The people’s right to know… what?

In this case, we give you this WaPo discussion of cheating in school... not just any school, but at (my alma mater) Columbia University’s School of Journalism. And not just any course, but the course on journalistic ethics! (Irony alert, as there is a reference to a similar event, and to Columbia’s J-School, though not to cheating at Columbia or to this event, in my recent interview with Michael Berube.)
Some students have very wisely pointed out that they have learned more about journalistic ethics from this event, its aftermath, and its publicity, than from the course itself.
That seems right. Here’s the thing: there are various degrees of ethics. As a lawyer, I am taught the bright lines, beyond which, if caught, I will likely be disbarred (and frequently, prosecuted.) We aspire to do better than that: to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. We are, after all, supposed to be members of “a profession”, even if that is all too often in name only.
And the same could doubtless be said of journalists (though there is no bar or professional licensing category that they can be thrown out of, abusing journalists can at least lose their jobs and reputations.) Cheating on your ethics exam (!) obviously violates the bright line.
But what about sucking up to your corporate masters so that you will get the White House beat, as opposed to covering Tashkent or Teheran? Or re-printing government press releases so that you will continue to get “access” (not to mention cocktail party invitations), instead of actually “reporting”? Or worst of all (IMHO), pretending that simply because there is a denial of an obvious fact by the government (or by “one side”) that somehow “balance” requires disseminating that denial as if it were (1) news, or (2) in any way valuable, or even (3) TRUE? In other words… why has the Colbert-like joke of “it’s widely reported, therefore it’s fact-esque“, or “truthiness”… that balance requires printing “both sides” even when one side is transparently a politically motivated lie, become somehow a good in its own right? Because, you know, it isn’t. It is a “bad”. But you know where I’m going.
The thing is, even as more and more crackpot blogs proliferate (like this one!), the fact remains, most people get their media and information from a handful of sources (mostly t.v., a lot of radio, some from newspapers, though this is declining)… journalism is still of critical importance, and the press is a critical institution to protect our liberty… maybe more so than ever, given how willingly Congress and even the courts were to fall down on the job. In such an envirotnment, that even journalism’s trainees seem to be… compromised… is… troubling.