Truth, Money, Right, Wrong

Yesterday I wrote about the ongoing CNET editorial independence issue. I said that the editors and journalists at CNET were part of the problem, and suggested that they either publish their (assumed) dissent, or resign, or both.

A conversation began in the comments of that post, with some people saying that it isn’t reasonable to expect people to resign.

From Danny Sullivan:

I think a lot of CNET staffers probably aren’t resigning, Mike, because they have families to support, as well as themselves. It’s not exactly a great economy out there. I think what Greg did was very brave, but not everyone is that brave nor even able to make that type of move.

Rof Hof:

I don’t blame people in today’s publishing business for wanting to line up work first. Not everybody can be sure of being able to support their families, and when they’ve been screwed by their employer, they shouldn’t be expected to *immediately* screw themselves too. But don’t be surprised to see more leaving.

There were similar comments on Twitter. These comments were often combined with statements my position wasn’t valid because I have made some money selling my business.

As just one example, David Carnoy, Executive Editor at CNET, says:

@arrington In your post about @CNET you neglected to disclose $$$ you made from selling out to AOL. Easy to walk when you had your BIG EXIT.

And finally, some people have said that it’s only reasonable for people to resign if they have another job lined up.

Hunter Walk, in a comment to the original post, says:

Let’s see other journalists stand with their brethren and start a “free the CNET staffers” fund that can be tapped by any CNET journalist who wants to walk away but needs the money to do so. Mike, I’ll match up to the first $500 of your contribution :)

I think some of these are valid points and worth exploring.

First, sure it’s easy for me to say they should just quit their jobs when I’m not the one doing it and I may have more financial security than most or all of them. If I worked at CNET, had a family to take care of and had little financial breathing room I cannot say for certain that I’d resign. My family would certainly come first (and second, and third). It’s a fair point.

Second, I agree that it would certainly be easier for CNET people to resign if they knew that they had another job waiting for them.

Still, I think there are some profound issues to think through that drive to the core of what it means to be a journalist, and these issues are worth exploring.

What does it mean to be a journalist? If I have bias here, it isn’t in net worth. It’s that I don’t respect what I’ve called the Priesthood of Journalism. Journalists hold themselves apart, and above, the common person. They have rules designed to ensure their objectivity and impartiality.

Among those rules – “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

It doesn’t say “unless you report to them,” or “unless you might lose your job.”

No, journalists hold themselves to a higher standard. Situations like CNET are exactly what journalists are supposed to fight. That’s why we entrust them as the fourth estate.

Is the pushback here because we’re just talking about tech press and not real press? What if someone at the New York Times was under express orders not to write about a political or financial scandal? Would we say it’s ok if they were at risk of losing their job and maybe not being able to pay their mortgage? Hell no, we’d consider that reporter as part of the overall conspiracy. “Just following orders” doesn’t cut it there, and the tech press should hold themselves to those same standards.

Journalists are supposed to put the people first, even before themselves. Around the world and throughout history journalists have died to get the truth out. We’re not talking about losing a job and having trouble paying the bills. We’re talking about things like having your head removed from your body.

Of course covering the latest tech gadgets isn’t quite the same thing as covering a bloody civil war. It’s not as important, or dangerous. But there is still quite clearly a principle at stake here. If a tech journalist needs financial security before doing what their conscience dictates, I’m not sure they should be calling themselves journalists at all.

Would it be ok for a CNET reporter to take a bribe to cover or not cover a certain product? Or what if CBS said “in appreciation of you not leaving after this debacle we want to give you all a 10% spot bonus.” Would that be ok? But what if they really need that bribe or spot bonus? What if they have a sick kid and can’t pay the hospital bills? Is it ok then?

To me, every paycheck a CNET reporter receives from here on out is just a bribe. A bribe that they are accepting in exchange for putting up with CBS telling them what they can and cannot say. By staying they are making it easier for companies to do evil in the future.

“It comes down to *why* we do this job. Do we have a burning passion to report the truth, or simply a desire to eat?”Lee Hutchinson

So to end this I’ll say this. I don’t think CNET reporters are bad people for not quitting, and I quite understand that some of them may not be in any kind of financial position to even consider it. But as this crisis passes, perhaps those that couldn’t make that hard decision should consider if, over the long run, they should continue to call themselves journalists. Perhaps a new line of work, one where the public isn’t relying on them, is a better choice.