CORRECTIONS CORPORATION OF AMERICA: FOLLOW-UP
WHAT RESPONSIBILITIES DO THE PRESS HAVE IN REPORTING MALFEASANCE?
Coincidentally, a WashPo columnist published a piece about Shane Bauer’s CCA article about which I posted yesterday. In Margaret Sullivan’s piece, she questions the ethical correctness of Shane not disclosing that he was a reporter for Mother Jones and by doing so places in question a great deal of undercover journalistic endeavors. Let’s be clear: Shane did not lie about who he was. He gave his real name and real social security number when applying for a job with CCA and if it had been me doing the hiring I would have known who he was in about two minutes since I never hired anyone without doing a background check. Apparently CCA did not care to.
Here’s what Sullivan says:
And now, Mother Jones magazine has published its 35,000-word investigation of a Louisiana for-profit prison, based on reporter Shane Bauer’s four-month stint as a prison guard.
In doing so, the magazine walked up to the line of accepted journalism ethics: reporters shouldn’t lie or misrepresent themselves as they pursue a story.
Bauer used his real name and Social Security number in applying for the $9-an-hour job, and said his previous employer was the parent company of Mother Jones, the Foundation for National Progress. But he never let on that he was a reporter, or that he was using recording equipment. (A quick Google search would have revealed that Bauer was famous as one of the American hikers who were jailed in Iran for almost two years from 2009 to 2011.)
Sullivan gives several examples of similar cases of underground journalism that have resulted in lawsuits and judgments against journalists for doing their jobs. The 1992 Food Lion case, when ABC news published a highly critical story about grocery chain Food Lion’s practices – they were repackaging old meet with new “sell by” dates. In that case, Food Lion was awarded $5.5 million dollars but this amount was reduced to $316,000 on appeal but was finally reduced to a nominal $2.00. Sullivan says that this 1992 case cast a “long lasting pall on underground reporting.”
But ABC won. Food Lion lost. So if it caused a “pall,” frankly, I don’t see why, since this case of underground journalism resulted in the exposure of illegal practices that otherwise would have continued risking the health and safety of the public.
In this era of less than stellar investigative reportage when most news stories are simply repackaged from some internet source, we need more real journalistic endeavors like Mother Jones’ CCA investigation, not fewer. It’s no accident that Freedom of the Press was included in the Constitution's Bill of Rights since, even back in 1789, the press – the Fourth Estate – was seen as a check on excessive power and corruption. But when a Presidential candidate proclaims that “Mexico is sending rapists and murderers over our border” and the press widely reports such ridiculous mouthings without a single countervailing fact to show that this is simply untrue (there has been a net outflow of Mexicans from the US for years now much less that the Mexican government ever had a hand in sending illegals over the border) it shows just how much the level reporting against even the most obvious misinformation has declined. Disappeared, let’s say.
It remains problematic that we heard years of reporting by the press about this same candidate’s “Birther Movement” against Barack Obama keeping such crap alive, serving not only as massive free publicity but becoming the foundation for Trump’s presidential run this time around. Or the Republican economic platform of “cutting taxes creates jobs” that’s driven conservative economics for over thirty years. Even the current budget proposal (FY 2017) presented by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) just the other day proposes massive tax cuts to the benefit of the wealthy and corporations. But the efficacy of tax cuts creating jobs? I’ve never been able to unearth a single study that supports this proposition that didn’t appear on some fact-less, right wing garbage site. When is the last time you saw a newspaper article or a TV broadcast that actually called this massive assault on working and middle class Americans – to say nothing of draining of the U.S. Treasury – to task? To substantiate this “policy” with facts and data? Right. Never. And yet this single piece of 1980’s fiction has done more damage to us as a nation than virtually any other public policy save the invasion of Iraq. We simply have a totally pussy-whipped press.
Margaret Sullivan continues in her piece:
Mother Jones went ahead with publication with a legal threat already lodged by the prison’s parent, Corrections Corp. of America. (Notably, it came from the same law firm that represented the billionaire Frank Vandersloot, who sued Mother Jones unsuccessfully a few years ago, and who pledged $1 million to support other suits against the magazine; the situation is reminiscent of fellow billionaire Peter Thiel’s support of legal actions intended to drive Gawker out of business.)
New York University journalism professor Brooke Kroeger, who wrote the 2012 book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception,” told me she is a believer in this kind of journalism — “but only under very controlled circumstances and for something really important that matters to the public interest.”
She puts Mother Jones’s Louisiana prison reporting in that category, and has added it to the NYU database in which thousands of examples over many decades are collected.
Many mainstream news organizations don’t countenance undercover reporting in any form because they insist that reporters identify themselves as working journalists; The Washington Post is among these.
And for good reason — being truthful is of utmost importance. Misrepresentation, by its nature, works against reader.
I find her conclusion “being truthful is of utmost importance” specious. It smacks of some homily like “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” which is a perfectly acceptable moral principal, but let’s get real here. Robert Scott might still have two attached, working legs if this was the moral imperative under which CCA operated. (See: LARGEST CRIMINAL CORPORATION IN AMERICA? ) As Bauer’s piece clearly shows, it is not. Also “misrepresentation, by its nature, works against the reader.” The “reader”? Is this whom we’re concerned about here? Or are we concerned about the plight of human beings who are denied the most basic of human rights and dignities by a corporation driven only by profit? Frankly my sympathies lie with the prisoners and not the reader.
I find Ms. Sullivan’s piece more of an apology for a press that is either unwilling or unable to do its job. Fine. I get the changing dynamics of the media where today “fun facts and entertainment” are lead story features or the latest stupid mewlings of a Presidential candidate dominate the headlines. I also get the financial dangers of judgments that have historically followed major scandal exposes. But when the press absconds its responsibilities for unearthing malfeasance (Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” Jacob Ris’ “How The Other Half Lives,” Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, The Panama Papers, etc.) then we are left empty handed in our struggle to expose hidden wrongdoing which, in the end, simply lets malfeasance stay underground, out of sight and out of mind.
The full article is here:
And if you missed Shane Bauer's excellent piece in Mother Jones Magazine, it's here"
Hope you had a good Fourth of July! Have a good day today!