Some of the people accused of crimes for entering the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have a novel defense. They claim to be journalists.
Shawn Witzemann, a plumber from Farmington, New Mexico, has been charged by the FBI, but contends that his nightly “Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism” program on YouTube should exempt him from prosecution.
Nice try, but journalists are citizens like the rest of us, subject to the same criminal laws. If a police officer tells you not to enter a building and you proceed, “I’m here to watch” is not a defense.
Journalists have an ethical obligation to report the story, and not participate in it. It’s hard to know what Witzemann was thinking when he walked into the Capitol, but it’s pretty clear who his role models were.
We learned recently that three Fox News hosts sent texts to Mark Meadows, chief of staff to Donald Trump, urging that the president put an end to the Jan. 6 havoc.
While Trump supporters roamed the halls of the Capitol, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of “Fox & Friends,” asked Meadows to “please get (the president) on TV. (The event was) destroying everything you have accomplished.”
Sean Hannity made a similar suggestion. “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol,” he texted.
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Laura Ingraham, host of “The Ingraham Angle,” tellingly wrote, “Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. Please get him on TV. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
“This is hurting all of us.” That’s Ingraham saying that even Fox News’ pro-Trump spin machine would have trouble explaining this away. Yet of course, Fox News did just that, with each of these seemingly appalled hosts going on to minimize the assault on the Capitol and defending Trump’s role.
In the wake of the revelations about the texts, many have pointed to Fox News hypocrisy. But that’s just Fox being Fox.
The real outrage here is an alleged news organization actively trying to change the path and perception of American history, offering advice on damage control to the most powerful man in the world. Their actions were unethical and an abdication of traditional journalistic values.
Imagine the reaction if NBC News anchor Lester Holt texted President Joe Biden with possible talking points for an upcoming summit. There would be dismissals and demands for investigations. At Fox News, they just circle the wagons.
For all the softball coverage of the Trump administration over the years, this was different. Fox was caught being inside the administration.
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The First Amendment was ratified in 1791, guaranteeing freedom of the press at a time when newspapers were particularly partisan and rough-edged. But that first generation of Americans saw benefit in a free press keeping an eye on those in power. The idea was that a free press would serve as a check on the powerful, and not serve as a collaborator or co-conspirator.
Of course, the arrogance of some who want to shape rather than report the news is not limited to one end of the political spectrum. On Dec. 4, CNN fired Chris Cuomo, a liberal nighttime host, in the aftermath of revelations he worked behind the scenes to defend his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, over allegations of sexual harassment.
As in the Fox News example, Cuomo was trying to shape the public perception of a big news story being covered by his own news organization.
This kind of behavior takes a toll. Trust in news professionals has plummeted in recent years, with a Gallup poll finding in October that just 36% of Americans trust the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly; 34% of the respondents said they have no confidence in media news coverage.
It may be that the antics, bias and arrogance of the most visible cable hosts have poisoned public perception of the thousands of professionals who report the news in cities and towns across the country. That said, accountability remains critical at every level of news reporting.
We should expect professional journalists to report the news in good faith and not pander to one end of the political spectrum or the other. Being informed is not the same thing as taking a warm bath in one’s own beliefs.
We should be able to be confident that journalists are reporting what they see, not what they want us to see, and that their relationship with the powerful is independent and at arms-length. Among the most basic ethical principles drilled into rookie reporters over the decades: “You don’t matter. The news matters. Don’t get in the way.”
That means no political activities or personal involvement in news stories. It means full disclosure of anything that could color your work or undermine trust in your reporting. Of course, all of this is aspirational, and in a world where anyone can record and distribute their own takes on the news, it’s admittedly old school.
What I do know is that credibility of news media is best built with honesty, independence and transparency, regardless of topic. On television, a football play-by-play announcer explains exactly what’s happening on the field, even as the audience watches in real time. His credibility depends on getting it right.
A color analyst shares views on plays and players, but unless that opinion is informed and accurate, it doesn’t last long. Above all else, those announcers – and all who work daily to inform the public – should stay the hell off the field.
Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, a former editor of USA TODAY and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @kenpaulson1
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