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.