It’s our job — and yours — to protect the public interest

August 1, 2022 8:00 am

Journalists and politicians both have a duty to protect the public interest. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Journalists, politicians and educators have a duty to inform, instruct and serve the people — not themselves or special interests.

The public interest concerns the general welfare of society meriting recognition and protection.

Journalists inform the public so that people are aware of anything that threatens their welfare. Educators enlighten citizens so that they can make intelligent decisions in the voting booth.

The Media Freedom Resource Center states that journalists should honor these core values:

  • Accuracy: Work should be based on verifiable facts.
  • Independence: Work should be done on behalf of the people, not special interests.
  • Impartiality: Reporters should recognize there is more than one side — and often more than two sides — to every issue.
  • Humanity: Reporters should show compassion in dealings with the public and acknowledge the impact of their words.
  • Accountability: Reporters should take responsibility for mistakes and apologize to anyone hurt by their actions.

These tenets also apply to public officials and educators.

When we lose trust in journalism, the general welfare suffers.

The Pew Research Center has investigated that in a video documenting changes in the industry that impacted how news is produced and consumed.

The video explores the impact on the public interest, especially with the prevalence of social media and political partisanship. “Trust in America, in institutions, in each other is essential to the functioning of U.S. democracy. Yet today, trust is declining.”

Law enforcement is vital in protecting the public interest. When they fail in that obligation, or act in a partisan manner, we fear for the general welfare.

Between 2016-18, FBI employees accepted gifts in return for leaked information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. She used a private account to send personal and official messages — a big story then.

An FBI investigation found that agents “improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.” FBI’s policy designates who may disclose information to the media, but this was ignored.

Elected officials are responsible, singularly and collectively, for protecting the public interest.

It’s a federal crime to bribe a public official. Section 201 of Title 18 comprises two types of conflicts: bribes and gifts. 201(b) prohibits taking or giving anything of monetary value when the intent is to influence an official act. 201(c), concerns “gratuities” to gain favor for an official act. Bribe convictions are punishable by up to 15 years; a gratuity conviction, up to two years.

In the 1978-80 Abscam “sting” investigation, FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks bribing elected officials for political favors. Encounters were videotaped, as money was exchanged.

Some 30 politicians were convicted, including one senator, six representatives and the mayor of Camden, N.J.

More recently, former Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to bribery. He received $250,000 to block laws that could hurt a red-light camera company. He agreed to cooperate with authorities but died of COVID in 2020.

The 2019 “Varsity Blues” investigation targeted parents who paid millions to help get their children into top-ranked universities such as Yale, Stanford and Georgetown. Their entitlement deprived more worthy students of admission.

The New York Times reported that 57 parents, educators, coaches and other defendants were charged, with 54 convictions, one deferred prosecution and one pardoned by former President Donald J. Trump.

Then there is the case of Edward Ennels, sentenced to 10 years in prison, with nine suspended and five years’ probation, plus $60,000 restitution.

What did this math professor do at Baltimore City Community College?

Between 2013 to 2020, he sold academic access codes and received bribes in exchange for good grades. He concocted a fictional character who contacted students, offering to complete assignments for an “A.” Cost? $300.

“Ennels often haggled with students regarding the amount of the bribe, and set different prices based on the course and grade desired. For example, he would charge $150 for a C or $250 for a B or $500 for an A in a higher-level course.”

At Iowa State University, failure to report “known or suspected violations and crimes” is an ethical breach itself. The university is obligated to contact authorities with evidence of “fraud, conflict of interest, bribery, or gratuity.”

The vast majority of journalists, public officials and educators are ethical. Their positions in society are so vital that any infraction is scandalous.

As a citizen or resident, you have an obligation to protect the public interest. You should know about organizations that serve it.

The Iowa Capitol Press Association promotes and supports robust coverage of state government “for the benefit of the public.”

Parents or guardians of students who have educational concerns can contact the Iowa Department of Education for advice and procedures.

If you have a grievance about state or local government, you can contact the Iowa Office of Ombudsman.

If you have a complaint about attorney misconduct, you can contact the Attorney Disciplinary Board.

If you have a consumer or mortgage complaint, you can contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

If you have experienced discrimination, you can contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Finally, if you have a compliment rather than a complaint about a reporter, teacher or legislator, contact them and thank them for protecting the public interest.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.