Home Media Biggest 2013 Scandal: TV News Ethical Breakdown

Biggest 2013 Scandal: TV News Ethical Breakdown

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by Paul Goldman

Not long ago, the ethics of news journalism would have never, EVER have permitted a candidate for governor of any party to use clips from its news shows in a political TV ad in the manner done today. I am talking NEVER.

The profession – if we dare call it a profession nowadays, given their apparent eagerness to be part of the story they are allegedly impartially covering – previously enforced this rule in any number of persuasive ways, including the threat of a law suit. All news casts are copyrighted. The only reason  for a campaign to cross the line was when they wanted to make a news story out of getting sued, thus getting a front-page newspaper story and lead TV news coverage of the campaign issue at the heart of the ad in question. But as a general rule, it is a lose-lose situation for any campaign to be seen as fighting the news media. All political ads are reviewed by the TV station before airing, meaning it is impossible to air such ads without the news clips in question being brought – or having the opportunity to be brought – to the attention of the producing TV station.

Bottom line: The kind of “slice and dice” use of TV news clips in 2013 would have NEVER BEEN PERMITTED, as is now commonplace, in the past. The candidates are not doing anything wrong. Indeed, such footage is highly useful especially in attack ads. If you don’t do it, the opposition will. So campaigns today fight fire with fire. That’s their job.

But let’s not miss the self-evident. There was a time when journalists would have gone on strike to protect the image of their profession. They would have walked out if their TV stations not done everything – short of hiring a hit man – to get those attack ads with their reporting, their images, off the air. We are talking baseline, gut journalistic ethics in the eyes of the profession. No self-respecting journalist would have wanted their work product used in such a partisan way.

So, what has changed in the new self-image of the journalistic profession? Why is a cardinal principle of TV journalism’s greatest reporters and anchors no longer considered sacrosanct by the new generation of said TV stars? It is stunning how today’s reporters just shrug their shoulders  at the practice. It violates the history of journalism, this use of clips and edited versions of a legitimate news report.

 

As for newspapers, the rules were always different. Newspaper editorials are opinion, not hard news. They are written with the expectation of being reproduced by the endorsed campaign. Citing newspaper endorsements and a line or two from said endorsements has long been accepted practice. But again: editorials are not news, they are opinion. This is a big difference.

It is true that newspaper news stories over the years have been cited in campaign TV ads – a line or word highlighted along with the headline. In that regard, this has a certain commonality with using TV news clips. As a general matter, newspaper news departments were not happy when this was done, or at least that had been the long-time ethical view. You would get blowback from them if they thought you had used their work unfairly. Every campaign took pains not to anger the beast, as they buy ink by the barrel according to the old adage.

So let’s ask again, why have the ethical standards of TV news journalists and their stations deteriorated to the point where they appear to shrug their shoulders at a practice strongly opposed not all that long ago? Indeed a practice they felt played havoc with the image of a neutral, trustworthy news media is now accepted. Think about it: If you know your news report is going to wind up in a political ad, this can, presumably does, change your thinking in doing, even airing, the “package” as it is known in the business. The reporter knows he or she is probably going to be a participant in the process in a way that would have “freaked out” the profession’s greatest reporters.

It is one thing for a campaign to rebroadcast the “package,” the whole segment in its entirety in an internet ad. This is less objectionable in that there is no partisan slicing and dicing. But, of course, it still crosses the line, as the broadcast is being used for political purposes by a partisan campaign.

Remember also that such rebroadcast by a campaign can be, and is, used to raise money over the internet, another previous taboo for legitimate news journalists and their organizations. TV ads are on all websites where pitches for money are made. So again: What has changed in the TV news business to explain this huge difference in self image in terms of how the profession wants to be viewed by the public?

My answer: I don’t have a good explanation, only a series of bad ones which are somewhat depressing to consider, since they all add up to a slippery slope not anywhere near bottom. In the end, TV news, as a productive part of society, rests largely on an image of trustworthiness and impartiality.

However one tries to explain the situation, the use of such clips by political campaigns, by SuperPACs and the like can only DEMEAN AND DIMINISH the perceived qualities of TV news. More and more, the news business is being reduced to a mere commodity, packaged and sold like a used car or any other product.

Progress?  The same ethic once held, for example, in the arts: no self-respecting artist would allow his song, for example, to be used by a fast food company, a car company, or any other commercial venture to sell their product. NEVER. Such action violated the basic tenet of being an artist!

I am not smart enough to judge right or wrong here.  Rather, it is a matter of a self-imposed test of professionalism for said profession by those in profession.  It is true that TV stations now do stories analyzing TV ads, especially those using their clips, in large measure to tell the viewing audience they have no control over a campaign’s use of their footage and that said use does not imply an endorsement by the station. But of course this misses the basic ethical point: how does it help the image of the news profession to be dragged so directly into a partisan fight by political use of allegedly non-partisan, neutral news clips?

It doesn’t. The fact therefore, that the TV news departments and their reporters are not FIGHTING TO PROTECT THEIR IMAGE speaks loudly in this silence. There was a time when news professionalism considered what campaigns due today as a violation of the basic integrity of the basic fabric of their profession. This is no longer true.

How did things sink to this level? When did journalists suddenly enjoy this new role in political campaigns? It is a fair question that doesn’t have a happy ending.  

  • They are desperate for “eyeballs” and revenues in an industry under tremendous economic pressure. When faced with the choice between ethics and journalistic integrity on the one hand, and $$$$ on the other, obviously they took the $$$$ and ran. Thus, in 2012, we saw thousands of ads by the Romney campaign that were OUTRIGHT LIES, yet TV stations aired them anyway. Why? Simple: they made the stations a s***-ton of money. End of story. Same thing with why a local TV news station, WRC, rejected an ad by a group opposing the Keystone XL Canadian tar sands export pipeline, because they didn’t want to piss off their MUCH MUCH MUCH more lucrative fossil fuel advertisers (e.g., the American Petroleum Institute). What’s galling is to have these stations claim some sort of “higher” reason for doing what they do, when it clearly is 100% about the $$$$$$. Zero ethics. Zero journalistic integrity. Lots of greed and cowardice. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s your corporate media in the year 2013, with very few exceptions.  

  • Jeb Stuart

    The big change in recent years is the technology, the ability to capture the images and audio and feed them into an editing program.  Twenty years ago you had to go to the stations to get a copy of a program.   To get video of a House of Delegates or State Senate floor debate, you had to go to the clerk’s offices and ask for.  No anonymity and they had the right to say no.  

    I’m not sure the stations could assert and maintain a copyright infringement claim if the piece is then edited to distort.  Pretty much all they could do is issue their own disclaimer trying to set the record straight, which would be seen by a small fraction of the people seeing the ad.

    The media themselves are supposed to be the watchdog.  But they’ve gone from a pack of dangerous wolves to a basket of kittens.  And a small basket at that.  

  • Jim B

    Regarding the FCC, what are the penalties for airing false or misleading ads? Apparently none since there are so many.