By Casey Quinlan
The former public editor of The New York Times, Barney Calame, SUNY New Paltz’s distinguished visiting Ottaway professor, visited two media ethics classes last spring to discuss his role as the newspaper’s in-house critic and in the process he found both agreement and disagreement from the professors and students who listened to him.
From 2004 to 2006, Calame’s role as public editor was to represent the readers of the publication. He was paid to critique the newspaper and make suggestions for change. He also wrote a regular column about his findings, simply named “The Public Editor.”
In meeting with students he described two situations in which he had to make critical decisions about the newspaper’s ethics and integrity. The first situation involved U.S. Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse. Greenhouse made comments at two graduation ceremonies about her opinion on controversial issues including abortion and prisoners at Cuba’s Guantanamo. As the Times’ Supreme Court reporter, she would more than likely report on these cases when the court decided them.
“When I talked to her she said considered those statements as fact,” Calame said. “She said she could put them in a Times story. Editors were just finding out what had happened. The first public editor at The New York Times, Dan Okrent, was taking Linda’s side saying it was the right of a reporter to have opinions, said there should be an examination of the policy that makes it difficult for journalists to give up opinions or to pretend we don’t have opinions,”
But Calame was adamant that Greenhouse wrongly left her journalistic independence behind when she chose to speak out at the award ceremonies. He described the tension between himself and other Times editors and staff who believed Greenhouse was unfairly rebuked, although the Times does have a policy that says reporters cannot express opinions that they could not strte in their stories. Calame made a distinction between pretending not to have an opinion and separating yourself as a journalist.
Calame said, “She let her guard down. A star reporter should preserve impartiality and independence. I made the observation that she is obligated to keep those opinions to herself. Making them separate and private is not the same as pretending they don’t exist.”
Some students tended to agree with Calame’s notion of impartiality’s role in journalistic integrity. “It shouldn’t be a platform for her to express her views against these issues,” said Rachel Williams, a senior Public Relations major.
Corey Kolvenbach, a junior Journalism major, followed in the same vein. “It’s not really fair because you’ve put a big cloud put over the newspaper you’re representing,” Kolvenbach said.
Insisting on playing devils advocate, Professor Howard Good,who teaches ethics and has written books on the topic, disagreed. “Do you think that the Times policy is synonymous with overall newspaper ethics? I think that it’s an emotional impossibility for people to act impartial…wouldn’t it be better if those values were transparent? Wouldn’t that better serve the public?”
Calame then compared journalists to judges and doctors. “I believe The New York Times policy is an ethically strong policy. I believe that reporters expressing those views damages their credibility. I abandoned the idea of objectivity a long time ago but I do believe in fairness, accuracy and independence. Would you want a judge to express his opinion, or a doctor?”
Good did not recognize the argument as valid. “That profession is different and that role is radically different. The purposes of disinterested-ness are for different reasons. I think doctors have different relations to the truth than journalists do,” Good explained.
Calame sighed and paused before considering an answer. “The problem I have with transparency is with changing attitudes when a reporter changes their views. Should we update those views every time they change?” Calame asked.
Good would not yield just yet.
“People’s opinions and attitudes are very different. Don’t you think that Greenhouse who has spent 28 years covering the courts and has considered an opinion. Don’t you think that’s worth something?” Good asked.
Diedre Drews, a senior year journalism major with a concentration in Public Relations, interjected from the back of the room. “She holds a very powerful position and then saying this opinion is fact…that is where ethics come into play.” More students began to follow Drews’ lead.
“I think personal opinion should be kept separate. If it’s on personal time and it’s not connected to the newspaper that’s different,” said Kim Demitriow.
Some students believed that Greenhouse’s infraction was serious because the forum she chose to express herself. “It was more the way she said it when she went to accept the award. It wasn’t really the appropriate time for that,” said Marcy Lynn Velte, a junior.
