Bad Days For Journalists

These are not good days for journalists.

Bernie Goldberg has hit the top of the best-seller lists with a book charging CBS News with liberal bias; Ted Koppel almost lost his Nightline program at ABC and Barbara Walters has just been blasted by one of her bosses for defending Koppel on her daytime blabfest, The View.

ABC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman was just suspended for a week because she did a Tylenol commercial; critics have accused CNN's Lou Dobbs with conflict of interest because of on-air statements in favor of firms which have previously paid him money for lectures; Fox News Channel hired a military consultant with an inflated resume.

And so it goes.

According to a poll by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, Americans trust journalists much less than they do clergymen, judges, doctors and policeman, and slightly less than they do lawyers.

And then there are the stories of Steven Venable, the plumber from Winston-Salem, N.C., and Ryma the giraffe from Washington, DC. A journalist, it seems, just cannot get a break.

The Kennersville, N.C., News & Record recently told of a plumber who supposedly stole $440 from a woman in whose house he was doing repairs. The plumber was not named in the report and no one was charged by police with taking the money.

Nonetheless, the News & Record went with the story and Steven Venable believed that he was its subject; further, he believed that the story resulted in so much bad publicity that it put him out of business. Steven Venable did not want to be out of business.

So, at about 10 p.m. last Sunday night, the ex-plumber got into his pickup truck, and in the words of News & Record publisher John Owensby, "revved up his engine and came across the street and through the front windows"of the paper's office, not coming to a stop until he had traversed some 40 feet of lobby space.

Then he backed up and smashed into the office again.

Then he backed up and drove away.

The police were able to catch Venable because, less than an hour later, he crashed his truck yet again, this time on an interstate highway a few miles from Kennersville. When police arrived at the scene they found a chair arm from the News & Record sticking out of the debris.

Venable was not sorry about his assault on the bastion of free speech. "He had no remorse at all," said a local policeman of Venable's encounter with the News & Record. "He said 'Justice has been done.'"

Ryma the giraffe, on the other hand, seemed to harbor no ill feelings toward the Fourth Estate. However, when she died not long ago, the folks at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo, her final dwelling place, showed ill feelings, or at least mistrust, aplenty.

The Washington Post, wanting to look into Ryma's death, asked for her medical records; the zoo managers said no. They said that to show Ryma's records to journalists would violate the giraffe's "right to privacy and be an intrusion into the zookeeper-animal relationship."

Even animal rights advocates were taken aback by this one, one such fellow calling the decision "mind-boggling."

And a lawyer with the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press said it was "hogwash. It is the kind of decision that ought to be thrown out with the zoo-doo they sell for your garden."

I repeat: These are not good days for journalists. When people would rather plow their pickups into your building than share with you the medical records of their sub-human companions, it is time for a little soul-searching, and perhaps even a little image-mending.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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