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Use performance seal to make media fair

Under the idea of local journalist John Hamer, media could show they follow the 'TAO of Journalism,' and the public would have a way to push news organizations to live up to their principles. What's not to like? Media may bristle.

There is proper alarm in the journalistic profession, and among consumers of journalism, at the ever-lowering standards within an industry undergoing rapid change. The old standbys of news, local daily newspapers and TV networks and their affiliates, are rapidly giving way to often-unreliable online sources and cable-news channels, which make no pretense of objectivity. The old standbys frequently have chosen to compete by dumbing down and thinning their news coverage.

In big-audience broadcasting, ignorant and politically biased cable-news talking heads such as Fox's Glenn Beck and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann have debased the medium once associated with Edward R. Murrow and, in the Northwest, the old KING Broadcasting.

A local guy, John Hamer, a former Seattle Times editorial writer, has come up with one idea to combat this trend. Hamer is president of the Washington News Council, a non-profit organization, which has tried over the past decade to maintain journalistic standards in the state. (Disclosure: I was a board member several years ago of the council).

As reported in the Columbia Journalism Review, Hamer three years ago led a discussion at a Journalism That Matters conference in Washington, D.C. on the double standard that often exists with journalism and the people and groups being covered. Too often, Hamer said at the conference, the transparency, accountability, and openness media demand of others were absent in media organizations themselves. After the formal meeting, discussion continued on ways and means of prompting these organizations to walk as they talked.

Hamer came up with a TAO of Journalism concept — TAO standing for transparency, accountability, and openness — to which he hoped journalistic organizations would subscribe. The equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal would be given to both old- and new-media organizations signing on. Public complaints could be brought against any organization in violation of TAO standards.

Something similar is being done in Europe, CJR reports, in a project led by the non-profit Media and Society Foundation.

Moving the idea from concept to reality will not be easy. Washington state and Seattle media organizations often have bristled at being subjected to Washington News Council hearings prompted by citizen complaints about bias or lack of objectivity. Media are notoriously prickly about their own perogatives and for a do-as-we-say, not-as-we-do approach in their own operations.

The Gates Foundation has made a $100,000 challenge grant (matched by $100,000 Hamer has raised from other sources) to help the venture get started. A logo/seal for the fledgling venture has been created. Hamer actively has been selling his idea to media leaders and educators nationally.

Will the concept catch on? It is too early to tell. But a reduction in media hypocrisy, as represented by adherence to a TAO code, could help maintain public credibility. Recent surveys show media ranking low — down with the Congress and trial lawyers — in public trust. Hamer is trying to do something about it.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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