11/08/2010 02:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reporters for Sale: Bring Back the Fairness Doctrine

The word that begins with "W" and ends with "E," has been tossed around in this past unlamented campaign, as if prostitution was no longer one of the oldest and honorable endeavors. One such epithet was hurled anonymously at a California gubernatorial candidate, for doing what politicians and prostitutes do--cutting deals with voters and clients. A liberal congressman called the chairman of the Fed a "K-street w---e."

Two prominent pols, one a senator, the other a former governor who used the services of prostitutes while on the job, have survived; one got re-elected and the other found new fame and riches as a journalist, of all things, despite their firsthand experience with ladies of the night and/or day... I'm sure there were others who didn't get caught. And a former Madam, who serviced politicians, was one of seven candidates running for governor of the Empire State.

I am not a prude and see no problem mixing prostitution and politics, which is the second oldest profession. Politics, after all is a business, in which the practitioner sells himself, makes deals for votes and money and shows a little leg but tries not to give it away too cheaply. But we in the press, if we are not selling our bodies, should have a different, if not a higher standard.

That sort of behavior, peddling our skills and our independence, is or should be out of bounds for those of us who cover, critique, and explain the positions of the politicians. But, I'm sorry to say, that too many of my former colleagues in the press have gone to bed with the politicians, lobbyists and corporate big shots they are supposed to cover. They are the body sellers worth worrying about in any election, because such prostitution, and the outrageous conflict of interest it represents in journalism (as well as the law, academia and even medicine) has become epidemic. One can no longer tell the difference between prostitutes and the press, except maybe the price they ask. And worse, we don't seem to give a damn about such behavior; it's taken for granted.

There was a time in the craft of journalism in which I grew up and served for more than 50 years, when the working reporters, editors and even publishers bent over backwards to avoid or explain conflicts of interest. One of my gods, the New Yorker's A.J. Liebling, the best press critic ever, told me one night over a cup of coffee, that the boxing writer ought to tell his readers whether or not he paid to get into the fight. A New York Times editor said it more colorfully when he fired a woman who had been sleeping with and taking gifts from someone under investigation whom she covered: "You can cover the circus," he said, "but you can't screw the elephants."

For years I did not register for any party, for fear that someone would use that information to judge the credibility of my reporting; I joined only the local press club. That didn't mean I was not able to comment or be subjective after I had some experience and knowledge, but my lack of a party identification added credibility to my work. And as important, sources trusted me to tell their side of the story. Would you believe that some of my best sources and stories came from Houston's Republicans, including the county chairman, George H.W. Bush?

Some newspapers have paid for the tickets to theaters and concerts their critics covered so they could be free to write their views, no matter how they hurt the production. One of my publishers turned down a position on the symphony board because of the possibility of a conflict that might discourage the paper's critic from panning a performance or reporting on problems within the orchestra. Another editor refused to join the local chamber of commerce because of a possible conflict with a reporter's coverage of the organization. On another occasion, my Washington Bureau colleagues and political reporters throughout the chain raised hell with its top executive who had an interview with Richard Nixon and suggested we go easy on him. The executive relented.

Now consider the prostitution of Fox News. It's bad enough that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, has given $2 million to Republican organizations; that is his prerogative. But what does that tell the reporters and editors who work for Fox and want to hold onto their jobs? Even worse, Fox News has put on its payroll, as commentators, the politicians it's supposed to cover; Fox's claim of "fair and balanced" coverage would be funny, if it weren't a lie. How would we know from Fox, what the truth is?

As Politico reporters Jonathan Martin and Keach Hagey wrote on Sept. 27:

With Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, (former Republican Sen. )Rick Santorum and (former Republican Gov.) Mike Huckabee all making moves indicating they may run for president, their common employer (Fox) is facing a question that hasn't been asked before: How does a news organization cover White House hopefuls when so many are on the payroll?

Indeed, how can you trust anything that's said?

The report continued, calling them "the Fox candidates... With the exception of Mitt Romney, Fox now has deals with every major potential Republican presidential candidate not currently in elected office." No wonder their right-wing commentaries go unchallenged by Fox's reporters. No wonder that none is held to account for their radical views and, yes, their misinformation and lies. And no wonder they refuse to be interviewed by other, less friendly, reporters.

According to Media Matters, which done the best job of chronicling Fox's streetwalking, these prospective candidates made 269 appearances through the end of September. I'll bet you can't remember a single legitimate news story these appearances yielded. They usually decline to be on other programs for fear of making fools of themselves. But that's the way it is with prostitutes; they generally leave their clients unsatisfied and poorer.

It is true that MSNBC has a lineup of liberal commentators in Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz and Lawrence O'Donnell. But most of them, especially Maddow, make it a point to seek challenging interviews with those who hold opposing views. And as far as I know, there are no politicians on MSNBC's payroll. Their standards of journalism and accuracy remain high and in no way do their commentaries compare to the viciousness of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, who are at war with MSNBC and would pounce on any error.

But Maddow pointed out in a recent commentary on Olbermann's suspension for three small contributions to Democrats, that Fox News and Sean Hannity have given thousands to Republicans and even allowed them to use the network to raise more thousands. Some times, as with the Olbermann suspension and NPR's firing of Juan Williams you wonder about the stupidity of the people who bring us the news. They do not seem to understand true and serious conflicts of interest.

At a strategy meeting in October, Delaware Republican and Tea Party Senate candidate, Christine O'Donnell told party leaders who had withheld funds because they'd been hard-pressed to explain her nutty views, that she didn't care because she "had Sean Hannity in my back pocket, and I can go on his show and raise money by attacking you guys." As far as I know, Hannity has not said otherwise; he's been in other pockets. But O'Donnell was taking the advice of her sister, paid contributor Palin, who told O'Donnell to ignore the main stream press and "speak to the American people, speak through Fox News." Palin herself turned to Fox News after she embarrassed herself unable to give cogent answers to legitimate reporters. And so did Nevada's Sharron Angle, who boasted of the money Fox helped her raise.

