Sunday, April 04, 2004

A week or so ago I went on a rant which began with something like, "People are stupid about the First Amendment". I got one question about it, and no doubt Rebekkah wasn't the only person confused by a rant with no context or apparent cause. So here's the story.

At the college journalism conference I went to over Spring Break, one of the talks I went to was about ethics in journalism. Its format was that four college journalism professors or professional editors or writers talked about situations they had been in, and the audience discussed what they would have done, and then (if the situation was over with), we found out what the experienced professionals had done. Well, one person who talked was (I think) Rolando Larraz, the publisher of the Las Vegas Tribune.

He talked about this one story about the end of a controversial trial. Some rich person, a casino owner or something, had been sued for something or other. Well, after the trial was over, the judge of the case was seen and photographed at a book signing by the defendant (or whatever their relation was. The rich guy.) The judge and the defendant were friends. Clear conflict of interest and all sorts of other illegal and/or unethical terms. Possibly even bribery. So the question Rolando posed was, should he publish a story about it?

And no one had a good answer. People talked about a "constitutional duty" to inform the public and they reassured Rolando that it really was newsworthy and they just didn't understand the question. I let 6 or 8 people talk, never hearing a relevant comment, before I finally raised my hand and said, "You might not want to publish a story that makes a powerful public figure look bad. They might not like it." And so when the discussion was over, we found out that Rolando did publish the story. And he lost %40 of his advertising because of it.

Yes, it sucks that that happened. The judge should - at the very least - lose his seat for complicity and allowing a conflict of interest to stand, and the trial should be declared a mistrial, I think, from the very little I know of the case. And it sucks that so many advertisers in LV were in bed with or in thrall to people like that. But the thing that drove me nuts was that no one got it. I mean, these are college-educated people who've made a hobby and maybe even eventually a career of this stuff. At least six or so of them spoke up before me, and I assume many others agreed with them or they would have been talking as well, and none of them could figure out why you might not want to print something that makes a judge and a multi-millionaire look bad. Especially not something that makes them look bad and yet isn't urgent enough to provide a smoking gun.

What naïveté! What stupidity! What willful ignorance and inability to deal with the real world!

So anyways, that's what I was talking about a couple weeks ago.

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