Conflicted Journalists: Does it Really Matter?
The CIA leak case has most recently put the issue on the front burner, with ethicists clucking over Washington Post institution Bob Woodward deciding to hold back news that he had been told of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity before any other publicly known journalist; a decision he says he made both to avoid a subpoena and to keep his sources confidential.
But it raised the criticism Woodward often faces, which is -- if you're considered an editor at one of the nation's largest newspapers and you find out newsworthy information on something like, say, the bumbling attempts to gin up the case for war with Iraq, shouldn't you get that into the newspaper right away?
Along the way, the New York Times presented an interesting story on conflicts of interest among one of the top journalists covering Woodward's conflicts -- Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who also hosts a show for CNN, which he covers in the Post's pages.
As a media critic myself, I know there's an inherent conflict in trying to write about media issues when you work for a media outlet. But Kurtz maginifies that problem by hosting a show on media issues for a cable network he often covers.
As the Times story points out, Kurtz is so good at his job that it is tough to criticize his coverage. There are those who would disagree -- including lefty media writer Eric Alterman, who alleged the critic reflected CNN's efforts to ingratiate itself with conservatives -- but I think many of those criticsms are quibbles.
However, I also think his case and Woodward's case illustrate a couple of things about journalism's recent troubles that bear exploration. First, is the way in which some Washington journalists seem to enjoy being players rather than observers.
What strikes me upon considering the saga of Judith Miller and Woodward, is that these folks may have been seduced by the influence they could wield with the nation's political establishment. One of Woodward's books was on the Bush re-election campaign's recommended reading list, and Miller had a golden rolodex with names such as vice presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby. Thinking like an insider instead of an outsider can be dangerous for a journalist.
Secondly, stars such as Woodward, Kurtz and Miller can't earn the kind of incomes to match the luminaries that they cover without other, outside work. This is something I've seen at the New York Times, where top TV industry reporter Bill Carter kept his day job while writing a screenplay for his book The Late Shift for HBO and Monday Night Mayhem for TNT. Former pop music critic Neil Strauss kept his gig while ghostwriting the autobiography of shock rocker Marilyn Manson and another book by Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro.
There is also the culture of Washington, where the town has come to accept uncomfortable combinations of activities. CNN's international correspondent Christiane Amanpour married Jamie Rubin in 1998, while he was spokesman for the U.S. State Department (the reliably conservative Washington Times commented on the conflict here). NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell is married to Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Each of these journalists have explained their own conflicts and insist their marriages do not affect their work.
So media outlets indulging uncomfortable conflicts of interest among their stars are nothing new. But the travails of Miller and Woodward should come as a fateful warning: rules about conflicts exist to keep journalists from falling into situations that might even appear to be questionable. And it is sometimes tough see the implications of allowing a crossing of lines until the institution's crediblity has been damaged.
What do you think? Do journalists make too big a deal about conflicts of interest. Or do we pretend to care about the small stuff, while letting the big stuff go on, unaffected? I'm particularly interested in what non-journalists think about this stuff.