The Media Omerta


Image via Medic999

In the Mafia or the Mob or the Cosa Nostra or whatever you want to call it, there is something called Omerta. It’s also often referred to as a “code of silence.” Wikipedia tells us that the definition is…

the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities or reliance on its services, even when one has been victim of a crime.

Everyone understands what this means. You’ve all seen the gangster movies or The Sopranos. The penalty for breaking the code and talking is usually death. And you’ll be lucky if they do it quickly and painlessly.

Note how it says that cooperation is not permissible even when one has been the victim of a crime. We could logically extend that to one’s family or friends. So even if your mob buddies should kill your wife or grandmother, you can’t talk to the cops. Even if they beat you savagely, you can’t talk to the cops. It sucks, yeah, but that, as Robert DeNiro’s character says in Heat (whilst referring to something else), is the discipline.

Media is not usually a criminal enterprise. Certainly the act of reporting, of reading news on radio or television is not a crime. Sitting at your desk and typing up a story is not a crime. Selling ads and subscriptions is not a crime. You get the idea.

But despite the fact that the media is not a criminal enterprise, there is most definitely a “code of silence” that is very much like Omerta. If we were to define it, it would go something like this:

The categorical prohibition of speaking on the record about the ills of the media organization you now work for or have worked for in the past even when one has been the victim of a crime.

I’m failing to come up with a good word for the media Omerta here so I will just use KYMS which stands for Keep Your Mouth Shut.

Speaking to whom you might ask? Oh well, just about anyone and certainly anyone who is in any position to do or say something about the problem at hand. Specifically, you cannot speak about it to someone who might then spread it around and bring shame on your current or former media organization. You know, someone like a reporter. Perhaps I should also add “future” in there, because I know of more than one instance of someone having to keep their mouth shut about a certain media organization in order to maybe get a job there one day. The only reason I am not being specific here is that I have not secured permission from these people to share their stories. If I were to ask, they would be unlikely to grant me that permission. Why? KYMS.

Now, it’s not like media is the only industry that punishes those in its midst who speak out against grave wrongs. But it’s the only one I know of whose stated mission is to bring to light the grave wrongs of just about every other institution of power in the world.

If someone speaks out about the tobacco industry and, say, loses their job in that industry, that’s unfortunate, but hardly surprising. After all, that industry is not exactly wedded to the truth. Their job is to sell and promote an addictive substance. But if someone speaks out against their media organization even when they are no longer working there, they might lose their job or their career altogether. How can you call this anything but the worst kind of hypocrisy imaginable?

And how can anyone say with a straight face that the Tribune’s troubles do not cast a shadow on the newsroom? There are absolutely good people doing good work there, but it has been made perfectly clear that they are not the ones in charge. If you read the New York Times piece, you know that the head honchos tried to meddle in the affairs of editorial before. What’s to stop them from doing it again? And more importantly, how would you or I ever know about it. We wouldn’t. Why? KYMS.

So of course ordinary citizens might start questioning what they read in the Tribune’s pages and that is indeed a tragedy. But it’s not a tragedy that wasn’t preventable. 

For someone like me, someone who has been trying to work in this business for only about two years, these revelations are personally and emotionally devastating. I got into journalism for all the sappy, romantic things you hear people talk about. I wanted to bring light to the bad deeds of those in power. I wanted to inform the public and enable them to be better citizens. I wanted to create change where it is needed by making people question their beliefs, values and even conventional wisdom. I wanted to do all this and much, much more.

I still want to do it actually. But where will I work?

UPDATE: Dave Winer, who’s a wonderful blogger and thinker on many things, sent me something he wrote on this topic back in 2002. Now, that’s not so long ago, but it illustrates the fact that people other that myself have been struggling with this and frustrated by it much longer than any of us may realize.

Dave’s post was titled: Is it Marketing or Journalism? I’ll let you read the entire thing on your own, but let me just pull out this key quote:

A journalist who cringes at creating controversy is not doing journalism.

And this one:

The reporters we want to trust work for the people who require investigation.

And finally this one:

There is no better way to establish credibility than to go after the person who signs your paycheck, when they deserve it.

