Early in his tenure as a Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan asked reporters for a favor: He would appreciate if they wouldn’t reveal that he had a child, since he wasn’t married just yet. Many of the writers already knew this but didn’t mention it because they didn’t want to alienate one of the greatest athletes of the century. They liked him. They wanted to be liked by him. And they needed him.
There’s a healthy debate to be had over whether an out-of-wedlock child born to a basketball player, even a superstar, is newsworthy. It certainly had nothing to do with performance on the court. But given Jordan’s carefully choreographed image, the information might have been useful to readers in assessing the man.
More troubling was the tacit understanding entered into by the reporters: We’ll agree to this as long as you are available to us. This daily journalistic transaction, more than any other kind of relationship, has the potential to undermine Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s simple commandment: “Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.” Protecting sources and currying their favor so they will remain sources, whether in a sweaty locker room or swank boardroom, too easily crosses the line from common sense to conspiracy, cheating the public and betraying the truth.
Political coverage often depends on reporters getting along with candidates and public officials in the hope they will achieve candor and trust. Ideally this benefits the reader. But these bunker friendships can obscure good judgment. Veteran political reporters and editors found it difficult to believe former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was capable of being a felon, all the way up to his conviction for mail fraud. And their coverage reflected this bias.
It’s often that way when you’ve spent long days together picking apart policy and talking football over steaks and beer. Every police reporter knows how hard it is to remain sternly objective about the cop on the beat when you are shuttling together from one crime scene to the next, finding in each other much needed common ground.
The most egregious breach of public trust and professionalism is a hidden relationship that might compromise the journalist’s ability to report fairly. News organizations have gotten increasingly vigilant about policing such conflicts, but this doesn’t happen everywhere. I’m haunted by the story that a reporter covering a celebrity was at the same time writing a book with this person—without any editor’s knowledge. Of course, in much of celebrity journalism, public relations specialists hold reporters and editors hostage by masterfully offering the carrot of access and exclusivity.
Further eroding “independence of mind,” as the authors put it, is the expanding punditocracy. More journalists are angling for face time on television, trafficking in opinion, speculation and guesswork as part of the information elite. They give speeches for large fees. They vacation together and work out together and feed each other’s sense of mission and importance. Is there any place chummier than a TV studio in Washington, D.C. on a Sunday morning?
But the most insidious loss of independence happens daily, quietly, in the minds of journalists determined to protect access. It took a freelancer, not a battalion of beat reporters, to expose the anti-Semitic leanings of the New York Knicks’ Bible-study clique. In the arithmetic of daily reporting, the beat writers have the most to lose from delivering the unflinching truth and burning their sources. Context. Background. Authority. Quotes. But how many crucial facts get lost in these off-the-record conversations and moments?
There is inspiration in the opposite approach: Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman courageously revealing Jesse Jackson’s Hymietown comment and a Sports Illustrated writer delivering John Rocker’s racist diatribe even though it might have been easier, even tempting, to dismiss it as mischief.
Overdependence on sources is not as obvious a violation as fabricating quotes or events. But its consequences can be just as dangerous. It’s about airbrushing the rough edges of truth. The antidote is reliance on incontrovertible fact. The most ambitious journalism does not require dealmaking. It doesn’t depend on what someone says, but on what can be proven. It doesn’t rely on hunches about a person’s character or snap judgments about the relevance of private matters to public policy. The standards of the best investigative journalism should be the standards of the industry at large. Allegiances, affiliations and predilections need to be neutralized or disclosed.
Beyond that, there must be a sense that our job is different from those of the people we cover, that people are going to be mad at us, that comfort lies in the shared ideals and ethics of the newsroom and not at the feet of the best to play the game.
Robert Blau, a 1997 Nieman Fellow, is associate managing editor/projects and investigations at the Chicago Tribune.