America’s Moral Police

What do you know about ethical journalism?  If you’re like me, you barely have enough time in the day to consume as much news as you’d like, which precludes any time at all to worry about how the news reached you.  I ask, however, because it’s been on my mind as two stories unfolded over the past two weeks.

The first has been the bombing of the Boston Marathon.  Well, the bombing yes, but also the coverage of it.  In watching the unfiltered and surreal footage of the aftermath of the bombings, I noticed three groups of uninjured people.  The first group of people moved almost immediately to aid the injured.  The second recognized the danger and moved away to escape.  The third group, however, appear only fleetingly on the various videos I’ve seen.  They’re the ones who neither ran neither to nor from danger, but instead continued filming it.

Like most people, I’d like to imagine I would have been in group one (probably assisting my nurse wife).  Like most people, there’s a very strong possibility I would have actually been in group two.  In either case, however, I can comprehend the mindset of such a person.  Group three, meanwhile?  This is harder for me to understand.  Media professionals regularly risk their lives in order to inform the rest of us.  That’s their job, and it’s a service for which someone who consumes as much news as I do should be thankful.  And I am.  At the same time, however, how can you ignore someone who might be bleeding to death while filming their agony?  How can you watch police try to reach them, without setting down the camera to help?

I’m not condemning them.  Again, that’s their job, and it’s a moral dilemma faced by professional cameramen and photographers frequently.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s a moral dilemma about which they have each spent thousands more hours ruminating than you or me.  So I’m not bringing this up in order to denounce the choices they made, but only to highlight the fact that theirs is a job filled with ethical quandaries that you and I do not navigate.  Being in the position to make that choice is something I can’t grasp.  And that’s one part of the coverage that has really been on my mind this week, since all the footage I’ve consumed has been the product of a choice I don’t think I could have made.

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My second preoccupation, as you might guess, is the business with Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in Philadelphia.  In case you haven’t heard, Gosnell ran an abortion clinic in an underprivileged area of Philly, where he broke most or all of the relevant imaginable standards, regulations, and ethical concepts.  I won’t belabor his atrocities (Google them.  But not on a full stomach.), but I do want to point out the present media war over how they were covered.  Conservatives argue that the lack of coverage until recently – when conservative media forced the issue – is evidence not merely of liberal bias in most media organizations, but also of an agenda underlying such bias.  The media organizations under attack, meanwhile, have begun covering Kermit Gosnell in response to the explosion of criticism, albeit usually in the guise of a larger narrative about what is and isn’t news.

In short, although details of Gosnell’s barbarism may now be found in a variety of news stories from myriad content providers across the ideological spectrum, the main story to the conservatives is liberal bias in the news, and the main story to those who don’t self-identify as conservative is the news process.  So the media have uniformly decided that the real story is themselves.

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Some countries have moral police – they’re called mutaween, and they’re more often referred to as morality police, religious police, or vice squads, but you get the idea.  They enforce Sharia law in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and they occasionally make our news for taking rash actions that kill people.

Inasmuch as any group fulfills a similar moral-watchdog role in the United States, that group is the media.  How do we know about Gosnell’s misdeeds?  The media told us, however reluctantly.  How do we know when a politician has gone crazy enough to need to be removed from office?  The media lets us know he’s sexting people.  The media never explicitly enforce an ethical or moral code on us, of course.  But in choosing which moral or ethical aberrations to report, they choose what popular opinion has the opportunity to police.  In that sense, they help all of us make moral and ethical decisions about America, so they’re as close as we get to moral police.

But if it’s the media that watches our culture and highlights (so we can eliminate) the most grievous offenses, who watches the media?

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Since this is an evangelical blog, many of you who read it are profoundly conservative, and will want me to know that the conservative media watches the mainstream media – that’s who watches our moralizing press.  At the risk of offending you, however, that’s bull.

There are two types of media in the United States, but the mainstream/conservative dichotomy is irrelevant if not total fiction.  The dichotomy falls between those media outlets that earn profits, and those that are incrementally failing because they do not.  Hats off to Fox News for finding their own profitable niche, but if ad revenue falls and hiring progressives will stop the bleeding, they’ll hire more progressives.  That’s business.

The problem, of course, is that this means all news operates in the service of profit, which inevitably leads to conflicts of interest at best, and outright exploitation at worst.  Returning to the topic of the Boston Marathon, some cameramen were getting amazing footage, and I have no problem with them filming.  Posterity required it.  But the guys who didn’t get great footage but continued to film anyway – and there were plenty of them – might have better used their time trying to save people’s lives and limbs.  Of course they couldn’t stop filming, because each network/paper/news source wants its own footage.  So instead of helping people, they film the suffering from afar, and the suffering – which they might’ve helped alleviate – generates profits.  Just another day at the office for a journalist.

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So the news plays an absolutely essential role in our culture.  Also, in order for news to exist, it must be profitable, and sometimes those in the media must dispassionately observe horrors rather than alleviating them so that the media can fill its role in society (and turn a profit).  But since this is a complicated moral choice and our society makes most complicated moral choices with the aid of media scrutiny, how are we to know when to trust the choice the media has made about its own coverage?  Are we really supposed to believe that the media, as a profit-driven enterprise, can – let alone will – cover itself with the same diligent rigor it applies to everyone else?

So that’s the problem that the Gosnell trial and the Boston Marathon have me pondering.  It’s nothing new, mind you, but I thought I’d share.

There are no easy answers.  Non-profit journalism could be one, but non-profits go astray too.  More regulation is another option, but that would risk making media a government instrument.  Democratization of information is another (think Wikileaks), but that underestimates the value of context and analysis – raw data is often misleading, and I for one appreciate people who take the time to communicate the bigger picture.  So what’s the answer?

Got any ideas?

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