Friday, January 21, 2011

Deteriorating Definitions: Civility, Betrayal of Trust, Standards for Anonymous Sources

What is the definition of "civility"? The media's current emphasis on words with a possible violent or military imagery strangely undercuts the true meaning of "civilized conduct, especially courtesy; politeness".

Charles Krauthammer yesterday pointed to media hypocrisy in calling for civility in political discourse after finding nothing wrong with previous incivility:
"CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Look, I think it's a bogus issue that was concocted, particularly after the Tucson shooting. It's a continuation, what we heard from Cohen and Jackson Lee is a continuation of the liberal hypocrisy on this.

"The worst in uncivil discourse that we have had in the last decade occurred in the Bush years when the President was vilified, attacked, he was demonized, compared to Nazis. He was called Hitler. There was an article in the New Republic, a leading liberal magazine, which began, it was by an editor, "I hate George Bush. There I've said it" closed quote.

"Howard Dean, a not insignificant Democrat, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, said openly, "I hate Republicans and everything they stand for." That is literally hate speech. I do not remember the Times or the mainstream media all of a sudden wagging a finger and pulling a chin about the rise of uncivil discourse at the time. So I don't take any of this seriously.

"There was an attempt by liberals, an obscene attempt to link conservatives with the Tucson shooting through this accusation of civil discourse, and I'm not surprised that uncivil discourse is quite prominent on the Left as we saw today."
[emphasis added]
But, the real issue, as Dr. Krauthammer says, the true obscenity and incivility, is less about words than actions. He is one of the few commentators who remain incensed at the media's linking of innocent people to a crime--a "blood libel" to use Glenn Reynolds' and Sarah Palin's terminology. It's a strange definition when civility means monitoring words but not "false and malicious statement designed to injure the reputation of someone" otherwise known as calumny.

There are other, lesser, deteriorating definitions swirling. Blogger William Jacobson points to the strange framing Real Clear Politics did in a story on a Palin friend exploring possibilities in Iowa. RCP's Scott Conroy reports:
"A top official in the Iowa Tea Party who insisted on anonymity to avoid betraying Palin's trust told RealClearPolitics that a friend of SarahPAC met with him in person in Des Moines late last year and prodded him for suggestions on how Palin might mount a grassroots campaign in the state."
Jacobson notes that the betrayal of trust already happened: "Actually, you already have betrayed her trust, she just doesn't know who you are yet." That wasn't the only betrayal.

Journalistic ethics used to demand a named source for information except when the source might be personally endangered or subject to criminal prosecution.

The reason for not using anonymous sources is people are more likely to tell the truth if they are personally linked to their statements. It's easy to throw out theories, half-truths and even lies behind the mask of anonymity. Having to stand behind your words is a strong incentive to only tell the truth.

Journalistic standards have slowly morphed from granting anonymity because of possible personal danger to granting it to those who might be negatively impacted economically or in career advancement. Too many news reports have more anonymous sources than named sources.

Apparently the new standard has morphed even further into granting anonymity to those who "might be embarrassed" by their statements. What's the substantive difference between that and gossip?

The media’s deteriorating moral and journalistic standards are a cancer eating away at the First Amendment and our political system.

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