There is no fear among nut case candidates of having to make sense or giving meaningful answers to Fox interviewers. Washington Senate candidate Republican Dino Rossi had been given five interviews on Fox. One typical question from a Fox anchor: "There's a lot of pressure on you... How [are] you holding up?" Hannity had a zinger: "So what story is it that you want to tell...that's going to put you over the top." Rossi was then given an opportunity to make a pitch for campaign contributions. Needless to say, the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray, who won the race, was not invited to Fox.

Fox's openly unfair and unbalanced behavior on virtually all its programming would have met with government opposition until 1987; Fox, after all, gets federal dollars and tax breaks and uses public access channels. Beginning in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission enforced a "fairness doctrine" instead of worrying about exposed breasts and dirty words. The fairness doctrine called for holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues in a fair, honest and equitable manner. It worked for nearly 40 years because broadcasters were careful. But in 1987, President Reagan abolished it as part of his deregulation campaign. Democrats have been trying to restore it. But Republicans, of course, like things the way they are.

The things Beck, Limbaugh and O'Reilly say are mostly reprehensible and even dangerous, but they are entertainers disguised as journalists; my greater problem is with people who purport to be journalists and reporters but haven't the faintest idea of the reason for the protections they have under the First Amendment. Indeed, they may not know that they are seriously weakening the First Amendment, although I doubt that they care. The evidence? Too many Americans have as little faith in the press as they do for politicians; real prostitutes get better grades.

Liebling once said that "freedom of the press belongs to those who own one." But the reporter has a great responsibility in enforcing that freedom by holding his/her press owner to some modicum of fealty to the First Amendment. Many is the time that reporters have all but forced reluctant publishers to run risky stories; that was the case with the Washington Post's coverage of Watergate, and the New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Unfortunately, despite its record for pander and prostitution, Fox News was awarded Helen Thomas' front row seat in the White House briefing room. (Her crime was speaking too bluntly; her years of service to the First Amendment were forgotten.) So I asked the president of the White House Correspondents Association, whether the organization, of which I had been a member, could vouch for the integrity and accuracy of Fox's White House correspondent. There was no reply.

A friend, Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Foundation's "Nieman Watchdog," faults many news organizations for putting on the air candidates and political party operatives who predictably "are only promoting their party's interest" with lies and exaggerations rather than giving genuine opinions of people who are the subjects of the interview. Sussman, who edited most of the Watergate stories while at the Post, criticized most of the networks and cable stations for hiring pols and legitimate correspondents as contributors.

"As to damage to journalism," he added, "The damage isn't being done by Fox, or Beck or Limbaugh; it's being done by other news organizations as they respond by caving in, failing to adhere to journalistic standards and by treating Fox as though it were a legitimate news organization."

Fox News, sad to say, is not the only media whore working the streets. In 2008 the new and naive publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Weymouth, and her hapless editor came up with a brilliant idea, inviting Washington's movers and shakers to come to "salons," dinners at her home for a hefty price to listen to reporters give them the inside story on pending issues and legislation. The first one was to be on President Obama's proposed health reforms. Some of the invited guests were preparing to battle against those forms.

It took a leak and the outcry of staff members to force Weymouth to cancel the dinners and apologize. I do not understand why she didn't know from the outset that the idea was a major conflict of interest. Would the late Katherine Graham or her editor Ben Bradlee have countenanced such blindness?

Too many in the press fell for the seeming grass roots populism of the Tea Party and gave it mostly uncritical coverage. Maddow was one of the first to explore the reality instead of the romanticism. We now know, as Adele Stan has documented for AlterNet and The Nation, on Oct. 24, that the Tea Party, is not the grassroots movement it claims to be. It was financed, in large part, by several billionaires and organized by veteran right-wing activists and politicians. As she wrote, "The Tea Party wouldn't exist without a gusher of cash from oil billionaire David H. Koch and the vast media empire of Rupert Murdoch."

She named the groups headed by right-wing political operatives who provided the seed millions to put on the Tea Party rallies. They included Americans for Prosperity, chaired by Koch; Freedom Works, headed by former House Republican Leader Richard Armey and financed by the Koch brothers. Only recently have some members of the press looked behind the curtain to see whose money is pulling the tea party's strings. But others of my former brethren are getting some of that money as guests of the Koches.

As the blog Think Progress reported, David and Charles Koch has been hosting closed meetings with executives from the health insurance, coal, banking and other industries to plan strategy for the midterm elections, including where their millions in campaign contributions should go to help Republicans kill the Democratic majority and the Obama administration. The tens of millions of dollars they and their corporate allies are spending is unprecedented.

The first meeting was in June and another was held more recently. Among those invited, wined, dined and paid to attend, the earlier meeting, according to Joe Conason of Salon, were several journalists, including Michael Barone, a paid contributor to the Washington Examiner and Fox News; Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer, and National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru, who has defended Christine O'Donnell's misunderstanding of the First Amendment on religion.

I find it ironic that these veteran journalists who call themselves Constitution conservatives, would give aid and comfort to those bankers, brokers and big business executives who, with billions of dollars would buy an election and enhance the already unseemly power of corporate America, which is no friend of democratic government, a really free press or the whole of the Bill of Rights.

Indeed, when you come right down to it, I do not think these journalists or their corporate patrons have the morals, values or the integrity of the average streetwalker.

Correction: An earlier version of this post claimed erroneously that Greta Van Susteren's husband was hired by Fox as a political adviser. This has been removed from the post and we regret the error.