Friday, March 12, 2010

Hell Freezes Over

A former New Jersey Assembly candidate wanted to “friend” me on Facebook. A Republican, he ran for state office twice and lost twice. Our newspaper endorsed him for office twice. I covered his candidacy and also interviewed him when he attended the Republican National Convention in Denver in 2008.
We haven’t spoken for many months. Then I checked Facebook today and saw he wanted to “friend” me.
Gobsmacked at this obvious possible breach in ethics, I reflected just how dangerous the Internet had become. It’s a stalking ground for perverts, pedophiles and criminals. Now the politicians are browsing the social network sites, looking for unsuspecting journalists to befriend.
I’ve prided my career in staying an arm’s length from any politician to avoid any misperception of bias or favoritism. On the phone, I’m always direct and business-like, talking about issues and not drifting off topic into personal subjects. If it makes me a stickler, then so be it. I’d rather be a matter-of-fact Joe Friday than everybody’s friend.
After I received the friend request from the politician, my paranoid mind kicked into overdrive. Why did he want to befriend me? Why now? Was it because I wrote a story about the county Republican Party’s disassociation from an incumbent freeholder? What was his angle?
Politicians don’t do things for altruistic or benign reasons. They’re shrewd and calculating, and always anticipate their next maneuvers. Their prime motivation is obtaining power and exploiting others’ weaknesses.
No politician, from president to local town council, likes journalists. It’s simply against natural law. It would be like a lion inviting a gazelle ‘round the house for a few drinks and light hors d’oeuvres.
The problem with social networking is that it creates a false sense of comfort and allows one to lower their guard. This poses a lot of knotty ethical concerns for journalists who want to preserve their objectivity.
Why would a politician want to friend a reporter on Facebook?
Has Hell frozen over?
This is the first time that a politician has tried befriending me on a social network site. I know reporters who have “friended” politicians who they no longer cover, which is fine for them. For me, I’d rather be safe than sorry and not compromise my integrity.
This guy might decide to run for some other office in the future. Then where would I be, with access to his Facebook information? Would he constantly e-mail me? Would he put my name on mailing lists? Privacy concerns are another reason why journalists should choose their Facebook friends wisely.
For a long time, I stared at his friend request on the screen. Is opening a Pandora’s Box of ethical questions worth upping my total friend count by one? I don’t care if he’s offended that I don’t add him as a friend. It’s not about personalities, political parties or past acquaintances.
It’s about professionalism. It’s about me, as a journalist removing all doubts that I can be thoroughly objective and uninfluenced by a thousand nattering whispers and familiar faces telling me what they want to hear.
Add technology to the mix and you get Machiavelli with a Facebook account, “friending” everyone they’ve ever met or hope to meet.
I had two options: Confirm or Ignore. Destiny branched out in front of me and I saw the consequences. Confirm the invite and join the unholy army of whores, panderers and flatterers and put my reputation for straight-shooting objectivity at risk. Ignore the invite and lose a potential source but preserve journalistic integrity.
What awesome evil hath technology wrought?
Would the barbs of insulting a politician’s ego weight heavily upon me?
What truly is a friend?
I chose Ignore.

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