One of the most enjoyable reads of my weekend was the lead story in The New York Times Sunday Styles section headlined, ‘I’d Like To Be Trusted Again.’ It was about Courtney Love and it was remarkable for several reasons.
One, from the start it was obvious writer Eric Wilson was taking the piece in a direction that would blow the “trusted” part of Love’s quote out of the water. Two, it illustrated how a reporter can approach a story with an angle in mind and have to completely adjust to having it upended.
As a reader I was drawn in by the first part; as a journalist I was lured by the second because it was journalism with a strong emphasis on that ever elusive concept – staying open and objective.
Wilson -- all set to do a piece on how fashion and Love have been “manipulating one another” of late -- was told by Love to wait for her in her room when he arrived for the interview. Then she walked in “with the Marchesa dress slung on one arm and the noted German Neo-Expressionist artist Anselm Kiefer on the other. She was entirely naked and leaning on Mr. Kiefer for support.” The episode prompted Wilson to write, “This is not at all how this story was meant to begin.”
It is, however, what happened. Another story began to emerge and Wilson went with it.
How refreshing to come across this work at this moment in time, when in the last month we have seen the Average Joe and Josie try to sort through all that is going on in journalism with personalities like Rick Sanchez, Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann giving them fodder for ill-informed debate. Of all the wonderful things in the world of media that have come with the emergence of the Internet and cable television, a clear downside has been the spotlight showing the ignorance of the bulk of the American public about what journalism is supposed to be.
The ethical lines have not been blurred, they’ve been obliterated and I don’t see us going back. It’s so disheartening. It seems back when it was all about newspapers, there was little public discussion of this. The conversation was mostly contained to the industry.
At some point I can’t quite put my finger on, with the emergence of 24-hour cable news and the Internet, lots of Americans discovered that newspapers actually have an editorial section with a viewpoint. Soon readers couldn’t seem to distinguish between The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times leaning right and left, respectively, on their editorial pages, yet delivering well-reported stories on the front page with a goal of objectivity. So now, for example, we have some conservatives dismissing The Times as a liberal rag or left-leaners writing off the WSJ as right-wing propaganda.
Uh, really? What about this is so difficult to grasp?
But maybe I need to be fair. I have a degree in this and shouldn’t assume, so let’s go to the basics.
If I’m interviewing you over lunch at the Four Seasons and you pick up the tab, my objectivity has just been compromised. If my mother is running for city council and I am on that beat, I am certainly not going to give a fair shake to her opponent; the ethical thing to do is take myself off the coverage. My First Amendment rights haven’t been trampled, nor is it a necessarily partisan issue.
Of course it’s not always this cut and dry. When I was a sports writer and columnist for a daily newspaper, mostly writing about women’s sports and issues, I was told unequivocally by my editor-in-chief that if I joined the National Organization for Women [NOW] I’d never write another piece on women’s issues for the paper. His reasoning was NOW endorses candidates. It didn’t occur to me to question his authority, although it seemed ironic that it was OK for the Catholic Church I belonged to at the time to tell me who to vote for from the pulpit.
A little thorny, but still pretty clear, right?
Rick Sanchez went on the radio and told the people writing the checks what he thought of them and paid the price, so that case isn’t even technically about journalism or a “right to free speech.” Lost in all the partisan bickering about Juan Williams was this: Could he objectively interview a person in traditional Muslim garb after saying what he said? Had NPR properly framed the argument that way instead of overreaching, more people might have learned a little something about how journalism is supposed to work. Instead it became about race and politics and -- in my favorite kindergarten-esque line of thinking -- who’s allowed to say what.
Tedious, I tell you. And it’s only continued with this latest Olbermann suspension. Whether he and MSNBC were right, wrong or indifferent, instead of advancing the national conversation, we’ve been spinning our wheels.
Very, very early in my journalism career, my job was to compile local sports scores into a roundup and feature one of them in a weekly section about community sports. One day a co-worker from the newspaper’s advertising department -- whom I’d never met -- came to me and explained that a particular advertiser should get special treatment (read: lead placement) in my roundup. Admittedly over-zealous and a bit righteous, I refused and stood by what I had already written.
That started what has been my ongoing ethics journey in covering sports for a newspaper and then FOXSports.com and now writing two columns a week for FOXBusiness.com. I’m far from perfect. For example, it’s not easy getting to know a basketball coach, liking and respecting her work, traveling with the team to an NCAA Tournament, and not somewhere in your heart hoping her team will win. Or interviewing a gifted baker with his own reality show and not partaking in the sweet treats offered as a thank you.
We’d be fools to think any of us can be completely objective. We’re talking about humans here. But how about we at least try? Put some rules in place, or maybe even enforce the ones that exist.
Wilson ends his piece on Love with texts of regret she sent after the interview.
“She apologized for what happened the night before and said she felt embarrassed for ‘living right up to my worst reputation,’” Wilson writes. “She blamed a combination of Zoloft and a cocktail. And she blamed herself.”
Hence giving us a complete, more accurate picture of Courtney Love.