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Is an honest media organization possible today?

Posted by John T. Reed on

The media used to be scrupulously neutral in the 1950s and 1960s. Now except for the Wall Street Journal, that seems to be a quaint, anachronism. If you scoffed at the idea that the Journal is neutral, I am guessing you do not read it and are going by some cliche about greedy Wall Street Capitalists. Read it and point out an error or omissions in facts or logic.
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Integrity is a special interest of mine. The Cadet Honor Code is the main thing that drew me to West Point. It was real there in the mid sixties. Now, to hell with them. I will let the current people running West Point explain and defend the current version of the Honor Code.
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But I was horrified to learn while at West Point from the young WP grads who were our instructors that the Army officer corps had no such code and, indeed, regarded it as “Boy Scout” childishness.
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My Succeeding book has a chapter titled “Reputation and values” and another titled “How to make an honest living.”
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https://www.johntreed.com/products/succeeding
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The party line from the adult world to the young is “honesty is the best policy” and the minimum standard. That’s bullshit.
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Now here’s the truth. Being honest is like being a double amputee. Can a double amputee find work? Yes, but you are excluded from most jobs. Generally, they do not want honest people in politics, government, bureaucracies of any kind, large organizations, medium organizations.
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I vowed to not sell out like most adults do, to live up to the Cadet Honor Code not only at West Point but forever. I did it, but I had to take an unusual path that started by getting thrown out of the Army for “defective attitude.” I did not seek that. I just refused to go along to get along and the Army could not stand my doing that for four years. My first year after West Point was going to Army schools where I did not have to sign false documents. But when I got to line units, I was supposed to do that (Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory). I refused which knocked over a row of dominoes. They kept pressuring me to “play the game” or to become a “team player.” I refused and got an honorable (ironically) discharge and $4,000 severance pay the end  of  June 1972, about a year before the end of my five-year commitment.
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I am now 72. I did it. But I had to start civilian life in a commissioned sales job. Then I was able to hold a salaried property manager job for about a year. I left to go to Harvard Business School but had trouble while there. I wrote the quarterly report on some limited partnerships my company had me managing, but I refused to lie about or omit bad facts. That meant my boss had to change the reports and sign them. He was not pleased. 
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I did not have to lie at HBS, nor at my summer job of writing articles about real estate investment. Afterward, I was at a big bank that was sort of like the Army. I got into a fight about the then new SWIFT international money transfer system. My boss wanted a report saying it was going to be a great international marketing tool for our bank. I told him it was no such thing, mainly because it only worked at all if every bank joined and they did. He insisted I look at it again. I refused saying I happened to look at it with one of the biggest experts on it in the universe and my conclusion was correct. I quit there after about seven months.
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I have been self-employed ever since. I was actually self-employed part-time starting in April 1969, when I was 22, as a duplex owner. I have always owned real estate since then. I think I would have been honest regardless but having a growing net worth and part-time income—which grew to full-time around when I was 30—helped me sleep better during these fights.
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So if you want to start a scrupulously honest news organization, it will be in demand, but it will not get top ratings, and therefore, not top revenues. It will be the double amputee of news organizations. Small, low-budget. It will have to be extremely selective about whom it hires and follow the prescription of:
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• Reasonable rules about facts and logic (https://www.johntreed.com/blogs/john-t-reed-s-news-blog/60887299-intellectually-honest-and-intellectually-dishonest-debate-tactics)
• Clearly explained and 
• Strictly enforced
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with regard to the supervision of the employees.
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Are there any such organizations? Consumer Reports. Maybe the Wall Street Journal, Underwriters Laboratories, STEM journals.
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The WSJ makes money, but not the others. Like I said.
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From 1976 until 2018, I wrote for two newsletters. Note that word. Newsletter readers pay the writer. Newsletters have no advertising. Ms. magazine hated cigarettes, but they had to get along to go along with tobacco companies in their early years because Virginia Slims was a big advertiser. By writing a newsletter, I avoiding advertising and advertisers. I often clashed with real estate editors at newspapers, but not with magazines because papers had a real estate classified section but magazines did not. My readers actually wanted the truth; they did not just pay lip service to wanting the truth as most of the adult world does. Same applies to book authors which I also was stating in the 1977 and still am.
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So a news organization that wanted to be scrupulously honest would have to be paid for by subscribers, not advertisers. You probably also have to be small and stay that way. The double-amputee limitation. The world will let an honest man make a living, but not a big one. There are exceptions. J.K Rowling seems to be honest and has become a billionaire from Harry Potter. But the list of the 20 richest people on earth is all owners of very large companies. I am especially skeptical about publicly-traded companies’ executives. Two on the top twenty list are the Koch brothers. That is a private company. They could be honest. Hating them for their conservative views does not mean they are dishonest.
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The adult world is about 99% dishonest. The honest 1% are sole proprietor merchants in some honest industries and professional in some industries, like a one-person law firm who does general family law, book authors. Stay away from government not only as your employer but as people you have to deal with daily. If you are a one-person law firm who is trying to get money out of the government daily, I would be suspicious of your integrity.
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Then there are the lawsuits. If you are an honest one-man shop, you will get no pressure from your boss to be dishonest because your boss is you. However, you have to interface with the world. I have been threatened with a number of lawsuits and sued on occasion. I also occasionally get death threats. You cannot be honest without making the dishonest look bad, without making the dishonest lose some sales. Some of them will come after you for doing that. 
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Can you dance around and be honest and avoid angering them? No. Here is a Web article I wrote about why I criticize others in my work: https://johntreed.com/…/70496451-why-john-t-reed-created-an…
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You will have to fight those lawsuits.
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You will also have to pick your battles. That is a common excuse for selling out in large organizations. I am not talking about selling out. I am just taking about truth being hard to pin down is some areas. Stay out of those areas.
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Regular readers of this Wall know I am loathe to get into discussions that use vague terms. That is because you cannot stick to statements “which no one can deny.” People want truth about everything, or so they claim, but you cannot give it to them about everything because some questions are impossible to answer at this time.
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So it is possible to create a scrupulously honest news organization? Yes. But it must be small, maybe one person. It will not make much money. It will have to walk a careful path through a sort of minefield. It will have to not take on more than it can chew and there will be a whole lot it cannot chew. Mindful of lawsuits, you have to constantly keep in mind how you will prove each thing you say in court. It is not enough to be “right” in court. You must also have admissible evidence to prove it. If you cannot get it, you must leave it to others to tell the truth about that particular subject.
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Am I volunteering to do this if someone will fund me? No. Why do I need that? I stopped my newsletter in January 2018. I have fiddled with doing a podcast but have not done it. I will not commit to doing anything on deadline. If I do it, I will do it when I feel like it. I do not need funds. My wife and I have enough to generally do what we want and help our family.
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Truth, justice, and the American way—the old intro to the Superman TV series is possible. It exists here and there. But the rule is lying, not truth. To run an honest operation, you have to be small and selective and strict about employees and pick the field you enter carefully.
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There used to be a guy who had a company that put out oil well fires: Red Adair. John Wayne starred in a movie called Hellfighters that was about Adair. That struck me as an honest company. When you needed him, you needed him. And you cannot lie about whether you have a fire or whether it is out. He could have been an honest man. I do not know if he was.

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