Monday, October 9, 2006

Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Joe Maguire, an editor at Reuters, has lost his job. That fact may be the only one not in dispute; while neither Reuters nor Maguire say he was dismissed, the proximate cause was the imminent publication of his book, Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter.

Reuters has an iron-clad editorial policy requiring freedom from bias but it does allow its employees write books. As the New York Times reports, Maguire got "conditional approval" for his and it quotes him as saying: "I thought I had met the conditions, and proceeded accordingly. As a result, I no longer work there.”

Freedom from bias in one's reporting is not a debatable point at Reuters, and it shouldn't be anywhere journalism is done. Still, some critics of MSM see it everywhere and some of those do so, I believe, to justify taking sides in their own "reporting."

When I was a reporter at Reuters neutrality was just one of those things that permeated the air. Tiny transgressions of the "She looked smart in a grey suit as she descended the courthouse steps" variety were held up to merciless ridicule by the editing desk.

But during those many years I (and I presume everyone around me) voted in every election. I never shied from a no-hold-barred political discussions with peers, superiors or competitors and they didn't either.

In 1992 I got a letter published in the New York Times about what I thought was weak network television coverage of that year's Democratic National Convention. A letter by (CBS network anchor) Dan Rather on the same subject came right after mine. His affiliation was printed. Mine was too -- I was Reuters' Boston Bureau Chief at the time. I don't think Dan got any grief, though he did have to leave his job under a cloud 14 years later. I, however, was severely rebuked that very dayby the top editor in the United States, who put a letter in my file which included the phrase, "I have decided not to end your assignment at this time." (Conspiracy buffs should also note that I left Reuters almost a year to the day before Dan left CBS.)

The purpose of a policy against biased reporting isn't to weed out people who have opinions, which would be impossible even if it were legal. It is meant to help convince readers that neutrality matters to the publisher and to be on the record with reporters that opinions are to be kept out of reporting. Professionals know how to do this even if amateurs can't understand how it can be done, and opportunists pretend not to comprehend.

So I wonder what Maguire's offense is. His opinions did not rise up as if fertilized by his book project. Reuters surely never asked him to swear he had no opinions on anything. Publishing an opinionated book doesn't lead to biased reporting, and it couldn't seriously provide anyone with an "Aha!" moment. His book isn't about killing babies or praising Nazis (by the way, protected speech anyway). It neither criticizes a client nor is promoted as being written from his perch as a Reuters journalist, as my letter to the Times could be construed as having done. And its subject matter isn't remotely related to what he was doing for Reuters: running a desk covering financial markets.

Anyway, like the Times says, at least he'll have plenty of time to promote his book now.

1 comment:

Bob Crooke said...

Good comments, John, dividing the speculative from the known. Still in doubt, as you said, is Joe Maguire's offense.