Sometimes, Heads Should Roll

(Fred Prouser/Reuters)
If you don’t dismiss a journalist for dishonesty, then what?

Of course Yahoo News should fire Katie Couric. She committed an act of gross intellectual dishonesty — and if you don’t fire a journalist for dishonesty, what in hell do you fire one for? Bad manners?

Well, yes. More on that in a bit.

Couric is under fire (you know, like Hillary Rodham Clinton in Bosnia) for her role in an anti-gun documentary (NB: My iPad wants “anti-gun” to be “anti-fun” — changed it three times — and I do not disagree) in which dishonest editing was used to make it look as though pro–Second Amendment activists were unable to answer elementary questions about a gun-rights controversy. This technique is known as “the Jon Stewart.” What you do is take a few seconds (or, in this case, a few minutes) of reaction shots (the footage they shoot of people’s faces while other people are talking) and then insert that non-talking footage after a question is asked: Voilà, the opposition is literally speechless. My friend Jonah Goldberg knows a little bit about this, his Daily Show appearance being an infamous example of editing with malice.

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This kind of thing is the stock-in-trade of faux journalists such as Jon Stewart and crude propagandists such as Michael Moore, but Katie Couric is, in theory, something else: an actual journalist. There are things we permit among comedians that we do not permit among journalists: I doubt very much that every anecdote Richard Pryor ever shared actually happened.

The usual idiots are rallying to Couric’s defense for the usual reason, which has absolutely nothing to do with principle and everything to do with a deep disinclination to allow anything to happen that might be considered a victory for conservative critics of the mainstream media. This is not a First Amendment question: No one is arguing that this film should be censored, the way films critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton were subject to government censorship before Citizens United; rather, this is a straightforward question about journalistic standards and Yahoo’s adherence to or wanton abandonment of them. Journalists are not supposed to tell lies to their audiences.

Couric did.

Case closed.

POLL: Should Katie Couric Resign?

There’s a lot of “the enemy of my enemy”-type thinking going around in media-criticism circles right now. All the best people pronounced themselves scandalized that eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, a libertarian activist (and sometime National Review writer), is helping to fund Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which published a sex tape featuring the entertainer. (In 1991, I sent a letter to William F. Buckley Jr., offering my services to his magazine, never expecting that the phrases “Hulk Hogan,” “sex tape,” and “National Review” would appear in the same sentence.) This, too, is being presented as a First Amendment crisis sparked by an evil right-wing moneyman.

What Katie Couric did was to perpetrate a falsehood. That should be the sort of thing that gets you fired, but it isn’t.

Spare me. Gawker is a magazine whose columns have argued, among other things, that people should be arrested and locked in cages for saying the wrong things about global warming. Now its publisher wants to be a free-speech martyr? I don’t think so. What Gawker stands accused of is a violation of privacy. It is true that violation-of-privacy cases are more complicated where public figures are concerned. But we have a pretty good body of law on that subject and, contra would-be censor Donald Trump, our courts have a pretty good record on handling complaints of libel, defamation, and invasion of privacy where public figures are concerned. Thiel may have his own beefs with Gawker – or, who knows, maybe he’s just a huge Hulk Hogan fan? — but unless you believe that invasion-of-privacy laws per se violate free speech, there’s nothing amiss with a celebrity pursuing litigation against a magazine or a benefactor supporting that litigation.

Again, it all depends on who is on the receiving end. I can think of at least one high-profile lawsuit by a celebrity against a well-known journal of opinion that has not received such tender concern from our desultory free-speech crusaders.

#share#A key criterion in libel cases is that the offending claim must be false. (That’s one of the reasons we have invasion-of-privacy cases: It may very well be that the local high-school basketball coach engages in extravagant Brony play in the privacy of his own home, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this fact belongs on the front page.) What Katie Couric did was to perpetrate a falsehood. That should be the sort of thing that gets you fired, but it isn’t. The other media-in-crisis story of the last week or so involves a now-former Demos blogger named Matt Bruenig, who was canned after calling Neera Tanden, a pal of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a hypocrite. (He called her “Scumbag Neera,” a reference to the Scumbag Steve meme.) That’s what gets you fired — crossing a Friend of Herself.

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Some time back, L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling found himself in the headlines for having made some ugly, grossly racist statements. Bruenig, who pretends to be some sort of journalist, manufactured out of thin air a quote from your favorite roving correspondent defending Sterling. I’m not saying “exaggerated” or “took out of context,” but simply made up. Never mind that I’d never even heard of the man — if you’ve got a conservative in your crosshairs, you call him a racist, and if there’s no excuse to do so, you make one up. That never bothered the folks at Demos, not one bit.

But call a powerful Democrat a hypocrite and you get fired.

I am not among those who think that people should be fired every time they make a mistake, say something stupid, or embarrass themselves. But dishonesty has to be a firing offense for journalists.

According to Lawyers, Guns, & Money, Bruenig has a full-time job as a lawyer working for — the federal government, at the National Labor Relations Board. (They always find their way onto the public teat.) I wonder how many people in similar positions are permitted to work in high-profile advocacy jobs for conservative organizations. I’m going to guess approximately zero.

Couric, Gawker, Bruenig: It isn’t about principle. Never is, never was, never will be.

— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent at National Review.



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