Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs (Roberts/Jacobs emails: Part 1 of 3)

After I wrote about the relation between Jane Jacobs’s ideas and the British phone-hacking scandal, I heard from Jim Jacobs, one of her sons. He wrote:

Mary Rowe forwarded your post about News of the World and Systems of Survival.  It’s an interesting observation. Here’s my take on it:

The moral principle we all value most in our news media is ‘Be honest’.  Even the slightest deviation is viewed with alarm.  Among other types of dishonesty, when newspapers get too close to government or filter their presentations through ideology they become worthless, often destructive.  This requirement for honesty pervades the work of searching out the news too, just as it does for scientists searching for an understanding of something. (We expect reporters to respect ‘off-the-record’ confidentialities, for example.) Together with honesty, the entire commercial moral syndrome fits a newspaper, whatever its size. I won’t repeat the list here, but just look at it and see if you don’t think every one of the commercial moral principles are considered admirable in a newspaper, right down to ‘Be optimistic’ – newspapers are frequently criticized for too much doom-and-gloom. Note that there is no moral principle of ‘Sell more newspapers’:  commercial morals don’t always lead to financial success.  In fact, what Jane dubs ‘Monstrous Hybrids’ are often the roads to quick, immoral, riches.  Media empires frequently drift toward guardian morals, immoral for them, and Murdoch’s is no exception.  Therein lies their destructiveness, and eventual demise.

I hope this helps.

I replied:

It’s great to have your take on this. Here’s what I think about the points you raise.

For newspapers the overwhelming value isn’t “be honest” but “be accurate”. Honesty is saying what you think; accuracy is being accurate in what you say. It’s easy to be honest and inaccurate.

I believe that powerful newspapers consider themselves a fourth branch of government, and rightly so. Publication of the Pentagon Papers, for example, had nothing to do with selling more papers; it was all about fulfilling their responsibilities — which included loyalty to readers.

“Shun trading” is a part of newspaper practice in the sense that paying for interviews is thought to be bad. “Respect contracts” is not supposed to apply to them — it is bad for a magazine to strike a deal with a celebrity in order to get their cooperation.

“Be optimistic”. Sure, some readers want newspapers to be different, including more optimistic. They want more entertainment listings, for example. They want more stories about celebrities (and Murdoch gave them this). But the people who run powerful papers don’t agree. Editorials are usually preachy: this is bad, that is bad. That’s not entertaining at all — which is why Us magazine has no editorials — but whoever writes them thinks it is their job to make the world a better place by telling others what to do. When one of Murdoch’s lieutenants took over the Wall Street Journal, he said something about other papers being too concerned with their status in the eyes of other journalists (an example of “treasure honor”) than selling newspapers. Whereas to NY Times journalists, Murdoch’s papers “pandered”.

“Respect contracts”. I agree with you there.

“Come to voluntary agreements.” Newspapers are supposed to be nonviolent, yes. But when they have something important to say — e.g., some dirt to reveal — they are supposed to ignore legal threats. For example, the CBC is now being sued by a nutrition researcher because they aired a negative program about him.

“Deceive for the sake of the task.” Journalists do this all the time. For example, a restaurant reviewer will wear a disguise.

“Treasure honor”. There is now talk of a Hippocratic oath for journalists.

“Dissent for the sake of the task.” I don’t see that. I see newspapers with a party line. For example someone was fired from NPR recently for expressing views his bosses didn’t agree with.

“Be open to inventiveness and novelty.” I don’t see this. Perhaps newspapers are no more stagnant than other powerful companies however.

Because newspapers are actually businesses, they do value certain commercial values. But they see themselves as quite different from other businesses. Few people in other businesses are so concerned with “truth” and “the public interest”.

I will post Jim’s reply tomorrow.

One Reply to “Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs (Roberts/Jacobs emails: Part 1 of 3)”

  1. Happily for accuracy and honesty in the world, the audience for mainstream media is shrinking every day. In fact they are irrelevant in today’s world.

    Accuracy and honesty takes a leap forward whenever a journalist loses his job. And there is plenty to cheer about with ever increasing layoffs in the media.

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