By Mike Argento, NSNC President
I was reading a New York Times story about a $7 million libel verdict in a case filed by a judge and former Chicago Bear kicker against a newspaper columnist in Illinois when I stumbled upon a stunning passage.
The story said, “The newspaper’s lawyers said they were handicapped because the trial judge did not allow them to argue that as a columnist, Mr. (Bill) Page was not held to the standards of a reporter.”
I had to read it twice.
“Not held to the standards of a reporter”?
For background, the case involved a column by the aforementioned Mr. Page in the Kane County Chronicle, a 14,000-circulation daily west of Chicago. In the 2003 column, Mr. Page accused the judge, Robert Thomas, chief justice of the Illinois State Supreme Court of trading his vote for political favor.
The Times reported that Mr. Page, citing unidentified sources, wrote that the justice traded his vote in a disciplinary case in exchange for political support for his favored candidate in a judicial race – a felonious accusation.
The case did touch on a number of journalistic issues – use of unnamed sources, the ability of the press to air criticism of public officials and fairness. Jurors told the Times they had no problem with the use of confidential sources, but they were concerned there was no independent confirmation of the facts or any attempt by the columnist to seek a response from the justice before publishing the column.
The case could have been derailed had the columnist followed the basic standards of our profession. He should have done further checking of the allegations. Our job isn’t just to regurgitate things people tell us. It’s to check the facts and get to the truth of the matter, as best we can. The old saying, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” isn’t just an old saying.
He should have, at the very least, called the justice for comment. Had he made that simple phone call to the justice, perhaps this suit would not have been successful. Who knows? I’m not an expert in libel law.
But I do know that the standards of our profession apply to all of us, whether we’re reporters walking a beat or columnists picking through the pockets of the dead, as we’ve been called.
Our jobs are much different than that of, say, cable TV bloviators or talk-radio savants. Our job isn’t to report rumors or to throw out opinions that are not based on fact or to report opinions as fact. Our job is to commit journalism.
The executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, Sandra Baron, told the Times that such cases, coming at a time of fiscal insecurity in our business, could have a chilling effect, making newspapers timid in the face of lengthy and costly litigation.
I’m not even going to address the fiscal issues, but the chilling effect, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t exist in this case. Had the newspaper followed basic standards, the case might not have gotten as far as it did. The case may still have cost money to defend, but, as the jurors suggested, it wouldn’t have cost $7 million in damages.
The bottom line is that as columnists, we are bound by the same standards as any journalist. For a newspaper to argue that its columnists are held to a different standard is ridiculous. We either have standards or we don’t. And if we decide that we don’t, we’re lost.
Standards will save us. While the Internets – as the president calls it – are jammed with people who throw out any nonsense and expect an unsuspecting public to swallow it as fact, we serve as the guardians.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be tough on public officials or others who test the bounds of hypocrisy or malfeasance. And that’s not to say that we should censor ourselves. If a public official is a weasel, we should say he’s a weasel.
As members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, we have standards, spelled out in our code of conduct. Read it here: http://www.columnists.com/index.php?ID=37.
After I read the comment about columnists being held to different standards than a reporter, I asked my editor if that were indeed true, that as a columnist, I am unbound by the strictures of the profession.
He gave me the same look he gives me whenever I ask for a raise.