Black Rock & The Ivory Tower

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Some of the media heavyweights who weighed in on the CBS scandal also moonlight as college professors. Some of these journalists, in turn, remain perplexed about the the story itself.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr. also teaches at Georgetown University here in Washington, D. C. “Dan Rather has answered his critics,” Dionne wrote in the Post, “Now it is Bush’s turn.” In the article, entitled “What is Bush hiding?,” Dionne urges reporters to pursue a story that CBS producer Mary Mapes worked five years, unsuccessfully, producing legitimate documentation for. Moreover, Rather has yet to answer his critics in that he will not admit that the documents he depended on were fabrications.

For his part, Washington Post columnist David Broder, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, has no problem calling the CBS documents forgeries. His version of why CBS was taken in by them and how they were outed is something else again.

“When the Internet opened the door to scores of ‘journalists’ who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations,” Broder wrote in the Post. “That is how it happened that old pros such as Dan Rather and former New York Times editor Howell Raines got caught up in this fevered atmosphere and let their standards go.”

Earlier in that same column, Broder writes, “After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance.”

“The feeling is not relieved by the awareness that others in journalism not only did fine work on other stories but took the lead in exposing these instances of gross malpractice.”

Actually, the Internet journalists who Broder shows such disdain for broke the story of the forgeries in about 24 hours flat using great skepticism and discipline. For instance, the Pajama Brigade that former CBS producer Jonathan Klein dismisses noticed that a 1970s memo could not be typed on Microsoft word, something septuagenarian Rather should have questioned.

Although not as well known as Dionne and Broder, one journalism professor who did use the CBS scandal as a teachable moment was John Watson of American University. Watson not only worked as a reporter for the Jersey Journal but also earned a juris doctor degree at the Rutgers School of Law.

“Sometimes when you get something that sounds really good, you need to put the brakes on,” Dr. Watson told me.

Dr. Watson said that the discussion of the CBS scandal in his class centered around such questions as “Is it unethical to be incompetent?” and “Could a mistake be considered unethical?” He talked with his Ethics class about the scandal, specifically on how reporters can avoid being taken in by fakes, animate or inanimate.

“You need to exercise skepticism towards sources to the same degree as you do towards newsmakers,” Dr. Watson says.