UPDATE: Louis's retort considered - and debunked - below. UPDATE II: Louis makes a pretty outrageous claim on his twitter account. Details below.
Here's a helpful tip if you ever run for federal office: make sure to curry favor with journalists so that if you're ever charged with multiple ethics violations, those journalists won't ask you difficult questions. It works - just ask Charlie Rangel!
The New York congressman, chairman of the House panel in charge of the tax code, will likely be charged in a number of violations of the ethics code. Among the alleged violations is a charge that he extended a $500 million tax loophole to an oil executive in exchange for donations to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York.
No matter, says New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis, who admitted to refraining from asking Rangel any tough questions in an interview. His reason: Rangel has "been a friend to my show and he's given us a lot of good inside information."
Louis went on to note that while journalists don't necessarily have to be objective, they should always be fair. As an opinion columnist, Louis is not subject to the rules of detached, politically neutral journalism that a "straight news" reporter is.
But that fact does not exempt him from the most basic tenets of journalistic integrity he violated by openly trading favors with a highly-partisan, extremely powerful member of the ruling class. Louis was not objective and he was not fair - fairness would require he not accept "insider information" from a politician in exchange for refraining from asking him pertinent questions.
Louis told listeners on his WWRL radio show:
there are a lot of people, the progressive media, who will shade stuff, I mean, will shade stuff, there's no question about it. I mean, look, even the Charlie Rangel thing, I could have hammered him with a bunch of questions but, I mean, I didn't do it, I didn't do it.
And I told you all up front, I used to live in Harlem, I like the guy, I know his work, you know, he's been a friend to my show and he's given us a lot of good inside information when we needed it about what was going on in Congress and I'm not in a position to do it. Now not everybody will tell you that and I think that's where people start to think that there could be a bias at work.
You see, the way I think about it, and I tell people this, I teach journalism and I tell my kids this, the goal is not to be unbiased. The goal should be to be fair.
How, specifically, should they ensure fairness? Well, the Society of Professional Journalists insists in its Code of Ethics that "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know," should "Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable" and must "Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage."
It seems that Louis violated all of those standards in his relationship with Rangel. That Louis admitted this colossal conflict of interest is surprising. That he would play pattycake with a powerful Democrat by neglecting to ask him the tough questions, not so much.
I just saw this comment Louis left at the Radio Equalizer:
What Maloney left out, of course, is that I interviewed Rangel about 10 minutes before he was due to step in front of a batch of Washington reporters at a press conference he'd called that was carried live on cable TV.
My talk with him was to get a sense of his his mood and have him lay out his view about what was likely to happen, in keeping with the ground rules I'd arranged with his staff minutes before we went on the air.
Needless to say, I would have explained this to Brian Maloney if he had contacted me before publishing his ritualistic hit job. Very ethical, Brian.
So why would Louis not say that he had worked out guidelines for the interview beforehand? Why would he trumpet his past relationship - professional and personal - with Rangel as the reason for his kid-gloves interview? And why would he use his interview and his explanation for the lack of hard-hitting questions as an example of biased but, by his account, fair reporting, when the reasons he explicitly gave his listeners do not excuse - and in fact make more specious - his decision to go easy on the congressman?
Louis used his experience to illustrate his contention that liberal journalists treat liberals they cover with more sympathy. So if his story is to be believed (and if he wishes to recant the story, he should do so), the reason that he did not challenge Rangel had nothing to do with his staff's requests or with the congressman's tight schedule, and everything to do with his personal and political affinities.
Louis tweeted the following early Thursday morning:
Badge of Honor: Right wingers are attacking me for merely interviewing Rep. Charlie Rangel instead of calling him a crook.
When Louis writes "calling him a crook," read "pressing him on pending ethics violations against him," since no one suggested he should call Rangel a crook. So Louis apparently holds as a "badge of honor" his unwillingness to ask one of the most powerful legislators in the nation about ethics violations against him. And this man teaches journalism.