For years, it’s been black letter law in journalistic ethics: Never use your position, insight or knowledge to aid or advise public figures – particularly politicians – in return for something of value. It was a bright line to be crossed at significant personal and professional peril.
Over the years the line had been blurred by some in the media who self-rationalize their actions, embracing a delusion their transgressions would escape discovery. Today, the line is no longer blurry – it’s been erased altogether, expunged by self-aggrandizing journalists blinded to their ethical obligations by their exposure to power centers and taken in by the attention paid to them by those who occupy those centers.
CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo paid with his $6 million a year job for advising his New York Gov. brother, Andrew Cuomo, how to deal with the media over allegations of sexual harassment. He was protected until revelations he used his position to gain knowledge from other reporters and sources to pass along to his brother – information valuable to the governor’s damage control efforts. The backlash over the disclosures and the embarrassment it threatened proved more than CNN could tolerate. It was time to cut their losses. Cuomo was dismissed within days.
The recent disclosures of text messages sent by the hosts of two leading shows on Fox News Channel to the chief of staff to President Trump urging a speech to the nation at the height of the Jan. 6 assault on the U. S. Capitol has again raised ethical questions over personal involvement in presidential decision-making.
Both Sean Hannity and his colleague Laura Ingraham sent frantic messages to chief of staff Mark Meadows, imploring a presidential address urging the protestors to leave the Capitol. Their messages warned the riot was inflicting major damage on Trump and would destroy his legacy. Both justified their private messages as nothing different from what they’d already said repeatedly on the air. Why, then, did each feel it crucial to use private back channels to offer advice if not for a self-serving desire to play a significant role in a history-making – albeit disgraceful – event?
Granted, neither Hannity nor Ingraham went as far over the line as Cuomo, but their efforts to insert themselves into the center of the riveting events swirling around them smacked of personal aggrandizement and self-promotion. That both were long-time supporters of Trump and used their platforms to advance his agenda while belittling his opponents does not excuse privately serving in an advisory capacity to him.
Cuomo, Hannity, Ingraham, along with their colleagues at competing networks, would refer to themselves as journalists but they are not reporters in the traditional sense. Rather, they are editorialists and polemicists who are paid handsomely – not to mention book deals and lecture fees – to deliver ideologically driven and frequently inflammatory dissertations to audiences receptive to their messages and who tune in faithfully as a form of validation for their rigidly held views.
There is no objectivity in their harangues, no recognition of valid contrary points of view, and no understanding that opinions different from theirs deserve attention. In other words, none of the components traditionally present in news are found. It is opinion only, one individual’s interpretation, ideologically right or left, of national and international events.
The communications revolution upended the media landscape, overwhelming the print press and driving much of the traditional news outlets into financial oblivion while hastening the arrival and dominance of opinion-based programing. It created an environment for points of view to masquerade as news free of the obligations and responsibilities that historically governed the industry.
The line that had always separated the news media from involvement in the political universe was disparaged as a quaint notion no longer relevant. It produced the kind of entanglements that brought down Chris Cuomo and legitimized the actions of Hannity, Ingraham and others who see nothing untoward in adopting roles as advisors and strategists for political figures.
Public confidence in the news media is at an all time low, and critics scornfully refer to journalistic ethics as an oxymoron. It is time for many in the media to engage in self-reflection and cease contributing to the scorn.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in New Jersey. You can reach him at cgolden1937@gmail.