Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact — very momentous to us in these times. Literature is our Parliament too. — Thomas Carlyle
Since 1841, when Carlyle wrote this in his On Heroes and Hero Worship, the media employed by the Fourth Estate — political journalists — have multiplied dramatically, adding photography and film, radio and TV to the list of tools with which it fulfills its primary purpose: shaping the public’s political attitudes. Along with these tools of the trade, journalists have developed professional standards and codes of ethics to distinguish themselves from hired and self-appointed propagandists whose purpose is similar. The common basis of these standards and codes is a dedication to the truth. As Eugene Meyers put it in his 1933 statement of principles governing the Washington Post, “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”
Enter the notoriously untrustworthy Internet, the newest tool of would-be political journalists, and in particular, Blogcritics Magazine's Politics section — an irreverent, no-holds-barred blog zone, where writers have been provided space and support to engage in an array of literary blood sports, ranging from scoop news reporting, to advocacy, to expressing opinion and feelings — to propagandizing, which, for my purpose here, I define as passing fictions off as fact in the support of an argument.
Incidents of propagandizing, whether inadvertent or not, have led to unproductive and vicious arguments in Blogcritics' nether regions — the comments boards — sometimes escalating to the point of creating an uninviting atmosphere which has driven valuable contributors away, presumably in search of kinder, gentler or more honest venues for their comments and articles.
If protecting readers from propagandists is a priority, then, at a minimum, the editorial staff of the Politics section must: limit factual errors that appear in posted articles through some process of fact checking, promptly issue corrections for errors when they do get published and are brought to light, whenever possible ensure the validity of the writers' sources, as well as their proper attribution, and encourage veracity in news and opinion articles by discouraging the omission or distortion of critical facts.
All of which begs several questions: who has the job of scrutinizing the behavior of Blogcritics’ political writers and editors? Who is standing up for readers who seek honest political journalism, free from propaganda? Are acrimonious exchanges and insults on the comments boards the best that we can do?
Many news outlets hire ombudsmen for these responsibilities. Ideally, these watchdogs are independent of management and have no ownership ties to the outlets that they monitor. As Charles Seib, ombudsman for the Washington Post in 1974, put it in that paper’s Desk-Book on Style:
His job, as he sees it, is to represent the Post’s readers and to react to the paper himself as a reader. He handles complaints from readers on matters of fairness, accuracy, balance and professional standards. In addition, he criticizes the paper on the basis of his own observations.
Is it time for Blogcritics Magazine to step up and seek out a volunteer to serve as ombudsman for its Politics section? I propose that it is, and that this individual be contracted for a one-year period with no renewal, during which time she would refrain from writing articles and participating on the comments boards, except as required by her responsibilities as ombudsman. In addition to her interaction with individual readers, she would be responsible for at least weekly reports, with recommendations, to the owners and the managing editor, and monthly reports to the general readership.
Let’s get honest.