Robert Novak died this month which has led to many articles about him and related stories.  The Wall Street Journal ran an article from one of their former investigative reporters which touches on several issues of Journalistic Ethics that the Wall Street Journal got wrong.

The WSJ decided to investigate JFK’s victory in West Virginia over Hubert Humphrey in 1960.  Robert Novak wrote that bribery and fraud were involved according to WSJ’s investigation and the story was killed at the last minute under pressure from the Kennedys.  The WSJ article disputes Robert Novak’s version of events.

The election in West Virginia was suspect (Protestants voting for a Catholic) so the investigative reporters had some very clear standards to follow before the story could be written and reported.  The reporters would have to gain signed affidavits from their sources.  The investigation over the course of several months led to a finding of bribery and fraud in West Virginia but none of the people involved would sign affidavits.  The story was never written.  According to the article the investigative reporters were optimistic and had no problems believing they could meet that standard so they could write the story.

It makes a sense that a newspaper would not want to run a story without solid sources.  When you make a serious allegation against someone regarding unreported and uninvestigated criminal activity the standard should perhaps be a little higher.  To raise the standard to the point where you will only report if you have signed confessions to criminal activity is on par with agreeing to never run the story.

With no criminal investigation, no pressure to testify against others involved in the scheme, and no immunity offers there was no chance that the story would be run.  It is not reasonable to expect to gain signed confessions from people who by all appearances are going to get away with it.  Unless you already do not want to run the story there is no point to requiring signed confessions before reporting.

It is odd that the WSJ would not run the story when it mattered but is running it now in the form of an opinion piece. The author claims they found bribery and fraud in the West Virginia election and fifty years later the story is told to defend the integrity of the WSJ.  It is okay to tell the story to defend against allegations of bowing to pressure from the Kennedys but not okay to tell the story when it was highly relevant to the public with the pending election of JFK.

We depend on news organizations to inform us and tell the truth.  The duty of a journalist or a newspaper is to balance the public’s need to know with the certainty of fact and the relevance of a given story.  Bill Clinton having an extramarital affair while he is the President is an important story because it reflects on his ability to faithfully execute the office of President.  If Bill Clinton had an extramariatal affair now that he is out of office it would not be an important story and probably should not be reported even if it is true.

News outlets need to tell us the truth more often when it is relevant and timely.

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