Will McAvoy, a TV journalist in the HBO drama The Newsroom, tells a colleague: "I don't believe in censorship, but I'm a big believer in self-censorship."
It's a simple principle that guided generations of journalists and news organizations in America for decades, but one that the press now seems to have forgotten. In an age of 24-hour online news driven by ad sales and page views, responsible journalism seems to be hard to find.
Two recent incidents illustrate this disturbing trend vividly.
The first is the Rolling Stone article about an alleged rape at a UVA fraternity house that apparently never happened. This week, after months of controversy, public ridicule, and lawsuits surrounding the shoddy journalism in the article, the managing editor of the magazine, Will Dana, finally resigned. Some might welcome the news but Dana's departure doesn't address the central problem of why such a lapse happened at a respected magazine in the first place.
The list of mistakes that the writer of the Rolling Stone article and the editors made is long, including putting their sympathy for the supposed victim ahead of journalistic rigor, failing to gather sufficient facts to support the story, ignoring warning signs, and pretty much abandoning any semblance of objectivity. But serious as these lapses are, the bigger issue that we should be talking about is the lack of self-restraint exhibited by the magazine.
Here's the crux. Under our First Amendment right to free speech, Rolling Stone had a right to publish the article regardless of its veracity. However, just because the government was not entitled to censor the piece doesn't mean its publication didn't violate the law. It potentially defamed the accused and the magazine is now being sued for exactly that. Technically, according to legal site Nolo, defamation is not a crime but a tort (a civil wrong) but a wrong nonetheless.
The point is that the editors at Rolling Stone could have and should have exercised self-censorship and at least held off on publishing until they had confirmed and double-checked the assertions in the piece - particularly given how explosive they were. By failing to do that, they violated the trust of their readers and journalistic integrity itself.
The second incident involves sensationalist site Gawker, which has made a name for itself by publishing provocative pieces on anything that captures their editors' fancy. Lately, the media company has been embroiled in several high profile battles and scandals, including one with former WWE star Hulk Hogan over a lurid sex tape that Gawker ran on its site and which prompted Hogan to sue them.
The more problematic one involved a story that Gawker ran about a senior Conde Nast executive and a gay prostitute that many viewed as an unconscionable invasion of the executive's privacy as well as gay shaming. That episode resulted in a retraction of the story and the resignation of two top editors.
What has happened to Gawker? Not that the site has ever been known for highbrow journalism but its latest missteps seem extreme and indicate a total breakdown of self-control.
While Gawker's fight with Hogan was generally applauded by the press because of its upholding of the First Amendment, the fact remains that the sex tape -- like the Conde Nast piece -- is a prime example of irresponsible journalism that does little to uphold the freedom of the press but a lot to destroy its credibility with the public.
Once again, this could have been avoided with even the least bit of self-censorship by Gawker's editors and the recognition of a line, any line, that they would not cross.
This is the essence of the crisis confronting the American press today and which must be addressed if journalism is to remain a noble and meaningful endeavor.
S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking.