Truth is Consistent: Either Waterboarding is Torture or It’s Not; Flip Flopping Sacrifices Credibility

Was it un-American for Woodward and Bernstein to investigate President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate?  Or was it un-American that the President of the United States was breaking American laws?  Was it un-American for Matt Drudge to use the Internet to break the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal?  Or was it un-American of President Clinton to abuse his power in office?

Journalists, in their role as the “Fourth” and now increasingly “Fifth” Estate with the rise of blogs, have had little trouble questioning authority, particularly that of Presidents, exercising the American right of free speech in the the pursuit of—what else?—the TRUTH.  Which is why an article by’s Glenn Greenwald is so disturbing.  Greenwald’s June 30 article “New Study Documents Media’s Servitude to Government” examines not a negligible shift in the way mainstream media uses the term “waterboarding” with regard to torture.  

I’ll spare you the details here; Mr. Greenwald does a fine job of laying out his case himself.  But it suffices to say that the shift is more than conspicuous.  The term “waterboarding” has been around since at least the 1930s.  Major newspapers overwhelmingly referred to it as “torture”—roughly 80% of the time the term was used across the board in their publications regardless of what country was performing it.  Then, in 2004, it was still referred to as “torture” roughly 80% of the time-but only if other countries were employing the “harsh interrogation” technique.  When American’s used it, newspapers after 2004 referred to it as torture no more than 5% of the time, and in the case of The New York Times, less than 2%.

Is the press un-American for calling waterboarding “torture”?  Of course not, but I’m sure that’s what it’s afraid of.  I don’t know which is worse: mitigating the truth through semantics because it is afraid of politicians or mitigating the truth because it is afraid a myopic public won’t buy its content.  Either way, the primary purpose of journalism-to seek truth and report it- is lost, and the practice of journalism is useless.

Now, I am not saying that I agree that waterboarding is torture.  Maybe it’s not.  Societal norms evolve all the time.  Interracial marriage used to be illegal; then our standards evolved.  Waterboarding may have been thought to be barbaric, but then we realized it was necessary for national security and not that bad.  I really couldn’t care less.  What I do care about is that the media is consistent.  Either waterboarding is torture in Greenland and the United States or it’s torture nowhere. To play it off as one way for one country and another for our own is not only to blur the lines of what is true and what is not, but it makes the media look foolish and incredible. 

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, let’s make sure it’s a duck wherever our story takes place, and not only when it’s the convenient thing for our audience to hear.

Copyright 2010 David R. Norton

12 U.S. Laws Every Blogger Should Know

Courtesy of

The Blogosphere is increasingly bound its own ethics and laws, which is a good thing, if readers are expecting reliable and fair content.

To Name or Not to Name: When an Alleged Victim of Sexual Assault is a “Civil” Matter Rather Than a “Criminal” One

The Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins presents a tricky ethical conundrum: In standard criminal cases involving allegations of sexual assault, a victim’s identity is almost always withheld to protect the victim.  But what about alleged victims in civil lawsuits? According to Tompkins in his analysis of the pending civil case against Pittsburgh Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, while the standards for criminal sexaul assault cases are quite clear, civil accusations are another matter entirely, and the water is very murky.  That said, reporters have to weigh a plethora of factors in making a very hard decision.  According to Tompkins, a majority of Pittsburgh newspapers and even ESPN have withheld the alleged victim’s name, but Tompkins asserts that he would do otherwise.

Tompkins said in his analysis, "I lean toward naming the accuser in this case. Seeking compensation in a civil suit affords one less protection than pressing to jail an attacker in order to protect society. Not naming her, as I noted above, could potentially cause harm to others not involved in the incident.”

Indeed, whatever the outcome, Roethlisberger will be a free man, but it may cost him his fortune and his job if he is found liable.  (Is guilty the wrong word here?)  And while his accuser (whom Roethlisberger has named publically in his own statement and which news organizations still refuse to repeat, adding another dimension entirely to the debate) might certainly find herself to be the subject of retribution either by fans or by Roethlisberger himself (and there is no evidence currently to suggest that she would be), she doesn’t seem to warrent the level of protection required if this were a matter of sending Roethlisberger to prison.

Still, as Tompkins points out, what is even more troubling than perhaps a reluctance by Pittsburgh publications to release the accusers name is the reluctance for ESPN to acknowledge the case at all until after Roethlisberger made a statement. They cited precedent in not naming accusers of sports figures in civil cases; however, Tompkins points out that that policy is inconsistent and they have named accusers in sex related civil cases before.

Regardless, the Tompkins piece is worth a read.  And regardless of how news organizations proceed this time, Tompkins’s organizatiaon suggests that it would be prudent for all news organizations to “revisit [policies on sexual assault victims] on a regular basis.”

Copyright David R. Norton 2009

Whitewashing Walter? Cronkite Would Want To Be Remembered Objectively

Roy Clark of the Poynter Institute is a brave man.  He’s among the first to admit that Walter Cronkite was not a god, was human, and did have his faults—even in the realm of his profession.  Below is a synopsis of all his points, but to read the full article from Poynter, CLICK HERE.

*Note-All questions were posed by Roy Clark.

Question 1: If Cronkite so valued the standards of objectivity, why did he abandon them in certain key moments?

Question 2: Did Cronkite’s affinity for certain issues and events override his reportorial skepticism?

Question 3: Did Cronkite turn news authority into authoritarianism?

