“On Ethics” That’s the title of Benjamin’s commentary this week.
In it he tries to paint himself as a reluctant warrior in service of the free press and the public’s right to know. And as the last bulwark against an encroaching tide of fascism foreshadowed by….ridicule.
What he doesn’t do that he must do is address the real issues both ethical and factual he’s raised: Did he break the law when he made the first visible, public statement about an ethics complaint. Was Benjamin reporting or making news? If making news was he held to the higher factual standards that adhere to breaking, rather than merely reporting news? Does he have a reputable source the paper’s editor (were one visible) would stand behind? How reputable could a source be who is breaking the law in talking to him? Did Benjamin encourage Neal to break the law? The factual lapses in Benjamin’s story were glaring and the much of the story was refuted in the press–a very unusual occurrence. And one that argues that the professional press didn’t think the general manager did a very good job of playing reporter.
Benjamin addresses none of those issues in this piece and has addressed none of it adequately anywhere. It beggars the imagination that this self-serving justification was allowed to be published when the real ethical and factual charges have yet to be addressed. Where is editorial in this? Who exercises editorial oversight of Eric Benjamin?
We now have three stories by local journalists that implicate Eric Benjamin in unprofessional behavior. One in the Indpendent and two the Advocate. The central charge in the Independent was that Eric allowed a partisan to co-write his editorials and that, incredibly, the justification for this was that he felt that the partisan, Tim Supple, has supplied the “facts” that Benjamin did not feel he had to hand himself. The implication of the first Advocate article was that Benjamin did not do obvious fact checking about ethical charges, instead he simply relied on the “facts” contained in a complaint of a second fiber 411 partisan, Neal Breakfield. A little quick fact-checking would have supplied some much-needed professionalism to the story. The second Advocate story patiently works through the legal niceties–no not niceties–uglinessess of the case and makes clear that the source of the story broke the law. A little fact-checking would have revealed that too. Now I’ll be the first to say that sometimes publishing illegally received information is justifiable. But as I understand the ethics involved the writer is obliged to tell the reader of this fact and allow the reader to decide whether the writer and his or her paper were justified in publishing the information. Neither Eric Benjamin nor anyone in the chain of command at the Gannett papers he works for has revealed anything about the legal issues involved. Further, the use of such potentially tainted material is supposed to have been explored thoroughly explored and approved by the editorial staff. No one has given us any reason to believe that Benjamin explored the ethical and legal issues with his editorial superiors, whoever they may be. Those sorts of explorations and explanations have been left to other papers and bloggers.
This is not a healthy situation from the point of view of journalism’s ethical standards.
Now on to the essay itself. The first several paragraphs are spent in establishing, as near as I can tell, the idea that ethics is a complex business, that journalists and Saudi women have ethical dilemmas, and that the right path is not always clear. Ok, I’ll concede all that.
What’s difficult to concede are the myriad odd implications of the following assertions:
In journalism an ethical position sometimes requires sacrificing your own point of view to report objectively, and sometimes it requires telling a story that is not already in the public domain with which you may not agree.
That this is obviously true is hardly the point..a reasonable reader unfamiliar with Benjamin’s history, would suppose that Benjamin was saying that he sacrificed his “own point of view to report objectively” and that he was required in this instance to tell “a story not already in the public domain” with which he did not agree. The evidence says otherwise. Loudly
Evidence says that Benjamin was only playing at reporting in his personal column. By the count of another of his staff Benjamin wrote 13 times in the pages of the Times in opposition to the LUS proposal, some of those being satirical retellings of LUS’ reasoning that cast LUS as an oily salesman. Benjamin allowed one of the three members of Fiber 411 to co-author one of his diatribes. Benjamin, in the very instance for which he is trying to claim objectivity didn’t bother to check the readily available public record on the attacks he reprinted. Objectivity is simply not something Benjamin can claim. Pretending to this transparently untrue claim of objectively demeans real reporters who rely on the presumption that they do attempt to report objectively by putting their work in the same category as Benjamin’s. (In making news Benjamin should surely be held to the same standard to which real reporters are held. That he is not is not a problem that can be solved by his asserting that the standard applies. His superiors must exercise editorial oversight to ensure that he adheres to rules that he is manifestly incapable of applying to himself.)
If you read carefully you will notice that Benjamin is not really committing to the position that he was acting against his own inclinations in this ethics debacle. He just wants to lead you to make the little logical mistake that follows from thinking this might true. Don’t do it. Just because it is sometimes true that some reporters find themselves in the position of feeling ethically obligated to objectively cover stories not in the public domain that they do not like it does not follow that Benjamin covered this story for anything like those same reasons. He needs to directly claim that he didn’t treat the story with unfettered glee-that he acted objectively and reluctantly. And if he does he’d have to defend himself against the evidence that he is the most partisan writer on this topic in the media. There is, in fact, every evidence that he was not burdened by any considerations of objectivity and that he has been happy to continue to pursue his attack on the profiber position by whatever means lay to hand.
