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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2001 / 13 Shevat, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

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Lying, betrayal essential parts of journalism --

“Dear Mr. Kaczynski you are a hero and pioneer.”

                      --- Letter to the Unabomber from a producer for CBS' "60 Minutes II

With expose journalism, reality TV, hidden cameras and magazine show after magazine show, every nook and cranny of American life seems to have been investigated and exposed by now. Except the exposers. I mean, isn't it odd that we've seen people pee in the office coffeepot - thanks to Fox's hidden cameras - but the tactics of big-time news networks, and newspapers for that matter, are safely hidden from the general public?

Sure, journalists love to navel gaze and second-guess themselves. Look at your wristwatch at any random moment, and somewhere in the world there will be a seminar or panel discussion of very serious journalists wringing their hands about how many Laotian cross-dressers they quoted or whether they paid enough attention to members of the Green, Libertarian or Vulcan Party in the last election.

But you will never see ABC's "20/20" or NBC's "Dateline" expose the sort of backbiting, betrayal and two-facedness that goes on everyday behind the scenes at those shows and others. Investigative journalism - television journalism especially - relies on a level of personal betrayal normally only associated with prison snitches and used-car salesmen.

A nice example comes our way thanks to the bizarre Web site, They have obtained the letters written to Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, from various television interviewers and producers (culled from what amounts to the "Unabomber Collection" at the University of Michigan).

Some correspondents complimented Kaczynski on his commitment or his ingenuity in making mail bombs. But everyone let him know, in some way, that they were on his side.

"I want to give you the opportunity to respond point-by-point to their allegations (that Kaczynski is schizophrenic) and to show America that you are, in fact, rational, clear-headed, and sane," writes a "60 Minutes II" producer. "Please understand that '60 Minutes II' is NOT the program on which your brother and mother appeared. They appeared on '60 Minutes.' Our story will allow you to personally refute what they said about you."

Translation: "Stick with us and we can stick it to your mom and brother and our sister TV program."

Kevin Tedesco, a CBS spokesman, told The Washington Post that the letter was "not derogatory at all" toward "60 Minutes." "It uses what any journalist would use to entice him to come on the program."

He's right, of course. Once "enticed" to give an interview - no doubt by verbal promises not recorded for posterity - there's no doubt that all promises to the serial killer would be left on the cutting-room floor. I'm convinced of this because I was on the receiving end of the same phenomenon. Every television producer in Christendom love-bombed me during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

When they thought I could provide insights into - or even an interview with - Linda Tripp because of my connections to her (through my mother, and Tripp's former book agent, Lucianne Goldberg), I was subjected to constant pleading from producers and writers. They swore they were on my side, insisted we were friends, promised to do everything they could, forever, to protect the interests of Tripp and my family.

Of course, they lied and I was naive to believe them at all. The truth is, lying and betrayal are essential parts of the journalism business. This was always the great irony about the media's treatment of Tripp, aka the "betrayer." Professionals who use hidden cameras and tape recorders - and often boast of the resultant awards, ratings and bonuses - were horrified about a free-lancer doing the same.

Recall how, a few years ago in the famous Food Lion case, ABC producers built up fake relationships and then secretly filmed fellow employees - sometimes in transgressions suggested by the filmers themselves. In subsequent interviews many of these employees said they felt betrayed: The producers had befriended them only to expose them unfairly on national television.

During the momentary spate of hand-wringing over such tactics, Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes," explained, "It's the small crime vs. the greater good. If you can catch someone violating 'Thou shalt not steal' by your violating 'Thou shalt not lie,' that's a pretty good trade-off."

Mike Wallace, also of "60 Minutes," told The Washington Post that when it comes to conning people, "It really depends on your motive. Are you doing it for drama, or are you doing it for illumination?" Regardless, "You don't like to baldly lie, but I have."

When you consider what journalists do, you realize they have to lie to get the job done. And, like criminal defense lawyers, we do need journalists for the health of our democracy. But one wonders why it's so important to butter-up a serial killer. Indeed, the only thing worse than these guys lying to Kaczynski is the possibility they were telling him the truth.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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