To that end, let me also point you to something a media employee I like and admire (someone working two jobs by the way) recently wrote. His point is valid. But so is the comment I wrote below it which he told me on Twitter he concurred with.


  1. topsychronicles October 13, 2010

    You l ost me after the third paragraph – make your goddamn point already. No wonder you’re unemployable. And BTW: giving yourself the title, “raconteur” is so self-absorbed and self-obsessed and trite and pointless.

    ” I wanted to create change where it is needed by making people question their beliefs, values and even conventional wisdom. I wanted to do all this and much, much more. I still want to do it actually. But where will I work?”

    No, what you wanted is to get a job and become the very most fucked-up entity that you’re “railing” against. But there’s hope for you – I’m sure they’ll be putting Mary Schmich out to pasture soon – apply for her vanilla gig.

  2. Anonymous October 15, 2010

    This was a comment you made on Twitter a few days ago: “Well, I care. I need a job. Being too outspoken can be a barrier.” That was one of the only self-aware things I’ve ever seen you write, and one of the only true things.

    You’re aware your real name is on your Twitter and your blogs, correct? You know that potential employers Google applicants these days, right? And you wonder why you can’t get a job? Honestly, wake up Anna. Every industry has a “keep your mouth shut” kind of thing. You’re never going to get hired by someone who works for a place you’ve badmouthed, or by someone who thinks that constant complaining and bitterness about your industry is an appropriate quality for an employee. You’re just not that good a writer to be able to transcend your attitude. You’re not a very good writer in any event.

    The “Media Omerta”? Could you be any more hyperbolic? If I were an editor looking for a journalist and came across this, or your Twitter, I would throw your resume in the garbage. If I were you, I would seriously consider making all your social media except Facebook and Linked In anonymous. You never know when something you’ve written will come back to bite you in the ass. And trust me, it will.

    You wanted hate mail, you got it.

  3. Anna Tarkov October 15, 2010

    First of all, show me where I’ve badmouthed anyone. If I offer criticism, it’s constructive and it’s offered because I care about the organization in question, not because I want to tear them down. I also often point out the good things people are doing. I guess you haven’t paid attention to those.

    Second, saying I should keep quiet to get a job was one of the only TRUE things I said? We can argue the self-aware part, but I’m not sure why you seem to think everything else I post is mostly lies.

    Of course I am aware of my potential employers being able to Google me. I’m not a moron. If I were an employer in the industry, I would be pleased to work with a candidate who has passion and ideas and wants to make things better. I would not assume that such a candidate cannot submit to authority. I have worked with people in the past who are able to do their jobs well and offer ways to improve them at the same time. If you had ever met me, you would know that I am an extremely positive and upbeat person. I don’t come off as negative and bitter. So my “attitude” would not be a problem in any work environment.

    Finally, you wrote your comment to me in a very personal way. You obviously follow me on Twitter and read things I’ve written. I have to wonder why you wouldn’t sign your real name to this comment or at least your Twitter handle. That makes me question your intentions very strongly. If someone truly wanted to give me valuable advice and help me, they would use their real name. But if someone just wanted to hurt me, insult me, my writing ability, my intelligence, etc., then I think that person would remain anonymous. That’s obviously the route you’ve taken and honestly, I feel sorry for you. You must have some sort of hate or anger in your heart and you’ve directed it at me. I wish you luck in one day letting go of those feelings or at least not taking them out on other people.

  4. Anonymous October 15, 2010

    Anna, you’re too overly literal.

    I haven’t pointed out the good things you’ve said about people because your bitterness about everything else overshadows them. Just because I said what you wrote was one of the only “true” things you have written doesn’t mean everything else is a “lie.” You’re right, I don’t know you in real life, but I don’t think a lot of employers would give you the chance to meet them in real life if they saw your online work because your online attitude is so negative. There is a difference between passion, being outspoken, and being so off-putting because of your negativity and judgmental nature that people don’t want to even read your writing, not to mention hire you for your writing.

