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Editorial: Ethics Fall on Hard Times

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

You know the television industry’s ethical standards are in trouble when Walter Cronkite, once celebrated as the most trusted man in America, becomes ensnared along with a number of other high-profile broadcast journalists in a scheme to dress up drug advertising as hard news.
Mr. Cronkite and the others-including Aaron Brown of CNN, Morley Safer of CBS’s 60 Minutes and John Stossel of ABC’s 20/20-were hardly masterminds of the scheme, but could be described as patsies. They are guilty of little more than gullibility, but in being gullible they allowed their reputations to be tarnished.
The TV newsmen were lured into seemingly lucrative deals by Florida outfit WJMK Inc., which signed them to tape introductions to a series of informational videos to run on PBS. But an article in The New York Times revealed those messages to be loosely disguised ads paid for by drug manufacturers. In the ensuing furor, Mr. Cronkite and the others concluded that the material wasn’t up to their standards and extricated themselves from their contracts.
One might be tempted to conclude that the system worked, that everyone got out safely and no harm was done. But the broadcast news business should be alarmed that it took exposure in The New York Times to convince these veteran broadcasters and their news organizations to take a more critical look at what they were getting themselves into.
The Times is itself embroiled in an ethical quagmire following revelations that reporter Jayson Blair fabricated information in numerous stories that ran in the paper. The paper’s own ethical problems have no direct bearing on the standards and practices of television news, but the Blair case is another symptom of what amounts to a raging problem for the media: credibility. And it is a large problem indeed for television news.
In the WJMK case, the promise of easy money (Mr. Safer reportedly earned $100,000 for one day’s work) should have set off a few alarms. The news professionals who got mixed up with WJMK appear to have been a little too eager to get involved and too willing to slack off on doing their homework. Their networks, meanwhile, appear to have been less than responsible in their scrutiny of these side projects.
As Linda Mason, CBS News VP for public affairs, said, “We think common sense should prevail.” TelevisionWeek agrees, but we also think steps should be taken, if not to improve ethical standards at TV news organizations then at least to improve the diligence with which those standards are carried out. The reputation of the industry is already on shaky ground with an increasingly skeptical public, which sees the lines blurring every day between reporting and promotion, between news and advertising, between objectivity and slant. Common sense would dictate that the industry move decisively in the direction of reassuring viewers of the professionalism and responsibility of television news operations.
The WJMK incident should be a wakeup call for broadcast news, a clear illustration of the potential cost of the industry’s failure to police itself. Mr. Cronkite, who retired from CBS News in 1981, built a reputation on decades of solid reporting. It should not be tainted by his brief involvement with WJMK. But a lack of diligence even this one time, even after all those decades, does leave a negative impression. And therein lies a valuable reminder for all news professionals: A reputation, a journalist’s fragile stock in trade, requires careful maintenance at all times.
News professionals and the organizations that employ them would be wise to take full advantage of this painful reminder and review their procedures to ensure that they take every precaution to protect their credibility going forward. It’s not just the right thing to do, it is also good business.