By: Allan Wolper
Wolper’s Ethics Corner Is ‘On the Record’
It was 1984 – George Orwell’s year.
U.S. Rep. Al Gore, D-Tenn., was running for the U.S. Senate and
wanted to embarrass his Republican opponent. So he turned over
some damaging documents to The Washington Post’s Howard
Kurtz on alleged mismanagement at Ronald Reagan’s Federal
Emergency Management Agency.
But Gore needed more than a nasty story to put him over the top.
He wanted Kurtz, now a media reporter, to write him up as a
crusader, which is the custom on Capitol Hill when a congressman
leaks details of an investigation in which he’s involved.
“I know these things are unspoken,” Gore told Kurtz in a
conversation the reporter relates in his book, “Media Circus,”
“but I am in a tough race for the Senate. I want to make sure I
get some credit on this.” Kurtz told Gore he would take note of
the congressman’s good works.
Hopefully, the former vice president has a notebook full of those
political-press relationship war stories for his national-
reporting-affairs seminar at the Columbia University Graduate
School of Journalism where he is starting his post-chad life as a
Anecdotes aside, one thing is certain. His appointment at one of
the most prestigious journalism schools in the country confirms
what readers have suspected for years – there is barely any
separation between political reporters and the people they cover.
That perception will be reinforced at political fund-raisers
where Gore’s title as a visiting professor of journalism will be
duly noted in the dinner program.
Gore is getting a pass from grown-up journalists who point to his
days in the early 1970s as a reporter for The Tennessean
in Nashville as evidence that he deserves once again to be one of
them. But his reporting days there received a negative review on
ethical grounds from a student journalist who was outraged to
learn that Gore joined forces with the Tennessee Bureau of
Investigation to catch a couple of allegedly sleazy councilmen in
a shakedown scheme.
“Imagine if a Spectator reporter figured out that a
[student] council member was taking bribes from a campus group,”
wrote Dan Laidman in a recent column in The Daily
Spectator, the undergraduate newspaper. “Would it be ethical
for the Spec to work with the dean of student affairs to
entrap the council member?”
But Laidman’s idealistic vision of journalism seems to be running
against the tide. The airwaves and Op-Ed sections of newspapers
are filled with people who the week before or the year before
were on the receiving end of press coverage.
“I guest-lectured at George Washington University, and all the
students wanted to be pundits,” laughed Lucy Dalglish, executive
director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“They all want to be like Mary Matalin and George
Stephanopoulous.” Dalglish sees academia as the root of the
revolving pundit problem. “It started when all those reporters
began teaching at places like the John F. Kennedy School of
Government,” she said.
Yet there is hardly any debate in journalism about whether Gore
should have gotten his Columbia gig.
Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism
Review, believes the vice president is simply a good deep
throat on political journalism. “He knows what we do,” said Hoyt.
“He can help us do it better.”
Joe Foote, president-elect of the Association of Education of
Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), a major organization
of j-schools, agrees that getting Gore was a coup for Columbia.
“I can’t imagine anyone not wanting the vice president to be a
visiting professor,” said Foote. That also was the opinion of
Dean Mills, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the
University of Missouri at Columbia, Mo. “He has a lot more sense
than a lot of guys from the other side of the notebook,” said
Mills. “Our school tried to get him, but for some reason he
decided to choose New York.”
Ken Bode, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern
University in Evanston, Ill., was the only academic voice we
found who was uncomfortable about the appointment of an active
politician to a journalism faculty. “I certainly believe in
bringing politicians to our campus to interact with students,”
said Bode. “We had Ken Starr [the special prosecutor in the
Whitewater case] here. We had the mayor of Boston here. But we
didn’t make any of them a visiting professor of journalism. Gore
is getting a faculty appointment. He doesn’t have the
qualifications for that.”
But once a politician, always a politician. Gore’s entire course
is off the record.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of
Media Ethics at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication
at the University of Minnesota. “For someone purporting to teach
journalism to impose such a condition is unconscionable.”
Allan Wolper’s “Ethics Corner” column appears monthly in
E&P. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Wolper’s column went to press prior to the
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism announcing
Gore’s future classes will be “on the record.” We think they made
the right choice.
Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.