Phone Hacking and Jane Jacobs (Roberts/Jacobs emails: Part 2 of 3)

http://blog.sethroberts.net/2011/07/26/phone-hacking-and-jane-jacobs-robertsjacobs-emails-part-1-of-3/ of Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival and the British phone-hacking scandal continued. Jim wrote:

It’s of course important to look at what morals a newspaper is admired for, not what it does, nor what makes it successful. Jane was often frustrated at how people found it difficult to sort out which moral syndrome they belonged in, most often imagining they were ‘guardians’ when they weren’t. She thought in part it was the name ‘guardian’ that led people astray.

In the sense Jane uses it, ‘Be honest’ here means do your best to report the truth, or report what you think, but not to pretend one is the other. We don’t admire Fox for saying what they think mixed with what they observe, and newspaper editorials are admirable when kept separate from the news.

Opinionated tracts and advertising copy can be fine and honest representations of someone’s opinion, but they aren’t newspapers. Accuracy as an admirable trait is, like bravery, universal, and thus not useful in distinguishing one moral syndrome from another.

This is going to be long-winded, I’m afraid.

Look at the Commercial list:

Shun force – violence inflicted on reporters is never admired, nor is ’embedding’ them in army forces.

Come to voluntary agreements – Armies and government are allowed great latitude in the means they use to get information. Reporters are expected to work with information voluntarily given, and payment to a source for an exclusive interview is considered part of legitimate competition. Hacking phones is not a voluntary agreement. It’s considered admirable when used by government to catch criminals, but not when done by a newspaper. Wikileaks is admired for bravely putting out information voluntarily provided to it; the soldier who provided it is rightly despised by the Army (operating under guardian morals).

Be honest – A reporter who augments his story with stuff that might have been true, or chances things like names without telling the reader is considered reprehensible. (But it’s fine for a novelist, even an historical novelist.) So are dishonest business dealings of the organization. This is pretty much the same situation for scientists (always governed by the commercial syndrome, as we both know, and used as a drawn-out example in Systems of Survival). As Jane points out, scientists need to be honest in their means as well as their ends – no pirated software. Newspapers do dishonest things all the time, but they aren’t considered admirable.

Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens – reporters are admired for getting a story from someone they don’t know, often in a foreign land and language. A recent Toronto reporter was greatly admired for getting in-depth interviews from Taliban fighters and reporting what was said.

Compete – We admire a reporter who gets the scoop. We don’t admire anti-competitive collusion by media empires.

Respect contracts – Confidentiality agreements with sources are contracts as are ‘off-the-record’ agreements. Newspapers are admired for respecting both, even when this restricts the information that can be provided. Judith Miller was admired for going to jail to ‘protect her source’s identity’ and then despised (and fired from the NY Times) when it turned out she was actually working with Bush to slant the news to support their shared ideology.

Use initiative and enterprise – Any clever way to get a story is admired, as long as it’s honest.

Be open to inventiveness and novelty – Newspapers are admired for putting their content online, even if they still haven’t figured out how to make any money there. Newspapers are admired for endlessly tinkering with their format, even if they get it wrong trying. Newspapers were admired for being pioneers in new printing technology.

Be efficient – There are many kinds of efficiency, but efficient writing is something newspaper reporters have always been especially admired for, even when it makes for less-fun reading. But honesty and voluntary agreement trump efficiency, always, in commercial morals. Hacking phones may be efficient means, but not admired.

Promote comfort and convenience – A newspaper is admired as a bulwark of everyday civilization and a bastion of consumerism.

Dissent for the sake of the task – News reports that bravely dissent from the government line or from advertisers’ vested interests are admired. Crusading journalism is admired as long as it’s truthful. (A reporter too close to his story is considered suspect.) Governments that shut down dissident papers are not admired.

Invest for productive purposes – Newspapers are admired for using their resources in getting their job done. Conrad Black was criticized for using his papers’ resources to support his political causes and lavish lifestyle. Likewise Murdoch.

