Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Journalist Acting Like a Citizen? Of Course Not!


The man himself

We're coming to the end of another fantastic year in media hypocrisy, bias and stupidity. And it couldn't happen if the ostensible watchdogs -- the media columnists and journo reviews, with rare exceptions such as the National Review's Stephen Spruiell -- weren't doing such a crappy job. So, without further ado, here's our first annual Dumb Media Column Award.

The winner is Jack Shafer of Slate, for a column last night that poses the question: Should a reporter act like a good citizen? His answer: Absolutely not!

Shafer's underwear is in a twist over that rarity in the New York Times -- a solid investigative story that doesn't grind any particular ideological axe. Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald went deep into the world of child porno in yesterday's paper, and came up with a detailed and really very good story.

But in the course of this -- horrors! -- Eichenwald believed all that phony baloney stuff we were taught in grade school, and actually acted like a good citizen. He put the protagonist of his story, a teenage kid caught up in the world of kiddie porn, in touch with the authorities.

Well, Shafer devoted an entire shrill, stupid column to raking Eichenwald over the coals for showing a little heart and public-spiritedness. "While I admire Eichenwald's journalistic enterprise and thoroughness" -- very white of you, Jack -- "I'm astonished at how he loses control of his 6,500-word investigation when he appears two-thirds through it to serve not as a reporter but as the legal advocate and protector of the now 18-year-old [Justin] Berry."

Excuse me. "Lose control"? Act as "legal advocate and protector"? Here's the offending passages from the Times story:

"Justin agreed in discussions with this reporter to abandon the drugs and his pornography business." Isn't that terrible? He should have just taken notes and kept his frigging trap shut, in the view of our man Jack.

"After confirming his revelations, The Times urged him to give his information to prosecutors, and he agreed." Oh dear. The scandal! The Times stumbles upon a figure at the center of a kiddie-porn ring, and dares to suggest that maybe this person should do something to prevent dozens of other kids from being victimized.

Shafer believes that what I just described creates a terrible precedent. Dig this: "The analogies aren't perfect, but imagine a Times reporter encountering an 18-year-old who had been thrust into the illicit drug business at 13 as a consequence of his neglectful family and unscrupulous dealers? Would he help the young man leave the drug trade and find him a lawyer at a Washington firm who is 'a former federal prosecutor,' as Eichenwald did Berry? Not likely."

I don't know if it's "likely" or not, but if a reporter helped a kid escape a life of drugs and crime, what the hell is wrong with that?

Says Shafer: "Hasn't the Times put the next reporter assigned to the online pornography story into a nasty jam?" Yeah, a terrible jam. He or she might feel compelled to act like a human being.

This idiotic column prompted a rather namby-pamby response from Eichenwald. Rather than saying, "Yeah, so I acted like a citizen. So what?" Eichenwald pointed out that he needed to help the kid get out of the business in order to do the story. Which is a valid point but does not address Shafer's addled, morally obtuse broader point -- which is, in essence, that reporters toss away their citizenship papers when they sign up for a press card.

If Jack Shafer had been around sixty years ago, he'd probably have raked Ernie Pyle over the coals for failing to show the proper journalistic distance to the GIs he covered in the trenches. Pyle actually shared his rations and cooking stove with the troops. The bum! He should have let them go hungry.

What makes his column last night even more disgraceful is that Shafer is totally AWOL when it comes to the journalistic offenses committed by the Times just about every day.

So let's all give a standing ovation to Jack Shafer of Slate. Put 'er there, pal! You get the booby prize of 2005!
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