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Did Richard Cohen and the Post Violate Journalism's Code of Ethics?

I think so. He repeated not one but two right-wing falsehoods in his latest column for thetoday. Is he being mendacious, or is he just ignorant of the facts and the law?
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Did Richard Cohen violate his own profession's written Code of Ethics today? I think so. He repeated not one but two right-wing falsehoods in his latest column for the Washington Post. Is he being mendacious, or is he just ignorant of the facts and the law? It's hard to tell, but his editors' ongoing willingness to publish misleading statements on the editorial page is yet one more example of journalism's moral decline.

Before I'm characterized as yet one more vituperative blogger, let me note that I base my conclusions on The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. One clause in that document reads as follows: "Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context." Mr. Cohen's piece is clearly labeled as opinion, but it equally clearly misrepresents both facts and context.

May we expect a reprimand shortly? While Mr. Cohen is free to say he doesn't like the nature of this congressional inquiry, he's not allowed to conclude guilt or innocence prior to an investigation and then state his conclusions as fact in a major newspaper.

Do you think I'm being too tough on the hapless Mr. Cohen? Then consider this: His column is entitled "Candor? Call the Special Prosecutor." Get it? He's saying that if you're honest in Washington you're going to get indicted.

Ha ha. What a wacky world. Thank God we've got Richard Cohen to show it to us.

Here's Falsehood #1: Monica Goodling's "problem is probably not what she's done but what she might do." He then appoints himself judge and jury by concluding that "she's no criminal -- but what could happen to her surely is."

You see, in Richard Cohen's world it's "criminal" for Congress - the body with Constitutional oversight - to inquire into the seemingly corrupt practice of pressuring attorneys to file specious indictments against Democrats and quash those against Republicans in order to win elections, even though such behavior would violate multiple laws.

Is Monica Goodling "no criminal"? If she knowingly gave false information to Kyle Sampson or anyone else - information she knew would be presented in Congressional testimony - then in fact she is a criminal.

And that's only based on what we know so far.

It would be wrong of me to say that Ms. Goodling is guilty. There's compelling evidence that false testimony was given, but Ms. Goodling hasn't had a chance to explain her side of it yet. (It's interesting, however, that she prefers to take the Fifth rather than respond what others have said. That's not supposed to influence judgment about her in a court of law, however.)

It's equally wrong for Mr. Cohen to declare her innocence. We don't know what happened - which is the point of the investigation.

Falsehood #2 is another tired old conservative talking point, the "lack of an underlying crime" in the Libby case. Cohen writes in his cutesy-cutesy style that "the compulsively compulsive Patrick Fitzgerald not only knew early on who the leaker was but also that no law had been violated. "

Ha ha. Get it? It's "compulsively compulsive," i.e. the sign of mental illness, to enforce the law against senior officials in Washington. As I said, what a wacky world. But ... did Patrick Fitzgerald really "know ... that no law had been violated"? On the contrary. Mr. Fitzgerald has stated repeatedly that he was never able to get to the truth about the underlying crime because of Mr. Libby's criminal falsehoods.

Cohen then makes a false comparison between the Clinton impeachment and the Libby conviction. He writes: "Recall, with what should be deep shame, that some of these special prosecutors were cheered on by liberals who are supposed to feel tenderly about civil liberties (even about journalists whose work they don't like)."

See? We're supposed to feel ashamed for cheering on Patrick Fitzgerald as he investigated the deliberate character assassination of a career CIA agent by the White House, an act which damaged covert operations and potentially endangered her life - because they didn't like something her husband said. That's supposed to be the moral equivalent of impeaching a President because he lied about a private sexual encounter.

And we're supposed to feel bad because Judith Miller went to jail for concealing a friend's criminal behavior, and then tried to hide behind journalistic privilege - something that was designed to protect the Valerie Plames of this world and not the Scooter Libbys. That's a simple fact that the Richard Cohens of this world still can't understand.

I didn't "cheer" the jailing of Judith Miller, despite the fact that her false reporting helped create the political climate that led to the war in Iraq. I understood it - and I knew that concealing the crimes of the powerful is not the same as protecting whistleblowers.

Cohen wants to remind us he's a regular guy. "Monica Goodling is not my kind of gal," he writes. "A graduate of two schools not known for partying (Messiah College and Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School), she would not be my ideal seatmate on a long airplane flight."

Ew. The image of Richard Cohen "partying" with college students will haunt me in my dreams. Want to know who's not my ideal seatmate on a long flight? A blowhard who doesn't understand the law or the facts of a case, and wants to pontificate about it anyway.

Marty Kaplan wrote a fine piece the other day about journalistic ethics. Most people don't know that journalists have a written code of ethics, which is routinely violated. I suspect that realtors do a better job of self-policing than reporters do.

I've written about the sad state of journalistic ethics before, and once made the following suggestions:

1. Enforce the Journalist's Code of Ethics, which has already been written, and expand it to cover some areas which it doesn't address.
2. Write an Editor's and Publisher's Code of Ethics that's equally stringent.
3. Create a watchdog group comprised of journalists and editors that will cite reporters and editors for violations of the code.
4. Publicize those results as widely as the Pulitzer Prizes are published. In other words, degrade the quality of professional life for journalists whose laziness and fearfulness causes them to betray the public trust.

Is Cohen being "mendaciously mendacious" or just "sloppily sloppy"? It's hard to tell, but either way his column "misrepresents facts and context" and therefore runs afoul of items #1 and #2. His editors should not have run it without changes or clarifications. Specifically, the Post should have informed its readers of both the possible crimes in the Goodling matter and Mr. Fitzgerald's statements disputing the notion that there was no underlying crime in the Plame case.

Mr. Cohen and his editors need to be taken to the woodshed over lapses like this. Journalism needs to be held to a higher ethical standard if it is to regain credibility in the 21st Century.

(I didn't want to write about this today. I wanted to keep the focus on healthcare policy. So if you're just skimming, read my piece on Reagan, the AMA, and Medicare instead of this one.)

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