The Oath They Never Took

“Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when He ascended, and His apostles after Him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who … took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds.”*

John Milton, in his Areopagitica, written over 340 years ago, seems to be preparing us for some disenchantment with the media.

Indeed, today there are complaints from all segments of society about newsmedia incompetence, about over-hyping and trivializing the news, of strong and incessant ideological bias in the reporting of the news and even outright political propaganda being packaged and disseminated as the bona fide news of the day (and week).

This untenable track record has caused one reader to write:  “It seems our news media needs a Hippocratic Oath more than our doctors do….” (“Post Needs Oath,” by Mr. Gerald Rinell, Washington Inquirer, 1/18/85.)

Is it too much to ask, that journalists do something to show they’re trying to do an honest job so we can trust them? After all, don’t we pay for it in one way or another? Just ask the advertisers in your refrigerator or in your closet or in your garage.

But, while not as “official” as an oath, nevertheless through the years there have been codes of ethics drawn up and endorsed by editors and journalists alike. This is the outline of American Society of Newspaper Editors (founded in 1922) “Canons of Journalism”:

I.            Responsibility (of newspaper and journalist)

II.            Freedom of the Press (“a vital right of mankind”)

III.            Independence (fidelity to the public interest)

IV.            Sincerity, Truthfulness, Accuracy (good faith with reader)

V.            Impartiality (news reports free from opinion or bias)

VI.            Fair Play, Decency (recognition of private rights, prompt correction of errors)

And in the early 1950’s a group of distinguished private citizens, “The President’s Commission on Freedom of the Press,” conducted a thorough study of the press under grants by Time, Inc. and Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Drawing largely from the industry’s own efforts at self-evaluation, they arrived at an excellent philosophical model of what the press should be and what it should do:

1.      The newsmedia should provide “a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning;”

2.      The newsmedia should serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism, as “common carriers” in the realm of public discussion;

3.      The newsmedia should give a representative picture of the various groups which make up society;

4.      The newsmedia should present and clarify the goals and values of society, and

5.      The newsmedia should provide “full access to the day’s intelligence.”

The Hon. Sam Ervin eloquently sums up for us the vital importance of legitimate journalism in his introduction to the (1973) Georgetown Law Journal’s Media and the First Amendment in a Free Society:

“It is no exaggeration to say that the first amendment contains the most important elements of individual freedom; the liberties of speech and press are the basis on which other freedoms stand.

“The framers of the Bill of Rights believed, in the first place, that a free flow of information and ideas was the best of all protections against the worst form of tyranny, that of the mind…

“To say that great freedom is conferred upon the press and broadcast media is to imply that great responsibility is likewise conferred.  In order to understand that responsibility, one must return to the two main purposes of the first amendment–the creation of free thought and the stimulation of public discussion.

“The heritage of a free society, then, requires of the publisher and broadcaster that they disseminate such information as will enable recipients to arrive at the truth and as will assist them in making decisions on issues confronting the country. The information must be accurate; it must be presented objectively and interpreted fairly; and it must, if an expression of editorial opinion, be answerable.”

I sincerely wish the news business would once again recognize their obligation to their public and measure their performance by the standards they once enshrined–the oath they never took.

* John Milton, Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton, For the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, To the Parlament of England, (London, 1644), pp. 137-8.

— Don F. Ridgway, “The Oath They Never Took,” The Washington Inquirer, (March 1, 1985), p. 6.