“I just wonder what would be better…playing it down the line or showing transparency?” said John Purcell, posing a question to Calame.
Calame explained why he advocated separating personal opinions from reporting. “It is the cloud you raise over the coverage. Itss nice to have the ability to go to the New York Times as a benchmark. I am traditional, cautious, a nitpicker, and maybe I hold on to old things too dearly. But this was not Linda’s first offense. She went to a pro-abortion rally and was admonished for it because it involves the courts.”
Professor McNulty, who was public editor at the Poughkeepsie Journal, wondered if The New York Times staff was sympathetic to liberal viewpoints. “Having been in the media myself, I know there are opinions most newspapers are sympathetic with. If this was a pro-life opinion I wonder they would have shut her down immediately,” McNulty said.
Calame then moved to discuss a second controversy: How should photojournalists cover the fighting in Lebanon? A number of people were upset about the Times’ photos of dead Lebanese, arguing that there were more pictures of dead Lebanese than Israelis.
“When complaints came in about the photos they were about bias, not taste,” Calame said. “People were so emotional that I took a look at the pictures published. The conclusion I found was that it was basically fair and represented the proportional impact on Israelis and Lebanese. Seven Lebanese died for every one Israeli.” Calame paused and looked down as he put his hands in his pockets, then added, “But you can argue that photojournalism is not about a mathematical formula.”
Eventually the debate shifted to determining what photos qualify as good taste. Calame said that he usually chooses to err on the side of caution and has a low threshold for photos that depict violence. Calame was chosen to decide matters of taste at The Wall Street Journal precisely because of his tendencies.
“He (the editor) knew I was the son of a fundamentalist preacher and that I’m Times cautious and conservative. My rural background made me act as an early warning system,” Calame said.
“How do you think we decide what’s tasteful?” asked Kolvenbach.
“I was raised with the breakfast table rule that you have to think about what someone would want to see while they were sitting at the breakfast table. I think the breakfast rule is probably out now,” Calame replied, laughing. Calame passed around the room a photo of a dead mother and her child. “In one case people uncovered a mother and a small baby crushed by the fallen buildings. All you could see was a hand wrapped around a baby beneath the rubble. We ran it on page A11, I think the Times deserves some credit for that.” Calame asked the students to raise their hand if they would include the photo in the newspaper. Everyone’s hand was raised.
Since all students agreed on the depiction of violence in the newspaper, the discussion moved to the prevalence of violence in other media. Jonathan Aiello argued that violence and sexuality is more valued in entertainment than in the news. Arantza Viruchua maintained that the difference exists for good reason. “Different mediums have different ethical rules and different professional rules. There are two different worlds based on two different standards,” she said.
Professor Good ended the discussion by stating the news has a purposeful reason to show violence despite the increasing desensitization of its audience.
“Heavy exposure to violence requires news images to up the explicit nature to move the jaded audience. It serves as a way to punch through the public’s indifference but the more violence is out there the more difficult it is to get that effect. It’s a vicious cycle,” Good explained.
After two hours of intense debate and discussion about the nature of ethics in journalism, some of the students looked worn out and tired, while others seemed ready to debate further. It is striking that despite the large cultural and generational differences between Calame, 67, and these journalism students, most of them in their teens and twenties, the majority appeared to agree with his traditional stance on ethics.
“I thought he posed some interesting arguments. I really liked the interaction over the different issues too,” said senior Joanne Sawyer.
Professor Howard Good still agreed to disagree with Calame’s point of view.
“I didn’t agree with everything that was said. For one thing, I don’t think the Times should be the standard for right and wrong genuine ethical principles. Facts and opinion are more complicated than they are presented,” Good said.
Despite his disagreements with Calame, however, Good considered the event to be successful in keeping students interested in journalism ethics and learning about the nuances issues. “If they don’t remember the specifics,” said Good, “this should at least reinforce the significance of ethical considerations in reporting.” And that is something that Calame has kept in mind for his entire career.