    It’s so very you to ignore constructive criticism about the way you conduct yourself to project issues onto others. I didn’t think to put my name, but in general, as I intimated before, the internet is forever. It had nothing to do with you, but considering you try to bully people off sites with whom you don’t agree, that means you might try to bully someone in another forum, and I’d rather keep this discussion limited. I have no “hate or anger” in my heart when it comes to you – you’re giving yourself too much credit. I simply commented on your blog post in the spirit in which you wrote it. I did it because you invited people to comment, and because you seemed to read the first comment, which was just someone being honest with you, as “hate mail.” If you want to get personal, that’s on you. If you want to improve, stop writing posts like this, severely restrict yourself from writing such posts in the future under your real name, and start closely examining every post you make as to whether it’s truly “passionate,” or if it is just one more humorless, judgmental complaint.

    Not everything comes down to “hate.” You say you “feel sorry” for me. Well, I feel sorry for you. It must be difficult going through life so dense you refuse to acknowledge simple truths about yourself despite dozens of people pointing them out to you on a regular basis. You constantly wonder why you can’t get better work. You are why you can’t get better work. Whatever you think about me or my motives, you can’t deny that truth. Clearly what you’re doing isn’t working. If you want things to change, you need to change. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know for yourself.

  5. Anna Tarkov October 15, 2010

    You contradict yourself at every turn. You admit you don’t know me, but you make judgments about me in the next breath that can only be made by someone who DOES know me. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

    I may have been exaggerating slightly when I said the first comment was hate mail, but I found the tone to be hateful, if not the content. I find it hateful when someone is attacked personally. I try to argue with people’s ideas, not with them personally. I feel that the latter doesn’t really help to advance a discussion. It only leads to hurt feelings.

    Of course I welcome comments, but I prefer them to be constructive. I could delete any comments I don’t like, but that would go against my belief in having an open and frank discussion. You’ll note that I didn’t respond to the first comment since I didn’t feel it was constructive. I felt yours was more so, that’s why I responded.

    I beg to differ with you about people not wanting to read my writing. Would you like me to show you some metrics? Even if I had none, many of my friends in real life and online read the things I write. And I in turn read things they write. I don’t need to prove anything to you on that count. In fact, you read what I wrote here even though you called me a bad writer and other unpleasant things.

    You say you didn’t use your name because I’m going to bully you? Come on. You wanted to keep this discussion limited and yet you’ve written 2 lengthy comments thus far. Again, you are being hypocritical. As far as me bullying people off a website, I can only think to one possible incident you could be referring to (and if so, you’ve mis-characterized it completely). May I ask, does this have to do with Windy Citizen?

    As far as whether my writing is truly motivated by passion or bitterness, my conscience is clear. I know why I write and I don’t apologize for wanting to better my industry for the benefit of both its workers and the consumers of their work.

    Now I would like you to tell me who these “dozens of people” are who you believe have urged me to change my ways “on a regular basis.” If you don’t want to give your name, perhaps you will be forthcoming with theirs? I’m really not trying to be difficult. I sincerely would like to know who you mean. Because I can think of one, maybe two people who have given me constructive advice in this area that could be considered similar to yours and that has been done privately. So that is neither “dozens of people,” nor could you possibly know about it.

    Finally, I actually don’t wonder too hard about why I cannot get better work at the moment. There is an employment crisis in media right now. Plenty of people more talented and experienced than me can’t find work either. That reality doesn’t make this difficult time any less frustrating.

  6. Anonymous October 15, 2010

    Anna, come on now. Grow up. You criticized the industry for what it’s current state is and bemoan about what it’s doing and how you’re “passions” aren’t being nurtured. Then in the comments you get very defensive at people who are not agreeing with you or sugar coating what their opinions of your work. First, you constantly spam the Association of Women Journalist listsev with your self-promotion but rarely ever acknowledge anyone else. If you do chime in on a topic, you smugly always have to point out something that is either obvious or unrelated to the topic on hand.

    Second , you work is still in a stage where it’s making a name for itself. You have to “get along” before you can “go along” on matters that really don’t matter. The fact you use the economy as a reason for not being responsible for YOUR work and actions says alot. Stop throwing a 21st century existentialist tantrum, and deluding yourself that what you have to say is really all that. You say you want to change people’s beliefs and so forth, in your post, but WHY do you feel that people’s beliefs need to be changed? Why do any of us need to be changed? The world has functioned fine before you entered it and will do so after you leave.

