Note: This essay first appeared in Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation newsletter. Sign up for the freebie here.
What does The Watchdog stand for? What are my values?
Maybe you saw my story on the former mayor of Irving, Texas who got fined $5,000 by the Texas Ethics Commission for what I called “one of the most dishonest political hit pieces ever circulated.”
I was shocked that he continues to insist his mailing was truthful. I told him that during our interview, then wrote that in my column.
His response was to post on social media that during our interview I told him the following:
“I am not a journalist. I am a columnist. I can write whatever I want. It doesn't have to be true.”
He made this up.
I'd like to take a moment to analyze this fictitious statement — and use it as an opportunity to share my values.
Statement 1: “I am not a journalist.” Right there, you know something is wrong. I am clearly a journalist. Why would I say I'm not?
Statement 2: “I am a columnist.” Correct. He's batting .500 so far.
Statement 3: “I can write whatever I want.” Hardly. I have an editor, who has a boss, who has a boss who has a boss who has a boss. I have more freedom to write at The Dallas Morning News than any paper I've ever worked at. But no, I get approval of my story ideas before I do them, then get rigorously edited by my editor and my copy editor.
Statement 4: “It doesn't have to be true.” This, really, is why I share this. OF COURSE, IT MUST BE TRUE! Everything I write must be provable, sourced, checked and analyzed. I rarely, if ever, use confidential sources because I want you to know I talk to real people.
If I were ever to deliberately write a false fact, a false quote, a false story, I would be shown the door. My career would be over.
As a columnist, writing from a personal point of view, my opinions may be dead wrong. But my facts must be accurate.
When I make a mistake, it must be corrected. And I learn from my mistakes. (I have an envelope full of little correction boxes dating back to the early 1980s.)
My values are to be straightforward and honest. In this case, I told the former mayor that I was going to criticize him in the column. No surprises.
I must be accurate, fair and look at every situation from both sides. I take these rules seriously. In fact, I'm co-author of the “Columnist Code of Ethics.” There really is such a thing.
If you'd like to read it, here's the code of conduct.
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