We say “odd” because Hyman has in the past limited his comments on this episode to attempts to assassinate the character of Wilson. Now, however, Hyman claims to be aghast that the press would hide behind its privilege to protect sources in order not to reveal who leaked the Plame information to the media.

But it’s not “journalists” who are at issue. It’s one journalist: right-wing pundit and resident talking head at CNN, Robert Novak. And although Novak has called for other journalists to be compelled to reveal sources in other cases, he has refused himself.

So, Hyman seems to be taking on a fellow member of the Angry Right for protecting the Bush administration. But he never uses Novak’s name, and he never says a word about the treasonous outing of Plame (something that could only have been done by a high level member of the Bush administration). If Hyman was truly concerned about national security, he’d use his platform to publicly call on President Bush to ask all members of his administration whether they gave Novak this information and to fire the person who did. Of course, Hyman doesn’t do this.

Instead, Hyman launches headlong into a convoluted attack on the right of the press to protect sources. Claiming that journalists feel they have rights no one else has, Hyman goes after what he sees as the arrogance of the press in thinking they deserve protection that aren’t afforded other professions. Journalists should “accept the risks” involved in their profession and not seek protection from being sent to prison if they refuse to divulge the identity of sources who themselves might have committed crimes. Hyman suggests seeking this sort of privilege shows that journalists believe they have more rights than any other profession, including police officers and fire fighters, who accept the risk of their jobs.

Hyman then offers up as “proof” of journalism’s double standard the fact that the editor of the New York Times protested when a reporter was held in contempt of court for not revealing a source, yet immediately informed authorities when an envelope arrived at the Times’ offices containing an unknown white powder.

It’s hard to know what’s going on here. Sure, the commentary allows Hyman to take passing ad hominem attacks on Wilson and the editor of the New York Times, two favorite Hyman targets. But the logical contortions involved hardly make it worth the effort.

First, the Times episode: here, we have more Hyman apples-and-oranges fruit salad. The envelope with white powder wasn’t a source. It wasn’t information. It was a possibly lethal substance that could conceivably poison dozens, if not hundreds of people. Telling the authorities about it didn’t compromise journalistic integrity or make it any less likely that the Times’ reporters would be able to cultivate future sources for stories. Comparing this action to revealing a confidential source is simply idiotic.

Of course, Hyman doesn’t believe the Times shouldn’t have reported receiving this white powder; he believes they should report names of any sources whenever they are asked in order to help protect the “safety” of others.

But it’s precisely the public good that’s at the heart of the long-standing rights of journalists to keep sources confidential. Without such rights, almost no one with any inside knowledge of criminal wrongdoing would ever talk to the media. It’s the promise of confidentiality that makes it more likely that those who know of criminal acts (perhaps because they themselves were a party to them) will come forward and give the press information that will bring these actions to light. Low-level terrorists are more likely to give information about their bosses. Corporate officers are more likely to talk about board-room corruption. Government officials are more likely to reveal abuses of the public trust (remember Watergate, Mark?).

Confidentiality isn’t a right journalists made up because they think they are better than everyone else. It’s a right we as a free society have made sure they have so that we the people have a truly free press to serve us.

Moreover, confidentiality, contrary to Hyman’s rantings, is hardly a right singular to journalism. Clergy, lawyers, therapists, and doctors all have understood rights to protect the identities of those they speak with. Why? Because this confidentiality is central to their ability to do their job. Does Hyman think your local priest should be made to tell authorities what is heard in the confessional, if asked?

Hyman has a “complicated” relationship with the field of journalism. As we’ve noted before, he takes on the trappings of a journalist himself when it suits him, and he obviously works for a media conglomerate. Yet he trashes the profession liberally (if you’ll excuse the expression) as part of his ongoing attack on anyone who dares question the Bush administration. Given this schizophrenia, not to mention the claim by a fellow Sinclair Broadcasting employee that he’s “certifiable,” it might be time for Mark to spend some time on the couch. Let’s just hope for his sake that his therapist has a more thorough understanding of the purpose of confidentiality than he does.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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