We don't yet know who will win the 2004 election, but we know who has lost it. The American news media have been clobbered.
In a year when war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism and looming problems with the federal budget and the nation's health care system cry out for serious debate, the news organizations on which people should be able to depend have been diverted into chasing sham events: a scurrilous and largely inaccurate attack on the Vietnam service of John Kerry and a forged document charging President Bush with disobeying an order for an Air National Guard physical.
With these events coming after the editors of two respected national newspapers, the New York Times and USA Today, were forced to resign because their organizations were duped by lying staff reporters, it is hard to overcome the sense that the professional practices and code of responsibility in journalism have suffered a body blow.
After almost a half-century in this business, I certainly feel a sense of shame and embarrassment at our performance. The feeling is not relieved by the awareness that others in journalism not only did fine work on other stories but took the lead in exposing these instances of gross malpractice.
The common feature -- and the disturbing fact -- is that none of these damaging failures would have occurred had senior journalists not been blind to the fact that the standards in their organizations were being fatally compromised.
We need to be asking why this collapse has taken place.
My suspicion is that it stems from a widespread loss of confidence in both the values of journalism and the economic viability of the news business.
The first symptom of wavering confidence that I spotted came when news organizations -- television particularly, but print as well -- began offering their most prestigious and visible jobs not to people deeply imbued with the culture and values of newsrooms, but to stars imported from the political world. Journalists learn to be skeptical -- of sources and of their own biases as well. If they are any good, they are tough on themselves. Politicians learn something very different -- how to please the public. They try to satisfy others, not themselves.
As the path from the White House and political campaigns to the slots as TV anchor or interviewer or op-ed columnist or editor was trod by more and more people, the message to aspiring young journalists was clear.
The way to the top of journalism was no longer to test yourself on police beats and city hall assignments, under the skeptical gaze of editors who demanded precision in writing and careful weighing of evidence. It was to make a reputation as a clever wordsmith, a feisty advocate, a belligerent or beguiling political personality, and then market yourself to the media.
These hires were made by executives who themselves had little commitment to the solid and steady journalistic values that come from working a beat for a sustained period of time. They were looking for quick fixes for their circulation or ratings -- and they thought the star system or the "big story" would save them.
But to their dismay, TV news show ratings continued to decline, newspaper circulations slumped and the fickle public -- whose wishes editors now took as their command -- switched to even more sensational outlets: the cable talk shows and infotainment formats that put argument, gossip and amusement at the top.
When the Internet opened the door to scores of "journalists" who had no allegiance at all to the skeptical and self-disciplined ethic of professional news gathering, the bars were already down in many old-line media organizations. That is how it happened that old pros such as Dan Rather and former New York Times editor Howell Raines got caught up in this fevered atmosphere and let their standards slip.
Time was when any outfit such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that came around peddling an ad with implausible charges would have run into a hard-nosed reporter whose first questions -- before he or she ran with the story -- would have been, "Who the hell are you guys? What's your angle? What's your proof?"
Any Texan with a grudge against George Bush and the National Guard who suddenly produced a purported photocopy of an explosive 30-year-old order signed by a dead man would have been treated with the deep distrust he deserved by the reporters to whom he offered his wares. And no professional journalist would have made a call to the Kerry campaign encouraging a flack to contact this dubious source.
We've wandered a long way from safe ground in the news business. Sometimes I wonder if we can find our way back.