New Rules for Media Ethics
After the absurd spectacle of one of TV's most partisan shouting heads being suspended for making political donations, it's clear that the time has come for journalism's ethical guidelines to be updated, in the spirit of common sense. Let's try!
Disclose! Let your readers know where you're coming from, so they can make informed judgments about how much weight to give to your proclamations and reports. Disclose your political and civic affiliations. Disclose a bit of your background. Do not feel compelled to neuter your standard bio. The more the better! Allow journalists to be full citizens of this great republic. Just make them tell everybody about it.
The idea that not voting is a noble thing for journalists is fucking ridiculous. Voting is a civic good. Everyone should vote. Particularly journalists, who are ostensibly informed about things, and therefore educated voters. And if you're in favor of a certain political candidate, it only makes sense that you'd want to support them financially. So: go ahead and vote, and donate, and disclose who you donate to. You can keep your vote secret though!
Reporters vs. Pundits
This is where the old, traditional rules of media impartiality began to go off the rails. The media decided to entertain the fantasy that there is a middle category between "impartial reporter" and "opinionated pundit." This category is usually called "analyst," and it exists only in the mind of journalists themselves. Because journalists enjoy appearing on TV, and being solicited for their expert opinion, and who wants to give up that privilege? Having the impartial journalist cake and eating it as an "analyst" gives media people the best of both worlds.
Of course, journalists will always get into trouble while trying to maintain the fiction of impartiality while simultaneously giving their opinions—excuse me, "analyzing"—current events. The reality is that all journalists use their judgment, and form opinions, and let those opinions guide their coverage. They just give it a spray-on sheen of impartial code words before presenting it to the public.
Instead, let's acknowledge up front that reporters have opinions. Either let your reporters express and explain their opinions, which are presumably shaped by deep knowledge and therefore well-supported and valuable; or, don't let your reporters go on TV shows, or write "news analysis" columns that farcically pose as impartial journalism. Pick one and go with it.
Media people—reporter, commentator, or otherwise—shouldn't have a financial stake in what they're reporting on. That means business reporters shouldn't own stocks of industries they might cover in any conceivable way. If you're a business media person who needs to be in the market, get index funds. Companies where this is a significant issue should provide a way for employees to put their investments into a blind trust. Hire whoever you want, just don't let their investments color their coverage.
Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest are not necessarily financial. The public does deserve reporters who aren't hopelessly in the bag on a certain issue due to some inherent conflict. We all know you can't cover your family fairly; but it's perfectly routine for journalists of all stripes to become friends with the people they cover. This is generally never disclosed. It's pretty safe to assume that any veteran journalist who's considered an expert in a certain area has grown friendly enough with many people on his beat that he, at the very least, would go out of his way not to offend them if it isn't totally necessary. This is the mild, unremarkable, everyday form of corruption that erodes journalistic credibility from within.
It's too much to ask journalists not to feel normal human social emotions. So it's incumbent on the news organization to keep this from happening, to the extent possible. Shake up beats regularly. Make it clear: you can be friends with someone, or you can cover them, but not both. In cases where everyone knows everyone and the clusterfuck is too tight to ever be unraveled: just disclose judiciously. For news organizations themselves, it's equally important to make sure your corporate aims don't end up coloring your news coverage. (No fucking war cheerleading for your own country, either. Why the world's most prominent "impartial" news anchors think patriotism doesn't count as partiality is beyond me). And for readers: when a journalist notes that he's friends, or acquaintances, with someone he's writing about, it's a safe bet to ignore that particular story.
"Opinion" is not a dirty word. Journalists are humans. The more honest we are about our motives, and the more routine disclosure becomes, the more readers will get used to judging news stories, arguments, and ideas on their merits. Which is what we're shooting for, really. It'll be easy at first to smear, say, the liberal media for voting Democratic. Until all the Republicans have to disclose themselves, as well. Once disclosure becomes standard, the least trusted journalists will be those who try to pose as impartial—today's elite, tomorrow's trash.