Thursday, August 6, 2009

Libertarian Skinny-Dipping in Daytona: Hayekian Facts vs. 'Journalism Ethics'

To the commenter who accused me of committing a "travesty of journalistic ethics":
  • Your comment was rejected. If you want to run me down, do it on your own blog. Flame wars are good for traffic, but you do not have permission to use my bandwidth to malign me.
  • Ethics, shmethics. Truth may not be a journalist's only duty, but it's massively more important than whatever's second most important. If I accurately report the facts, I've done my job -- and just getting the facts right is hard enough.
I learned this as a sports writer. Simple question: If I'm covering a high-school baseball game, does accepting free food from the booster moms at the concession stand constitute a breach of "journalistic ethics"?

If so, then I kissed ethics good-bye in 1986. But I always got the final score right and you could probably count on one hand the times I committed the true "travesty" in small-town journalism: Misspelling a kid's name. (Hey, when a kid's mom calls you up to cuss you out, you remember a thing like that.)

Get the facts right, and how many free hot dogs you eat is your own business. Nobody cares about your opinion of the Calhoun High starting backfield -- if this year is like most years, they're a tad on the slow side -- but you've got to accurately report the total rushing yardage. (Which, if this year is like most years, won't be much.)

Because most journalists are Democrats, the political journalist who is not a Democrat tends to be viewed with disdain by the rest of the profession. I'm fine with that. But my political opinions -- "Don't Blame Me, I Voted For Bob Barr!" -- are not a license for other people to give me lectures on "ethics."

You Can Quote Me On That
"Ethics, schmethics," as I told Bob Barr while we walked to the Fish On Fire seafood restaurant from the crappy fleabag hotel ("International Conference Center," my foot) where the Libertarian Party held its March 2007 national conference of state party chairs.

Certainly, I was no less ethical than Dave Weigel, my co-panelist in the "How to Deal With Media" discussion, which was the purpose (or pretext, if you prefer) of our expense-paid junket to Orlando.

Our publications (Dave was then at Reason magazine) got exclusive coverage without having to pay for our travel, which is a pretty cool deal. Of course, under such an arrangement, you're not going to do a rip-the-lid-off exposé -- "Fear and Loathing in Orlando: A Savage and Decadent Saga of Libertarian Depravity" -- but neither are you required to do a total puff piece.

In a universe of facts, not every fact can be reported, and what happens in Orlando stays in Orlando. That's what I tried to explain to Bob Barr, afterI excused myself from dinner with the LP brain trust, went back to my hotel and returned with a stack of towels.

"You were serious?" said the former member of the House Judiciary Committee.

"Serious as a heart attack, Bob," I answered, reiterating the plan I'd been discussing with the LP brain trust. "Look, it's almost 10 o'clock now and it's about an hour drive to Daytona Beach. We could stop by a fireworks store along the way, head to the beach, go skinny-dipping in the ocean, shoot off about $200 worth of fireworks -- have some real fun!"

Did I mention that it was March? Spring break in Daytona, skinny-dipping in the Atlantic with the first member of Congress to bring charges of "high crimes and misdemeanors" against Bill Clinton -- and that was before Lewinsky -- man, what a story!

However, as I promised Bob, the Daytona expedition would remain strictly off-the-record. If the first three rules of journalism are "Accuracy, accuracy and accuracy," then the fourth rule is: A good reporter never burns his sources.

So I can't tell you whether or not the Libertarian Party brain trust took me up on that Daytona road-trip suggestion. (Don't worry, Mrs. Barr. Bob was accompanied by a professional journalist the entire time. And I've got family values.)

However, I remind you of an important corollary to the Fourth Rule of Journalism: A good source never burns a reporter. When I call Bob Barr on his personal cell phone, he takes the call. IYKWIMAITYD.

Hayekian Journalism
This is the kind of keen journalistic insight necessary to advance from being a $4.50-an-hour staff writer for a 6,000-circulation weekly to become a top Hayekian public intellectual.

In a universe of facts, not every fact is sufficiently important to merit inclusion in a 700-word news story. Political news consumers in March 2007 were interested in the Libertarian Party's prospects for . . . well, anything, really. When the Libertarians have nerds like George Phillies, stoners like Steve Kubby and fanatical purists like Mary Ruwart seeking the presidential nomination, and when the party's 2008 convention requires six ballots to decide Barr is the better candidate, you can't be blamed for wondering if they're really serious about politics.

However remote the chance that the LP could influence the outcome of the 2008 election, serious political news consumers were interested in that stuff. Certainly, those readers had no interest in the trivial matter of whether, shortly after 11:30 p.m. on the evening of Saturday, March 17, 2007, Bob Barr and the Libertarian brain trust were cavorting nude with a half-dozen Purdue University coeds in the Atlantic surf of Daytona Beach.

That's the kind of sleazy, sensational tabloid stuff that no serious political journalist would be interested in reporting. For less than $10,000.

Neither Confirm Nor Deny, Bob
Hey, I write for money -- that's what it means to be a professional, as opposed to an amateur clown like Dennis "Bozo" Zaki, who actually lied about being a CNN stringer. In the Hayekian universe of facts, a reporter must exercise judgment about which facts are important enough to include in a news story, but I wouldn't knowingly publish a lie for any sum you could name.

Speculation about the sex lives of Republicans seems to be a full-time career for some people, but until there's actual proof -- a court document, an arrest report, a flight to Argentina -- such gossip is no more newsworthy than baseless innuendo about whether Barr and the LP brain trust took me up on that Daytona road-trip plan.

If some "source" ever tells you over beers that, shortly before dawn on Sunday, March 18, 2007, Bob Barr was passed out nude in the back seat of a rented Chevy SUV, while the other members of the LP brain trust were so hopelessly hammered that they'd taken the desperate measure of agreeing to let me drive back to Orlando -- well, in a circumstance like that, you'd be obligated to let Bob have a chance to give you an official denial before you'd even dream of reporting such potentially defamatory gossip.

("No comment," Bob. Neither confirm nor deny. This will be the most priceless "no comment" in the history of political journalism. And a good source never burns a reporter.)

Likewise with Todd and Sarah Palin. As far as I'm concerned, their love life is not news. But it gets mighty cold in Wasilla sometimes, and there's a Phantom Fireworks Superstore a block south of Silver Beach Avenue in Daytona, so if the Palins ever want to get some advice from a savvy media professional . . .

Well, should anybody feel the urge to hit the tip jar, don't fight the feeling. I'm a professional. I write for money. Photography? That's just a hobby. IYKWIMAITYD.


  1. If Sarah Palin was a drag on any ticket, it was Bob Barr's.

    She stole my vote at 'You Betcha'.