Be industrious – The steady work of putting out a paper every day is admired. A daily paper that can put out a brilliant edition once a week and can’t get it together the other days is criticized, and soon slips to being a weekly. Although a paper may happily report flamboyant leisure it shouldn’t indulge in it itself.

Be thrifty – No media was ever admired for wasting money, or time. Getting a story may involve expensive travel for example – that’s productive investment – but it shouldn’t be wasteful or show-off.

Be optimistic – Although much of the news that’s important is bad (“No news is good news.”) news media are praised for an optimistic outlook, even when pessimism might be more realistic.

Now, go through the guardian list (a little more quickly, I hope):

Shun trading – Media are admired for trading information with each other. Buying and selling information is despised when done by spies (guardian morals) but not when done my the newspapers.

Exert prowess, Show fortitude – Media powerhouses are not admired for using their strength to suppress small independents (as Amazon is now trying) or to control government policy. Media execs who go into public service (Bloomberg) are expected to keep hands-off and are criticized for using their power (and even their money) to support their careers. All these things are commonly done, but they aren’t considered admirable.

Be obedient and disciplined & Respect hierarchy & Be loyal – This is what’s needed in a government-controlled propaganda paper – always despised. When there’s no conflict between loyalty and honesty there’s no problem; but when they’re in conflict which way should a newspaper go? Honesty is the moral imperative for a newspaper – loyalty is more important to the army it may be writing about. A paper that thinks it’s an arm of government is in moral trouble.

Take vengeance – Media competition is considered good and moral – vendettas are not.

Deceive for the sake of the task – A reporter is expected to identify himself before asking questions. When they don’t they’re criticized. Deceptions (and force) used by paparazzi to get a photo are not admired. Reporters are not admired for tricking each other in competitive zeal. Media companies and their execs are never admired for deceptive business practice (Conrad Black is now in jail). Small innocent deceptions of the reader to give him a better story are considered inappropriate. All of these things are done, of course, and often to good effect – they just aren’t good media morals.

Make rich use of leisure, Be ostentatious, Dispense largesse – These are characteristics of media empires, like Murdoch’s, and are considered immoral and inappropriate, even when they appear to be harmless. Charity, on the other hand, is one of the universally ‘good’ morals, for everyone, but often confused with largesse. Papers that promote charities are admired for it.

Be exclusive – In Jane’s context, exclusive means avoiding outsiders. The diametrical opposite of Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens. It won’t help a media empire to behave like that, and even the Murdochs’ excessive aloofness is criticized as poor form.

Be fatalistic – A newspaper that thinks there’s no hope for change, even if there isn’t, has given up. Why would you go to all the trouble to find and write the news if you didn’t hope it could do some good. Copy that’s purely for entertainment value (News of the World?) is considered lightweight, frivolous, dumb. To say it’s just to sell newspapers, or just to sell advertising, is cynicism obscuring the point.

Treasure honor – When a newspaper makes a mistake should it protect its honor by hiding the error? It was a huge embarrassment to the NY Times when the NY Review reported that the Times’ lead reporter, Miller, had been slanting the news in favor of the invasion of Iraq. The Times was admired for coming clean, its honor badly tarnished.

Seth, all the bad stuff the Murdoch press has done, and been roundly criticized for, and many other deficits – are the result of moral slippages, largely into guardian territory. That some of these help sell papers is beside the point. Lots of immoral things are profitable, although always corrosive. There is no smooth transition from one moral syndrome to the other as an entity grows larger. And mixing syndromes is the moral disaster Jane is most vociferous about, largely because of its insidiousness. As you say, Systems of Survival is helpful in understanding this stuff, but it isn’t easy. Jane sometimes regretted having left out too much helpful stuff in the interest of keeping the book short and readable.

Tomorrow I will post our concluding emails.