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Credibility Is As Credibility Does

Are a couple digitally-altered photographs and a few pictures that raise some suspicions enough to damn an entire profession? Of course not – no more than some fabricated stories in well-regarded newspapers like the New York Times were enough to completely destroy journalism. Like it or not, though, these incidents over time have chipped away at the credibility of the press and given agenda-driven critics all the ammo they need to continue blasting away. But you can't blame bloggers alone for mistakes that simply never should have been made in the first place. Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher sees things differently:
With most others in the mainstream media silent, I rise here in support of the overwhelming number of press photographers in the Middle East who bravely, under horrid conditions, in recent weeks have sent back graphic and revealing pictures from the war zones, only to be smeared, as a group, by rightwing bloggers aiming, as always, to discredit the media as a whole.

This broad condemnation, and the conspiracy theories, lodged against photographers in war zones -- who are risking their lives while bloggers risk nothing but carpal tunnel syndrome -- needs to be refuted.

Mitchell documents some of the more fanatical examples of purported staged-photography from the conflict in Lebanon, a phenomenon he calls "blog hysteria." And he offers up an energetic refutation of some specific examples being tossed around in the blogosphere. But Mitchell can't hide his contempt for the totality of what he sees:
Time does not permit a point by point documentation of the dozens of ludicrous, or at least completely unproven, examples of doctored or staged or otherwise manipulated photos on the Web. Have no fear, I will soon return to this subject, but in the meantime, feel free to plunge into the blogosphere. If you go deeply enough, you may feel you are back on the Grassy Knoll.
Missing from Mitchell's condemnation of the criticism is any acknowledgement of the exact same element which has allowed "Grassy Knoll" enthusiasts to thrive for 30-plus years: fundamental distrust of the institution. Conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination are largely rooted in the breakdown of trust Americans had in their government through World War II and the 1950s and they were fueled by the tumultuous years that followed. Many Americans stopped believing, or at least started seriously questioning, their government through those years. And guess what? They had some pretty good reasons to do so.

Public trust in government hit a low mark at the same moment journalism enjoyed one of its highest -- Watergate. The model of reporting that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are credited for practically inventing continues to be the foundation of journalistic purpose today. But the profession now hardly can claim the level of public trust it had back then. Not all of that can be placed on the media alone, but journalists have to share in the blame after so many scandals in recent years. From Jason Blair to Judy Miller, from the USA Today to, yes, CBS News, the landscape is littered with examples of mistakes both small and large. It is fertile ground for conspiracy theories of all sorts.

Just as bloggers make a mistake by occasionally launching profane and hate-filled campaigns against individual journalists and their organizations, mainstream media types often over-react to the criticisms leveled at them by bloggers. Simply because one or two photos from the war in Lebanon were altered, doesn't mean every picture we see should be viewed with a measure of distrust but it does understandably raise the level of curiosity about them. The response from journalists ought not be to dismiss those concerns and accusations as belonging to the realm of crazy fanatics. It should be to meet them head-on with facts, explanations, transparency and re-doubled efforts not to repeat those mistakes.