September 23, 2004

A question of involvement…

I’m one of the eggheads teaching media ethics to journalism and mass media students, and I have no problem with the request by the Bush and Kerry campaigns that the moderators (famous journalists) sign the Memorandum of Understanding.

Should we equate the presidential debates with the practice of journalism? I don’t think so. While the proposed moderators are journalists, they will not be acting as journalists during the debate except in the most superficial way: they’ll be asking questions. They will also be doing some things that have nothing to do with journalism. And, the biggie: They are participants in the event as principals of the event rather than observers of the event.

While standards of media ethics (rather than journalistic ethics) certainly should apply, I don’t see that the application of journalistic ethics is necessary to the production of the presidential debates as the campaigns have structured them.

That last clause is important to understanding my position–“as the campaigns have structured them.” As I will discuss later today in my analysis of the rhetoric of the memo (and the rhetoric the memo makes possible), the campaigns have taken great pains to avoid making news and to avoid the possibility that anything will pop out of the candidates’ mouths that’s not a well-worn, previously-scripted spin point. They have taken pains to ensure that they will not be challenged by the press, the audience, or each other on their spin points. Without the possibility of real challenge to authority, can a journalist be practicing real journalism in an American context?

Should journalists sign the memo? Perhaps a better (ethical) question is: Should journalists even be involved in these “debates” as structured?

2 Responses

  1. Not sure how this fits, but I appreciate that a journalists I respect (Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifil) will be moderating debates. Even though the questions might be the same, in the back of my mind I give Lehrer more cred that Brit Hume (for example).

  2. “Cred” is exactly what it’s all about. You could get Pat Sajak to do it, but who would take it seriously. The campaigns want name journalists because this completes the illusion of the debates.