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Friday, September 16, 2005

Ending Your Career in Journalism

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...

I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport.

...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:

I fired her because she strung together quotes out of context. She took sources' words out of context. She misled those sources when she conducted interviews.


This is the bottom line: Bandes told the three people quoted in her column -- students Sherief Khaki and Muhammad Salameh, as well as professor Nasser Isleem -- that she was writing an article about Arab-American relations in a post-9/11 world.

That's not what happened; that's a major problem.

Racial profiling was, in fact, part of their conversation. But it wasn't their entire conversation. At no point did Khaki, Salameh or Nasser ever think the only quotes Bandes would use would be their comments on the subject.


Now, I don't know if Bandes simply misrepresented herself or whether she intentionally fudged things when she talked to her sources. But either way, when I talked to all three of them Wednesday, they told me they felt not only lied to, but betrayed.

None of them support racial profiling. None of them want Arabs to get "sexed up" as they go through the airport. And none of them thought Bandes would use their words the way she did -- callously and without regard for their actual meaning.

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:

Within five minutes I was talking to store owner Bill Johnson, a fanatical Bush devotee with a striking resemblance to frozen-sausage king Jimmy Dean. I introduced myself as a Fox TV booker named Larry Weinblatt and told Bill I wanted to bring Sean Hannity down to do a whole show with Sean standing between the Ten Commandments tablets. Bill was all over the idea.

"We want to have that kind of godlike effect," I said.

"Right," Bill said, nodding.

"Secondly, Sean, when he travels," I said, "he brings his own Nautilus equipment. He pumps iron before he goes on."

"Does he really?"

"Yeah," I said. "We get a lot of demonstrators when Sean does his show, and so what he likes to do, when he finishes the broadcast, he takes his shirt off and flexes his muscles for the crowd. You know, rrrr. . ."

"Is he really built like that?"

"Oh, man, he's huge," I said.

See there? That's big-journalism ethics for you. I hope it's not too late for Coletta to switch to the philosophy department.