    If there is any real advice I could offer, it’s this— If you DO what you always DID, then you’ll GET what you always GOT.

  7. Anna Tarkov October 15, 2010

    I’m sorry you feel I have been spamming the AWJ listserv. As has been discussed before, we haven’t been able to figure out a good link sharing method. In that time, Karen has been explicit in saying that people can share their work. I know I’ve sent links there to things I’ve written, but I believe I have also shared other articles as well. In any event, the fact that you would choose to bring this issue out here, anonymously, instead of on the listserv like a grown-up tells me everything I need to know about your character.

    I will not respond to anything you have to say any longer. I won’t address any of the asinine things you’ve written in your latest comment or anything you will write here in the future.

    I tried not to get angry here and if we continue, I may say something I regret. If I am angry about anything it’s that you have besmirched the name of a good organization like AWJ-Chicago. I’m certain no other member would behave as you have here. Goodbye.

    • Smarticus January 19, 2014

      Why are you automatically labelling the first poster by accusing them for fair criticism. Also, why are you getting angry at what some anon writes? You sound geniunely hurt at other people’s opinions.

      I’m an artist and designer. If someone wrote to me criticizing my work, I would not defend it. Granted, okay, I might get angry. Very angry, even. In fact, this happened to me on a weekly basis in studio practicals both during my under and post-graduate courses. However, towards the end of my Masters, I began to realize that by being angry at my tutors’ criticisms (criticism that I still regard as unjust to this day), I was acting irrationally.
      Now, if you were to see my work and critique it or laugh at it, I would probably ask you why you have such a reaction. I wouldn’t deny your criticism or advice. If it’s one thing you learn in the arts, it is that there is no right answer to why a picture looks good or bad – it’s largely subjective. Yes, maybe you think anon’s reasonings are unjust, just like he thinks that your reasoning and defence mechanism is largely unjust. The question is who wins by being stubborn? The answer – nobody. Just let your guard down for one minute as consider that what this person is telling you could be sound advice.

      By the way, I too have experience in not being hired. Sometimes I blame the economy, sometimes myself. More and more, I see the two interconnected. I believe that as employees, we are what the economy makes us. You have to learn that is basically impossible to be principilistic in today’s economy.

      Then again, I could be speaking out my @$$ as I don’t know anything about journalism or HR. I only stumbled onto your blog because you are a fellow Russian and your ideas are interesting nevertheless, and that’s worth something today. You seem to have understood that anyway so you’ll be fine.

      P.S. I can’t help but feel that you’re attacking the anon poster for being ‘personal’ with you just because he called you by first name. Would it feel more apporpriate if he had said the same thing but addressed you as ‘Ms. Tarkov’ or even just as ‘you’?

      • Smarticus January 19, 2014

        LOL, I just realized that I’m a little late (4 years) with my post. Oh well.

        • January 21, 2014

          No problem. Thanks for reading; can I ask how you found your way over here?

          As for the argument I had with the anonymous commenter, I still believe this is someone I knew in real life though I could, of course, be mistaken. My feeling is that if you know someone, you should comment under your real name and voice your criticism that way. Otherwise it’s cowardly. In the event that I didn’t know the person, the same case could actually still be made. In any event, I do not shy away from constructive criticism of my work or of me personally. If it’s something that can help me improve as a writer or a person, I welcome it. However, I don’t feel that everyone is in a position to offer such criticism. Sometimes criticism is offered simply to be mean-spirited and I felt that was the case here and I was justified in defending myself.

          On the topic of the economy being what it is and your statement that one cannot be principled, I vociferously disagree. Many people indeed cannot afford the luxury of scruples; they have to earn a living. So, as long as I have the freedom of not having to take any job just to work, I will hold on to my principles dearly and I will not apologize for it.

  8. Anonymous October 15, 2010

    You wrote:
    If I offer criticism, it’s constructive and it’s offered because I care about the organization in question, not because I want to tear them down. I also often point out the good things people are doing.

    Anna, I have no doubt this is your motivation (mine, too), but my experience has taught me that criticism of the “power elite” only aggravates and once aggravated, they will never see anything positive in you or your work again.

