By: Mark Fitzgerald A drafter of the proposed Associated Press Managing Editors ethics code is disappointed by newspaper industry reaction sp.
CAMPAIGNING IN MINNEAPOLIS for a stronger Associated Press Managing Editors ethics code, Louisville Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe said he is discouraged by the industry response. "I'm discouraged by the reflexive opposition we've run into. I'm discouraged by the persistent nit-picking," Hawpe told the recent annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. In what is becoming a familiar road show, Hawpe debated a First Amendment attorney who attacked the proposed code as a threat to free press and a blow to hard-won libel protections. While vigorously defending the basic concepts of the APME code, Hawpe also took on the persona of a Willy Loman trying to sell a great product no one is buying. "I can live with about anything if it would get this off my back," Hawpe said at one point, referring to some suggested changes in the proposal. While several ombudsmen were sympathetic, Hawpe faced all the familiar arguments in a debate with Minneapolis First Amendment attorney Paul Hannah. Hannah criticized the draft code on both philosophical and practical grounds. "I see a set of standards by journalists, if not a fundamental threat to the First Amendment, then at least certainly an ironic kind of thing . . . . "The First Amendment is there to protect precisely the weeklies, the magazines . . . that are not fair, that are not balanced," Hannah said. Even the most "objective" article would fail the APME standard of being "complete, unbiased, fair and completely true," he said. "Pick any article in the paper ? and I dare you to find one that meets all these four requirements," Hannah told the group. While the First Amendment provides "at least a sheen of protection" to newspapers and news organizations, "We are about to, as an industry, on our own impose interferences on our own members," Hannah said. The attorney also mocked the standards proposed for journalistic deception. The code says deception should be avoided and it offers a series of tests to determine whether a story is worth a rare exception. Hannah paraphrased the long section this way: "The standard says we shall not act in a dishonest way ? unless it will pay. We will not act in a dishonest way ? unless it is in the national instinct." Like many attorneys who have debated Hawpe on this, Hannah also argued the APME standards on fact-checking and similar assurances of fairness will be an onerous burden on journalists in court. But Hawpe said he doubts very much that the APME code would be "legally fatal." "I would assert this much: that is, it is not legally fatal to present this kind of detailed [document] . . . . It may be legally troubling. It may be legally bothersome, but it is not legally fatal," Hawpe said. Nor, he added, is a detailed code even especially chilling. He noted that the Courier-Journal's ethics code ? at 65 pages, many times longer and more detailed than the proposed APME code ? has not chilled the newspaper's investigative enterprises. "If anybody's been chilled, it's been Sheriff Joe Greene, who's in the penitentiary as a result of our work," said Hawpe, citing one of several examples. "If anything, it seems to me, we bolster the First Amendment by being as serious as we can be, by telling our staff how they are to behave," he said. APME's code would also make sense on a pragmatic level, Hawpe argued. "People ask, why didn't we just let [the present code] be? I guess one of the reasons is we have seen so much change since the original code was drafted," Hawpe said. The present code was adopted in 1975. Among the changes, Hawpe says: technological changes such as seam-less photo manipulation; economic changes that bring new pressures on journalists, and demographic changes among both newspaper readers and journalists. The section on deception ? which Hawpe called "one of my favorites" ? is an example of the practicality of the code, the editor said. "It lays down a test to question yourself as to when you should do it," he said. Hawpe said the strong newspaper opposition is exactly the opposite reaction he has received from the public at large. "There are legitimate expectations out there that we are not anywhere near meeting," he said. When, for example, the code's provisions on plagiarism were challenged, Hawpe said newspapers need to consider public reaction. "The public," Hawpe said, "simply would not understand a response that says [a strict standard on] plagiarism is a problem for our newspapers."