Ethical journalism and the Morris Berger story

Ysabela Golden, Laker Life Editor

On Jan. 23 of this year, Jim Lehrer, journalism legend and co-founder of PBS NewsHour, passed away at 85. To ensure ethical journalism at his company, Lehrer proposed tenets for responsible reporting. “Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me; assume there is at least one other side to every story; assume the viewer is as smart and caring and as good a person as I am; assume the same about all people on whom I report; I am not in the entertainment business.” These rules, among others, were foundational for modern journalism. But it’s obvious that Lehrer’s tenets are no longer followed by the majority of news outlets today.

Also on Jan. 23, the Lanthorn published a Q&A interview with former offensive coordinator Morris Berger. As someone with a history degree, he was asked: who are three historical figures you’d want to have dinner with? Berger’s first answer, infamously, was Adolf Hitler — “How he rallied a group and a following,” Berger said, “I want to know how he did that.”

Of course, plenty of people with history degrees have dedicated their lives to uncovering how Hitler “did that” without being Nazis. But as a public statement, it was incredibly stupid. Even if Berger’s core idea had been phrased well, Hitler’s actions are far too serious of a topic to be mentioned off-hand in an interview about college football. Berger’s quote sounds so confident in articles with titles like “College football coach says he’d like leadership tips from Hitler.” In the recording I heard, Berger is awkward; he stammers to explain his logic, stops speaking in places as he processes his mistake. An interviewee with more experience than a newly hired assistant coach might have clarified better, or simply asked to answer the question again. An interviewer with more experience than a student journalist might have asked a follow up question that produced a more cohesive statement.

Instead, the quote was published as it was. Worried it would create more controversy than Berger had intended, the Athletic Department asked the interviewer to remove the quote. He did. After long deliberation, the Lanthorn Editorial Board decided the comments about Hitler were newsworthy enough to merit re-inclusion.

We are a student newspaper at a public university. The students and staff we interview shouldn’t have to be masters of PR to avoid us publishing awkward statements that will skewer them on a national scale. If you’re a good interviewer, people feel like they’re having a conversation with you. They express opinions unrelated to the appropriate topic, tell you off-the-record details, make jokes they wouldn’t want their boss to hear. When I interview people, I want them to know that I’m writing with the same amount of care and empathy I would hope for were our positions reversed. Not that I’ll publish any awkward statement newsworthy enough that the article will get clicks, whether it’s representative of them or not.

A summary of the decision making process published by the Lanthorn editorial board states that though we feel neither guilt or pride at what we did, “we are satisfied with doing our job as journalists.” Let me be clear: as a Lanthorn editor, I could not be any less satisfied with how we did our job. I am similarly suspect of claims that the Athletic Department “censored us” by questioning our judgement in publishing the quote. If they felt it wasn’t representative of their new employee, it was entirely reasonable to ask us if we’d remove it. If the Lanthorn had any ethical guidelines like those Jim Lehrer set for PBS, they wouldn’t have had to. It would never have been published in the first place.