The movie “Absence of Malice” gives me a lot of thoughts about objective journalism, difference between accuracy and truth, and the ethics of the press. Reporter Megan Carter and her editor make several unsurmountable mistakes, which I think are a valuable lesson for journalists.
From the first story on the Michael Gallagher probe, Carter proves her reporting unobjective, unfair and unbalanced. Actually she doesn’t do any reporting and investigation. All she does is to base on investigation files she sneaks from the desk of Elliot Rosen, the chief of the Strike Force who intentionally leaks the files to her, and on the assumptions that Gallagher is part of the Miami mafia due to his family backgrounds and his record of assaulting a federal officer.
Thus, she neither bothers to call Gallagher for comment nor checks out what motivates Rosen to reveal his investigation and if Rosen’s charges are true. “We can’t call the mafia for comment.” She keeps shying away from speaking with Gallagher even after her newspaper’s consultant proves that what she writes is absent malice. “As a matter of law, the truth of your story is irrelevant. We have no knowledge the story is false.” She repeats the same mistakes when doing the fourth story on the investigation on the link between Gallagher and Quin, the Miami’s District Attorney.
What she has done proves that she isn’t a reporter but a gofer as Gallagher says to her: “You’re a gofer. You don’t write the truth. You listen to them. You write what they said.”
“Absence of Malice” is a terrific example on the difference between accuracy and truth. Carter is accurate in reporting Rosen’s investigations and charges, but the charges simply aren’t true. She takes down Rosen’s allegations and parrots them back to readers. There is no investigation done by her about whether Gallagher involved in the 6-month disappearance of Longshoremen President Joey Diaz. She says a journalist has an obligation to seek truth and tell it but she puts accuracy before the truth. “It isn’t true but it’s accurate.”
Her reporting reminds me of the Red Scare era in the early 1950s when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting his political witch hunt to look for Communists in the American government and military. He spewed out his charges, and what most of the mainstream media did was to keep up with them and copy word by word with little investigation. The press then was largely accurate in reporting McCarthy’s charges that were simply not true. Carter exemplifies not only the powerful American journalists in the McCarthy era but also slanted journalists available everywhere nowadays.
Because of her unbalanced, subjective and unfair reporting, Carter is an unethical journalist. She questions Rosen’s intention to leak his investigation files and recognizes the irrelevance of mentioning the abortion of Teresa Perrone, Gallagher’s childhood friend, in her story but she does nothing further. Her stories help ruin the business and life of Gallagher, and lead to the suicide of Perrone. She doesn’t treat the subjects of her stories as human beings deserving of fairness and respect. Also, her involvement with Gallagher in the process is unacceptable.
If I were in Carter’s shoes, I would investigate what motivated Rosen to leak his investigation files, whether Gallagher involved in Diaz’s mysterious disappearance to seek truth and provide fair and comprehensive stories. I would also treat sources and the subjects of the stories fairly because I prefer not to harm any innocent by my published stories. And though it might be hard, for the sake of objective journalism, I would try not to get involved with Gallagher in the process.