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Friday, September 16, 2005
In one episode of the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati ("Dear Liar", March, 1982), Bailey Quarters is doing a news report on a children's clinic. Overwhelmed by what she sees there, and uncertain how to proceed, she makes up a story about a little boy named Bobby, who is a "composite" of the patients. She types it up and leaves it on her desk, where newsman Les Nessman finds it. He thinks it's so good that he reads it on the air, pretending to have written it himself. Hilarity ensues.
In the aftermath, Bailey offers to quit, citing a similar case at the Washington Post. Andy Travis, the program director, tells her to forget it, saying, "There's Washington Post ethics, and then there's WKRP ethics," clearly implying that the latter are not quite as stringent as the former.
Well, that was the case twenty-three years ago, anyway. I thought of Andy and Bailey when I read this story over at LGF. Jill Bandes, a columnist for the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was fired over a column she wrote supporting racial profiling.
She used some rather strong language and imagery...
...and went on to say: And Arab students at UNC don't seem to think that's such a bad idea. She quoted two students and a professor as supporting racial profiling.
Naturally this provoked an outcry, and Bandes was promptly fired. Her editor, Chris Coletta, explains her dismissal like this:
There's some confusion here. Did the people quoted really say they weren't bothered by racial profiling? Bandes's article clearly states this. If they were just expressing a willingness to put up with random, intrusive searches, then she has certainly quoted them out of context and deserves to be disciplined, at the very least. But Professor Iseem is quoted as saying, "There were Muslims in those buildings [i.e. the WTC], too." Which seems to indicate he knew Bandes was asking about racial profiling.
If that's the case, then Bandes's crime is in making her case using stronger language than the people she quoted. Her language is very strong; sounds like she's of the write-to-shock school of journalism. Coletta had a chance to tone down the language before publication, and he didn't. Now he's in the middle of a shitstorm, so he cobbles up this "out of context" excuse to fire Bandes.
It's always amusing to see a university newspaper piously adhere to standards of journalistic ethics that are completely unknown at larger organizations. Imagine sources expecting to approve of the way a big-time reporter uses their quotes. Imagine them being miffed that a conversation they thought was going to be about one thing was actually about another (say, a conversation about welfare reform that actually was about Valerie Plame).
I hope editor Coletta is not set on a journalism career, because his tender regard for journalistic ethics is not shared by the major media. Take for example the case of Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, covering the Cindy Sheehan circus in Crawford:
See there? That's big-journalism ethics for you. I hope it's not too late for Coletta to switch to the philosophy department.