Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Sarah Palin, media ethicist

Turn on coffee, feed kitties, take out recycling, pour coffee, open intartubes, enjoy morning's WTF moment!

Here's the relevant exchange (though if you don't read the whole transcript, you'll miss the "put government back on the side of the people of Joe Six-pack like me" part):

HH: Now Governor, the Gibson and the Couric interview struck many as sort of pop quizzes designed to embarrass you as opposed to interviews. Do you share that opinion?

SP: Well, I have a degree in journalism also, so it surprises me that so much has changed since I received my education in journalistic ethics all those years ago. But I’m not going to pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrelful. I’m going to take those shots and those pop quizzes and just say that’s okay, those are good testing grounds. And they can continue on in that mode. That’s good. That makes somebody work even harder. It makes somebody be even clearer and more articulate in their positions. So really I don’t fight it. I invite it.

Bit of background, if you haven't been keeping up. Palin graduated from the University of Idaho with a J-degree (broadcast emphasis) in 1987; the AP says she attended five colleges* in six years, though it lists four colleges and five academic years.** Most people who have been out of school for 20-plus years can look back and shake their heads at what Those Kids Today are getting away with. (I sort of doubt Gov. Palin had to reach 20 wpm*** on a manual typewriter as a prereq for her first reporting class, and you kids get off the lawn.) But before we get to all those things that have changed since her "education in journalism ethics," let's think of a few that haven't:

*Candidates will still make stuff up at the drop of a hat, on the perfectly sensible grounds that they'll be in the next county before it occurs to anyone to check
*No correction in history has ever caught up with the original whopper
*When in doubt, save your interviews for a party stooge

Has the field of media ethics changed as Palin knows it? Hard to say, because we don't know what the course looked like in the '80s. Idaho's 3-hour course in media ethics (JAMM 341) includes "case studies drawn from journalism, broadcasting, advertising, public relations and digital media," and the catalog description itself may itself represent some changes of recent decades: the rise of the standalone ethics course and the shoehorning of advertising and PR into something called "media ethics." In general, though, ethics is still pretty much what it used to be. You could consider the "civic journalism" movement an ethical turn,**** and a concept like feminist ethics is more likely to get fairly prominent treatment. Otherwise -- Kant's dead, throw strikes.

That's not to say that changes in the media environment over the past 20 years haven't had serious implications for news practice. The Fairness Doctrine was put to sleep the year Gov. Palin graduated from college. Always-on cable news was just coming into its own when she was a junior. Campaign ads have been getting shorter (about 40% as long in 1996 as in 1960) and, in general, more negative (which may, in turn, have affected the rise of "truth-squadding" in the 1990s). Technology has made it easy for you to ask 10,000 of your closest friends to crash CNN's e-mail server when it strays from the party line, and Rush Limbaugh will give you and them plenty of material.

Newspapers have responded to these changes, in part, by running more interpretation on the newspages and less what-you-saw-last-night (hard to see why this would be a problem, given that "firm grasp of key domestic issues" is about as critical as the 1A columns at Gannett papers got in covering her convention speech). And always, inescapably, there's less money to do news with and less space to do news in.

But enough about structural and social changes that tend to work in favor of the shallow, the stupid, and the status quo. Palin (and her tame handler) seem to have something else in mind: this purported "gotcha journalism" that her running mate brought up the other day. Definitions tend to vary: "gotcha" seems to mean either investigative reporting of scandals (1996), using hidden cameras or other undercover techniques (1991) or making fun of Ross Perot (1992). In the first two senses, it predates not only Palin but McCain himself. In the third -- think back to the 1976 campaign:

Mr. President, I'd like to explore a little more deeply our relationship with the Russians. They used to brag back in Khrushchev's day that because of their greater patience and because of our greed for -- for business deals that they would sooner or later get the better of us. Is it possible that despite some setbacks in the Middle East, they've proved their point? Our allies in France and Italy are now flirting with Communism. We've recognized the permanent Communist regime in East Germany. We've virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe. We've bailed out Soviet agriculture with our huge grain sales. We've given them large loans, access to our best technology and if the Senate hadn't interfered with the Jackson Amendment, maybe we -- you would've given them even larger loans. Is that what you call a two-way street of traffic in Europe?

That's Max Frankel of the allegedly liberal New York Times addressing Jerry Ford, in case you left your scorecard at the concession stand. He's throwing rather a bunch of detail at the candidate -- who responds in kind, with details about having negotiated caps on MIRV-carrying missiles. Toward the end of his answer, Ford makes his famous "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" bumble. Frankel restates it and asks if Ford meant it; Ford misses a chance to escape and digs himself in deeper.

Grade inflation's everywhere, isn't it? Go back to the 1976 debate and the caliber of a pop quiz on foreign policy looks a little different. Perhaps Gov. Palin (like her radio poodle) thinks she ought to have been taken as seriously as Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter were. Or perhaps not. Either way, it's hard to see an ethics issue arising here.

I'm especially taken by this quote: "It makes somebody be even clearer and more articulate in their positions," since the magic apparently isn't working so far. And I think it's time to add media ethics to international relations on the list of classes we should be hesitant to let Gov. Palin grade bubble sheets for.

* It may indeed be true that her parents didn't give her a passport and a mandate to see the world when she graduated, but she does seem to have managed to spend a semester at a private university in Hawaii.
** Among the things that haven't changed: journalists' arithmetic skills.
*** Uphill! Both ways! In the snow!
**** Or not. I'm inclined not to.


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