Question 4: As managing editor of CBS News, did Cronkite do enough to bring women and minorities into the business, or did he inherit and essentially preserve a white man’s news world?

Question 5: Was Cronkite slow on Vietnam?

Question 6: Did Cronkite give up the ship too early?

Question 7: Did Cronkite fail to undertake in-depth investigative work?

Question 8: Did Cronkite contribute to the culture of anchor celebrity?

Question 9: Did Cronkite turn up his nose at the younger generation of broadcast journalists?

Jon Stewart holds NBC’s Brian Williams accountable for decrease in the media’s independence with regard to their subjects.

Journalistic Integrity No Lauging Matter-So Why Does The Daily Show Seem To Be The Only Rag in Town That Has Any?

Jon Stewart Criticizes Brian Williams and Integrity of the News July 20, 2009- The Daily Show doesn’t pretend to be high brow when it comes to comedy; in fact, host Jon Stewart opened the show by making a quip about his male anatomy. But while The Daily Show’s delivery might be the ilk of the court jester, the subject matter is no laughing matter. Stewart is on a crusade to keep journalism accountable—even when it means haraunging the most beloved of TV newsanchors as he did July 20th when he took NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Willams to task over the issue of “seducing” high profile subjects like disgraced S.C. Governor Mark Sanford with promises of essentially going easy on them in exclusive interviews.

Email after email after email, including one from Williams’s own NBC colleague David Gregory of Meet the Press showed that mainstream newsmen and women affiliated with the most reputable programs were shameless in their pursuit of the Sanford “get” to the point where it was obvious that they were sacrificing their independence for an exclusive.

While Williams clearly came on the show in a light hearted spirit and was ready to play the jokester—he’s hilariously funny and even under pressure went jab for jab with Stewart in the joke department—, when Stewart wouldn’t drop the issue, Williams, clearly irked, quipped, “What way do you want to go tonight, Jon?”, and the meeting, while civil, turned immediately adversarial. Stewart was so relentless, in fact, that it prompted a seasoned veteran like Williams known for his coolness to abruptly and awkwardly change the subject to Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted [news]man in America” who died last week at the age of 92. When Williams remarked, somberly, that Cronkite was who he aspired to be when he was young, Stewart chided, “So how does it feel to fall so short?” immediately bringing the conversation back to the shortfalls of modern journalism.

Williams eventually admitted that Cronkite was disapointed in the [sensationalist] trend toward which the current media was going, but defended major media policies to the end. But it begs the question: Williams and his colleagues at CBS, ABC, FOX, CNN and other serious news venues might be in the serious news business, but why is Stewart, in a number of publications and even some cartoons, the one continually inheriting Cronkite’s hallowed title as “The Most Trusted Man In America”?

Copyright David R. Norton 2009

Religion is the Worst Covered Subject in American News, According to Baltimore Sun

According to the Baltimore Sun via the Poynter Institute.  According to the Sun, a religion writer writes a column that is picked up by 900 newspapers…when Michael Jackson gets an ORIGINAL column for almost twice that many.  Which begs the question, why is the covering of religion so underfunded? ~David R. Norton

Cronkite School of Journalism-This Just In…By Apple

Although it’s entirely unclear where professional journalism is going, it seems obvious enough where the next professional journalists will come from. That would be a program like the one at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications - Arizona State University, where a ….FULL STORY

CBS Remembers Walter Cronkite 1916-2009

I only think it fitting to remember Walter Cronkite in the eyes of the network that bore him: CBS.  With his passing is the end of symbol in journalism, the era having passed long ago.  Forty years ago, 2/3 of Americans watched Cronkite as Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  While mass media and Twitter might have been a conduit to news distribution of Michael Jackson’s death, no one will remember the man or woman who delivered that news to them.  But history will remember Cronkite the way it remembers all pioneers.  Rest in Peace.

Copyright David R. Norton 2009

Man Who Posed As Journalist to Gain Entry to Orphanage Gets 3 Years; Doesn’t Chris Hansen Do the Same Thing?

Admittedly, the following story reported by The Star online is sketchy.  In it, a man who posed as a journalist for a TV station was not employed by any station, but he was equipped with cameras and a crew, begging the question: was he there to document something?  Was this some sort of citizen journalism?  Regardless, in the United States, it appears that lying and false pretenses by civilians, even when the ends seem to justify the means no matter how smarmy is par for the course in at least television journalism.  One of NBC’s most popular news magazines has been Chris Hansen’s To Catch A Predator, where Hansen and a group of private citizens (not law enforcement officers, though for the show they do work with police) called Perverted-Justice set up stings where adults pose as underage children online and lure predators to a home for justice…but not after humiliation in the name of journalism.  (To be clear, wikipedia calls Hansen an “infotainment personality” and not a journalist, though he maybe be both).

Now, I’m not knocking what Hansen does.  Child molesters deserve all they get, though Hansen’s methods are reminiscent of Jerry Springer style ” circus journalism”.  But the fact remains, Hansen, and the members of perverted justice (who are not law enforcement) lie and pose as something they are not to get access to predators who otherwise (for obvious reasons) would not talk to the press.  While The Star story is unclear as to exactly what this man posing as journalist was doing, he did look like he was trying to document something.  The question remains, is it ok for journalists to lie to get the story?  Clearly, as with catching a predator, the ends appear to justify the means, but it sure feels icky regardless.

Copyright David R. Norton 2009