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When Reporters Push Products, They Risk Losing Credibility

When people ask me about David Brinkley, I have to tell them I wish he hadn't done it - hadn't decided to become a flak for an agribusiness on TV.

No, what he's doing isn't unethical. Brinkley is retired and evidently isn't going to be a TV journalist anymore. So there isn't a conflict of interest.

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Brinkley can do what he wants. But it makes me sad to think that this highly honored newsman - known for his integrity and straight talk - is lending his name to a business corporation.

There's also Howard Baker, George Mitchell, and Ann Richards. These highly regarded public figures have lent their good names to the tobacco interests. They would argue that they are only providing legal counsel to the tobacco people. They also would assert - and rightly so - that in our system of justice, any defendant is entitled to the best legal counsel available.

Still, it makes me sad to see Mr. Baker, Mr. Mitchell, and Ms. Richards associated with people whose product has been fatal to so many millions.

No one can tell me that Big Tobacco's top officials aren't rejoicing over having persuaded such honored citizens to help their cause. It occurs to most of us, too, I'm sure, that the monetary quid pro quo for this employment is doubtless a princely sum.

But back to journalists' ethics. When I was in journalism school, I was taught that a reporter must be accurate and truthful - and that readers perceive him or her as such. Credibility, I was told, is the essential quality a journalist should maintain.

And that's what a journalist loses when he or she becomes an advertiser - integrity. Just listen to the so-called TV and radio journalists who intersperse their commentary with puffery about this or that product. You know right away that these people really aren't journalists - they're entertainers. And doesn't this flackery substantially cut into their credibility - doesn't it make you take their purveyance of alleged wisdom on world or national affairs with a grain of salt? I quickly change the channel.

How ethically pure must a journalist be today to deserve being treated as a good, reliable reporter? He can't be like some journalists were back in the bad old days when I was a young newsman - when it wasn't too uncommon for reporters to be on the payrolls of politicians or special interests, and sometimes even the underworld.

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Indeed, in the 1950s, I saw, just by chance, a writer on a Chicago paper turn over one of his stories (for checking) to a man connected with the mob.

At about that time, too, a Chicago ward boss tried to bribe my friend, a fellow reporter, by leaving a $100 bill at his place at a political rally. My friend quickly returned it and found the ward boss more perplexed than offended. That old political hack claimed this had never happened to him before and that all the other reporters at the gathering were glad to accept his "gift."

BUT those days are over. I think reporters today, for the most part, assiduously research and write accurate, unbiased accounts. No story can be completely objective. But reporters today - again, for the most part - try to put together articles in which their own point of view plays no part.

But back to David Brinkley. When such a highly honored - and honorable - fellow becomes a TV flak, it not only taints his own career but also somehow rubs off negatively on all of us who work as journalists.

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