In their wonderful little book on media ethics, “The Elements of Journalism,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify independence as such a touchstone that it comprises two of their nine points:
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
Today the Bay State Banner ceases to be an independent newspaper. By accepting Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s offer of a $200,000 government-administered loan, publisher Melvin Miller has compromised his 44-year-old weekly, which covers Greater Boston’s African-American community.
Miller tells the Boston Globe that he’ll still criticize Menino if he thinks it’s warranted. But that’s not the issue. Now, even if he blasts Menino, readers will have a right to wonder what calculations went into that — indeed, whether the Banner was being critical of the mayor just to prove that it could.
The Banner loan is neither unprecedented nor is it the end of the world. Several decades ago the late David Brickman, owner of the Malden Evening News, accepted government redevelopment money in order to build a new headquarters as part of an effort to rehabilitate Malden Square. The News continued to be a valuable local resource for many years to come. But there was a lot of criticism even at the time.
The general, inviolable rule is that government and journalism can’t mix because journalism is meant to be an independent check on government. That’s why recent suggestions to bail out the struggling newspaper business have largely been met with hoots of derision.
Miller may be right when he says accepting the loan is preferable to letting his paper go out of business. The Banner may continue as an important community outlet. I hope it does. But something was lost when Miller said “yes” to Menino.
More: John Carroll has similar thoughts.