    I can’t believe what my blogging experience has taught me–not about anonymous detractors (they really don’t matter and I can’t understand why people get so in a twist about them), but about the *named* “good citizens” who carry a grudge and go out of their way to hate you simply because they don’t agree with your opinion about X, Y or Z.

    Or maybe it’s your influence they fear.

    I’ve been a journalist for decades, but it wasn’t until the age of the internet, that I experienced this sort of response. I think it has to do with the immediacy and wide reach of the medium. Makes people think they can control the message and very, very angry when they can’t.

    You know your truth, Anna. I wouldn’t bother to engage with those who would disparage you based on who they *think* you are.

  9. Anonymous October 27, 2010

    I just wanted to make clear that the AWJ comment was not made by me (I made the “come on” and “right” comments and know the difference between its and it’s). There are clearly a number of people who have a problem with what you’ve been saying. You cannot reduce this to one “disgruntled” reader in an attempt to explain the validity of our criticism away.

    Again, I do not know you in real life. If it seems like I do know you in real life, that may be because you share so much of your life online. Considering that, I’m surprised more unique commenters haven’t already posted here. I’m not going to respond to you point by point (it’s way past any usefulness, not that there was any to begin with), but I will just say that if you can’t see dozens of Twitter replies calling you judgmental (for example), among various other negative comments on your articles and blogs criticizing what you say and how you say it for what it is, God help you. But then again, seeing as you “actually don’t wonder too hard about why I cannot get better work at the moment”, that makes perfect sense. I would also mention that bragging about “metrics” entirely misses the point of what I said, but missing the point seems to be your modus operandi, isn’t it?

    Your fixation on the anonymous nature of my posts is nothing but a red herring to distract people from the true argument here – that you need to stop being so naive and live and work within the real world. If I ever did meet you in real life (which is actually a distinct possibility), I would have no problem telling you these things to your face. I don’t see how using my real name on this blog would make any difference. How would you know if the name I gave was even real? How do you know if any names used by commenters are real (unless you have personal knowledge of them)? Why do you think not giving a name is “cowardly”? Honestly, I don’t need my name forever linked to a petty discussion on the internet, and I don’t need a wannabe journalist having the means to investigate and publish my personal information on the internet. Despite your many protests to the contrary, you would be just as incensed by what I’ve said whether I gave a name or not. These diversionary tactics do nothing but founder your argument against me (such as it is).

    It also shouldn’t matter whether I’m a woman or not. The fact that that’s even a question or that there should be some kind of “sisterhood” shielding you from honest criticism from other women is absolutely bizarre, and anti-feminist. As far as I can tell, the comments made here have been made by two men and two women. Congratulations Anna, you’re an equal opportunity offender.

  10. Anna Tarkov October 27, 2010

    As I said previously, I see no utility in engaging your comments further. To be honest, I’m saddened that it has come to this and I don’t think it can be resolved online. Maybe you feel it doesn’t need a resolution. Maybe you’re content to insult me anonymously and not take any responsibility for your words. But I feel something more is needed.

    Would you be open to meeting in real life and talking about this? I find that that’s the best way to get through an issue. I realize you have no reason to agree to that and I don’t either. Except I guess I DO have a a reason ans that is to seek understanding. I find that most disagreements can be hashed out in person. I think it would benefit us both. We would both gain a greater understanding of where the other is coming from and, if not become friends, at least be able to respect each other.

    If you’re interested, you can e-mail me at tooter2 (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll pick a time and place.

    Also, and I accepted a full-time position as Web Editor of Time Out Chicago Kids yesterday. Thus ends my somewhat lengthy search for a job in media. Of course, to your chagrin I’m sure, I’ll continue writing here and possibly elsewhere about the news business and other topics. I always welcome you to comment (constructively of course).

  11. Anonymous October 27, 2010

    Anna, someone has pointed out that the AWJ comments and others are NOT from the same person. This just continues to show your woefully ignorant and not to mention inflated ego. Please get over yourself. And FYI, this is my second, and last, post to your blog.

  12. Anna Tarkov October 27, 2010

    Don’t let the door hit you on the way out :) I wish you well in everything that you do and for what it’s worth, I harbor no ill will. I assume the same isn’t true for you, but such is life.

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