Treasonable journalism

There has been quite bit written about Pulitzers for Treason by right wing columnists in the US, following the Times‘ award for breaking the story about the NSA domestic wiretaps. But MarketWatch media columnist Jon Friedman got a shock when all of the reader responses to a recent column were anti-Times. Here’s some of the comments:

“Your last piece on the Pulitzers includes this gem: ‘If anything, the Pulitzer vindicates the (New York) Times as a hard-hitting and public-spirited news operation.’ No, it simply shows them to be law-breaking cowards (yes disclosing this program by using the sources they used is a violation of the law). How you can conclude that an award handed to a MSM (or “mainstream media”) outlet by a totally MSM-stacked committee shows anything other than the completely out of touch nature of the MSM is beyond comprehension!”

“You couldn’t have gotten it more wrong!” another reader named Steve Dansker wrote.

“First off, the Pulitzer is a popularity contest among those that constitute the Board. Look at the orgs these folks come from: most Awards seem to go to folks on the same papers (or is it just my imagination?).”

He added: “Get real: the ‘breaking of the NSA story’ was not a ‘break’ at all. It was in fact a traitorous act. The authors couldn’t have given more of a damn who it hurt or KILLED! They just wanted to (1) blacken the eye of a Republican Administration, and (2) get some notoriety. Do you really think this story would have been written if Gore had won? I think not!”

These comments don’t just attest to a fractious blue/red America, they highlight serious trouble facing the media. Surveys have for a long time shown that consumers have an uneasy alliance with media they read/watch. Many seem to believe that journalists are in the same category as used-car salesman when it comes to trustworthiness.

But these comments about the Pulitzers show something very disturbing about the current media environment. I think the last comment is most telling. It comes from a particularly skewed fantasy about journalism.

As a journalist I know that a big newspaper would have published the wiretap story no matter who it concerned because it is such a shattering story. I know nothing about the personal politics of the Times reporters who broke the story but as professional journalists no matter what their colors they would have been aware of the enormity of the story. In the end – and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing – the ideology of the big story, over rides all others for journalists.

But maybe this is not so different to Watergate when, at least initially, Nixon’s supporters were dismissive of what they perceived as biased liberal press attacks. But if the ideas expressed by Friedman’s readers are widespread this does not bode well at a time when the whole relationship between journalism, government, their sources, their respective privileges and responsibilities is under deep scrutiny.

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