Political journalists stress importance of credibility

Sunday, September 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:10 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Two of Missouri’s top political reporters say that the credibility of reporters in general has been undermined by the CBS document controversy.

"It’s bad for journalism," said the statehouse bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Terry Ganey.

"We have a credibility problem with a lot of people already," Ganey said. "When a large institution as big as CBS does it, it causes serious problems for us,” he said. "He has severely damaged the reputation of journalists in general."

"CBS has a landmark reputation in this country," said the Kansas City Star’s statehouse correspondent, Tim Hoover. "It’s interesting that 50 years of reputation can be dumped overnight.”

At issue is a CBS "60 Minutes II" report that cited what it claimed were official National Guard memos, which raised questions about the service of President Bush in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. One of the memos was purported to be an order for Lt. Bush to take a physical examination, which he did not take.

CBS News subsequently said it could not authenticate the memos.

Althoughthey condemned use of the documents as the basis of the CBS report, both Ganey and Hoover were less critical of the other controversy that has emerged — the communication between CBS and a top official in the John Kerry campaign.

U.S. Today has reported that the producer of the CBS report, Martha Mapes, had called a key Kerry adviser, Joe Lockhart, and given him the phone number of the person who had provided the memos to CBS.

"There’s clearly a conflict of interest when (Mapes) plays both the role of the journalist and the role of an intermediary between a source and somebody in a political campaign," said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in Florida. Ganey and Hoover do not agree with Steele’s position. "Why is that a big deal?" Hoover asked. "How does that compromise (a journalist) at all?"

"I think it’s wrong to pay for information, because all it does is encourage people to make up stuff so that they can sell it, " he said.

Ganey offered similar thoughts. "I think it is kind of a close question because you are kind of doing a favor to somebody,” he said. “I know that reporters parry favor with sources in a number of ways."

"If I go to the Capitol and a senator asks me for a copy of a paper that appeared weeks ago, I might go into my archives and retrieve a document to give to him as a favor,” Ganey said. “Is that unethical? I didn’t pay him any money."

Ganey said he remembers "when the accuracy of the documents first came under scrutiny, I was concerned — hoping that the people who put them out were correct. It’s important— whatever the facts are — that journalism as a profession is reinforced by accurate reporting. When (CBS) admitted that the documents were not authentic, I was flabbergasted that an institution as well known as CBS could have made such a mistake."

CBS has appointed a two-person committee to investigate the affair — former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who served under two Republican presidents, and the retired chief executive of The Associated Press, Louis Boccardi.

"Whatever results they come up with, they should be made public," Ganey said. "Say you have a spouse that cannot be trusted; it takes a long time to reestablish that. So all (journalists) collectively have to reestablish the trust of the people."

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