What began with “Deep Throat” in the Watergate years has become a deep moat of sludgy journalism today, calling into question the standards of ethical journalism.
The slop went airborne with Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes” report on documents alleging, among other things, that President Bush failed to attend a physical, impugning his service in the Air National Guard.
Within days, the media world was flooded with counterclaims that the documents were falsified. Although analysis of the documents has been inconclusive at best, CBS was condemned by many for not doing their homework. The aftermath drew more attention than the original story.
Then Kitty Kelley’s inflammatory biography of the Bush dynasty, “The Family,” hit shelves in bookstores last week. The White House denounced it as “garbage,” while the book’s editor claims the book was vetted by legal experts “erring on the side of caution.”
The book’s allegations against the President certainly are damning, and the critics have harangued the author for her use of multiple unnamed and secondhand sources.
The discontent with these reports is justified. What CBS and Kelley did does not set a stellar example for journalistic ethics. Journalism heeds a higher calling than gossip.
But their offerings were legal.
Assuming CBS and Kelley made their reports in good faith, their work is not libel or slander. The 1964 landmark Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan ruled that, absent “actual malice,” constitutionally protected speech included “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks” of public officials.
By “actual malice,” CBS and/or Kelley would have had to release their reports with either prior knowledge of factual error or reckless disregard for the veracity of the statements.
Political pundits have decried the reports for failing to meet journalistic ethics. They are within their rights to do this.
But it should be noted that when the spin doctors representing the accused denounce such reports as “inherently false” rather than “unsubstantiated,” they, too, are compromising journalistic ethics. Rather than sweeping away the dirt, these entries are adding more mess to the pile.
It remains to be seen whether CBS or Kelley knowingly released false accusations. If they did not, their reports are fair game, as are reports criticizing their methods.
The public has the right to take from it what they will. This is the beauty of free speech.
Journalistic methods should be questioned, and ethics maintained. Slinging ooze is better left for Oozeball or “The Jerry Springer Show.”