NYT op-ed controversy rekindles questions about journalists’ activism

By Lee Coppola

When I was co-teaching a media ethics course at St.  Bonaventure with the venerable professor emeritus Mary Hamilton, the topic of journalists’ activism came up. I voiced my belief that journalists must remain non partisan, not even give the impression of partisanship. No donations to political campaigns, no candidate signs on your lawn, no bumper stickers was my mantra.

In 1965, Mary Hamilton left the newsroom on her lunch hour to take part in a demonstration for civil rights.

Mary disagreed and regaled the class with the story about when she was a reporter on a small Pennsylvania newspaper in the 1960s and left the newsroom on her lunch hour to take part in a demonstration for civil rights. I was appalled and said so, but now I’m not so sure.

Of course, much has changed in the world of journalism since then. We now have 24-hour cable news channels, social media outlets and multi-media journalists. My quandary? Does that mean the fundamental principles of journalism that I learned at St.  Bonaventure under the aegis of Russell J. Jandoli have changed?

Isn’t it still a journalist’s job to gather information, analyze it and then present it to our various audiences accurately, without bias, without slant, without interpretation? Let the reader, listener, viewer decide what the information means, I was taught. And I espoused that belief throughout my 25-year career as a print and television reporter and my 15 years as dean of the school named after my mentor.

It was the outcry at the New York Times over the Sen. Tom Cotton op-ed piece and the uprising at the Philadelphia Inquirer over an insensitive headline that got me questioning my values. What do you think, my wife asked me about the Cotton op-ed imbroglio before the Times backtracked and the editorial page editor resigned. It was an opinion piece on the opinion page, I replied, and I think it was right for the Times to print it. I thought you’d say that, my wife said without taking sides.

I think I still feel that way, even after reading and listening to the outcry from journalists against their employers. Trust and credibility play a huge part in my thinking. For far too long I have watched and listened as journalists have been maligned as being one-sided, too liberal and favoring one side of a controversial issue. I try to explain that Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough aren’t journalists no more than Rush Limbaugh is — they’re hosts of cable network shows that feature guests who give their opinions, also known as pundits. As hosts, they promote punditry, not journalism.

And that’s a vital distinction in establishing trust and credibility with an audience. But sometimes I’m perplexed when I see news organizations seemingly pushing an agenda in reporting the news.  I remember when Buffalo had two daily newspapers, the Evening News and the Courier-Express, with different views on where the proposed football stadium should be built. Every impact study that came out was slanted by each newspaper to favor the site it favored. It sickened me then, and sickens me today at how both newspapers abrogated their responsibility to the core principles of what I was taught and tried to profess.

If a statement by a public or private official is not true, is it the role of a journalist to question the veracity, even if the statement was offered as a point of view? In that regard, “he/she claimed without evidence” seems an inadequate compromise. I don’t profess to know the proper path for journalists to take. I can only offer what I was taught and tried to practice: tell both sides and, if one side seems to be lying, present the truthful version.

Following that premise, rather than apologizing for running the Cotton piece, maybe the Times should have offered an op-ed piece opposing his views.

Lee Coppola, a former dean of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University, also worked as a newspaper reporter, a TV investigative reporter and an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

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