Washington's Scandals Spotlight Journalistic Ethics, Too

By Hughes, John | The Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Washington's Scandals Spotlight Journalistic Ethics, Too


Hughes, John, The Christian Science Monitor


After every great national scandal, journalists embark on an orgy of self-examination about the quality of their coverage. We did it after Watergate - and after the O.J. Simpson trial, and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. And though the story involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is still unfolding, the press is engaged in yet another assessment of its performance.

This is a good thing. The profession of journalism is not without blemish. We journalists spend a lot of time examining the ethical deficiencies of others. It is only fitting that we examine our own.

The American press is probably the freest in the world. It is one of the most technologically advanced. But are our ethics improving or deteriorating? On the one hand, thousands of journalists all over the country - generally honest, mostly hard-working, sometimes underpaid - are doing a good job. Day after day they cover city halls and police departments, legislatures, state and federal agencies, and funnel a flow of necessary and useful information to their readers and listeners and viewers. Earlier this month I spent several days in New York on a jury of editors charged with selecting nominations for the Pulitzer prize from some 1,500 submissions. The entries came from newspapers large and small and they did a lot to restore my confidence in the quality of American journalism. There were brilliant examples of spot news coverage, superb photographs, heartwarming feature stories, and examples of investigative reporting that redressed wrongs and brought change and improvement to many communities. Clearly, the press can be a constructive force for good. On the other hand, the corridor talk at the Pulitzer judging focused entirely on the quality of reporting on the Clinton-Lewinsky story, and on some deficiencies in that reporting. Should the private lives of public figures be off-limits to scrutiny by the press? I don't believe so. That scrutiny is the price that must be paid by those who seek to lead. A president who lies to his wife and family may lie to the voters. But the scrutiny by the press must be responsible and purposeful, not merely prurient. The decision to publish or not to publish should be case-by-case, generally based on whether the private peccadilloes affect the individual's public performance. The press would be derelict if it had not covered the issue of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky.

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