Certain segments of the news media – both television and print -are becoming far too participatory. By this, I mean they areunabashedly honing the art of creating news rather than observingand reporting it. What is, perhaps, most disturbing is theunfortunate rise of a soft-form of destructive “vigilantejournalism” – a practice burgeoning at breakneck pace.
Illustrating my point is the recent mistrial of ex-Tyco CEODennis Kozlowski and former Chief Financial Officer Mark Swartz.Both men were on trial for allegedly raiding Tyco’s cookiejar to the tune of $600 million.
The judge’s decision to throw in the towel came after anelderly female juror, who two weeks ago was accused by some in themedia of making an “OK” sign with her fingers as asignal that she supported the defense, received both a”coercive” letter as well as a threatening telephonecall.
Though Samuel Maull of the Associated Press reports that”the judge stressed that the juror committed nowrongdoing,” the judge found that the juror’s abilityto faithfully continue on with deliberations in the face of massivescrutiny would be compromised.
The receipt of that letter and phone call is a direct result ofa decision made by both The New York Post and The Wall StreetJournal to identify this juror by name in their publications.Nothing prevented the Post or the Journal from referring to thiswoman as “Juror #4”- as is standard – and allowing thepresiding court to assess whether her conduct was improper.
Instead, these papers took matters into their own hands and, inturn, perverted the end of a trial that took six months out ofjurors’ lives and millions of taxpayer dollars. According toa couple of jurors, interestingly enough, guilty verdicts wereimminent.
Media ethics must always be valued, and reckless use of thatpower should never be in vogue. “Freedom of the Press”is not a license to act like the bullying middle-schooler who liesin wait for the unpopular kid to get off the bus.
Though the Tyco instance clearly confirms the negative effectthat this kind of we’re-gonna-get-you journalism has on theintegrity of the judicial system as a whole, another questionlooms: What would the Post and Journal have done if that juror hadbeen physically harmed? The fact that a person is disliked does notgive the media permission to jump on the vendetta bandwagon and,thereby, endanger that individual’s life. While this is not acall for excessive political correctness, prudence should still bea virtue. Acting from personal offense is the role of us opinionhacks; any agitation felt by print and television news reportersshouldn’t show.
Now, this is not to say that media ingenuity is unhelpful. TheWatergate sleuthing of Woodward and Bernstein comes to mind. But ina world where 24-hour news networks willingly spit outunsubstantiated hearsay and indulge the whims of camera-ready”expert” pundits/gossip-mongers who care little abouttruth and more about their own individual bents, real journalistsmust take care to guard their reputations. Otherwise, they risk thescorn that should rightly be placed on the shoulders of thoseresponsible at The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. Therendering of justice was thwarted by the impulsiveness of theiractions, and that is a complete shame.
Abi Smith is a graduate student in Political Science and acolumnist for The Louisville Cardinal. Email her at: [email protected].