Benjamin goes on to make this claim:
A report that a bona fide complaint has been filed with a government agency is news.
The problem here is manifold. Benjamin doesn’t even mention the question these particular revelations were illegal and unethical by law and definition and his own ethical obligations to consider whether that tainted the story. Nor, as a consequence of the first omission, does he mention that he didn’t reveal his rationale for using the material to the public with the story.
He calls it a bona fide complaint. That lends it a legitimacy for which only he (hopefully) can vouch. Since it appears that Durel has not received notice of a complaint that would mean that Neal did not file a “sworn complaint”–it was not sworn to before a notary–since the accused is notified in that case. So it could have been not sworn. Or, considering the quality of the reporting so far, it might just as easily simply be untrue. It’s pretty clear that Benjamin has no way of knowing if that complaint actually went in. Neal’s no longer talking. So there’s no way of independently verifying that anything happened that might constitute “news.”
Whether that complaint eventually becomes charges is a matter to be decided within the system, not in the media.
Eric is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of “trial by media.” Let me inform him: it’s what he is doing. Leveling charges that can’t be legally answered has got to add insult to the injury. He goes on to say:
Simply reporting the existence of it [a complaint] is not to be construed as necessarily advocating a partisan position.
Give me a break. This is more of that attempt to take on the mantle of working reporting that he’s not earned. If a real reporter were reporting a publicly announced “complaint” none of us would be free to assume anything about the reporter’s own partisan position. But that is NOT what we are dealing with. We are dealing with the personal column of Eric Benjamin who has consistently ridiculed the profiber position, the same personal column one of which was used on the last day of the campaign as a full page BellSouth ad for goodness sake. All Benjamin has done is advocate a hard anti-partisan position in his space. When we see a post-election attack on Joey Durel which is full of easily checkable misstatements we are prone to wonder. When we see a “report” whose most basic substance can be confirmed by no other reporter and contains illegally proffered information it raises flags. And when that report includes charges that the person attacked has not seen and about which the law forbids him to speak what are we supposed to think? That Benjamin is giving these accusations media time because he’s non-partisan? Give me a break.
This goes on…and on…allow me to be a little telegraphic:
B complains that articles “sought to refute certain aspects” of his story. That ought to read “did refute much of the factual basis of my story” or at least deal with his credulity in repeating the substance of unsubstantiated charges.
B complains that the “complaint is only dismissible when it has been ruled on by the appropriate government agencies” and that the media cannot dismiss it. That’s a classic straw man. Nobody has said or implied anything different. He’s acting as if the attacks on his story’s failings is an attack on Neal’s accusations. Nah. It’s an attack on a shoddy story.
B whines that “Some believe that ridicule and name calling are not the right way to refute a story.” My reply: Lester U Smiley. Not once but over several of his commentaries. Honestly, what more need you say?
B pontificates: “One should draw a very dubious eye toward those who would advance their own partisan agenda while seeking to eradicate or ridicule others, for in that rhetoric truly lives the seeds of fascism.” B needs to do a little reading of history. Ridicule is every totalitarian system’s worst enemy. Fascism was not seeded by ridicule; if anything it was the lack of ridicule of a ridiculous fat Italian man in a gaudy outfit and mad German one with a silly mustache that seeded the rise of fascism.
B accuses: “most Lafayette media failed to perform the basic mission of analysis and reporting on this story” And he contributed exactly what to that mission of responsible analysis and reporting? The Ethics Debacle? A Hunter Thompson parody? –You know, the Consumers Union, Intel, and the IEEE all looked into the issue and have come out for municipal broadband; maybe it’s not a problem of inadequate analysis on the part of the proponents of fiber. Maybe the Chamber of Commerce, many civic organizations, the Advocate, the Independent and two thirds of voters on July 16th had done their homework. And maybe they agreed because that was what was right for Lafayette rather than that they were too lazy to get Benjamin’s “real” story. That is at least as credible a thesis as that Benjamin, BellSouth, and 3 guys with a penchant for press conferences didn’t get a fair shake from the media.
B huffs of the election: “Therefore, if it is not legally invalid, it at least would be ethically invalid.” and a bit later: “Questions surrounding whether the city stole the election are still before the State Ethics Board and may lead to further investigation.” There is no contrition in this guy. The contempt for the rubes among whom his is forced to labor is immense. If the people overwhelmingly reject his position it must be because the mayor was too overt in support of his own program. Or that city buses did it (well, maybe not). Or that a billboard lacked its owner’s signature. Or something, anything, but that the city of Lafayette found his and his allies arguments lacking.