When I first became interested in journalism in the late 1960s and then decided to pursue it as a career, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were rock stars in a profession that drew in scores of people just like me. We were young, naive, noble, idealistic, well intentioned and passionate. We wanted to change the world or make history – as Woodward and Bernstein surely did.
In deciding on this commitment, we placed a relentless pursuit of the truth ahead of earning a comfortable living. Many of my college classmates later went into public relations or marketing when they grew tired of living on ramen noodles and shopping for clothes at Goodwill.
But not me – I toughed it out, and after five seemingly endless salad years in the newspaper business, patience bore the sweetest possible fruit. I “followed the money,” as Woodward and Bernstein did in their groundbreaking Watergate reporting, and discovered I could actually make a decent living in trade journalism. Translation: writing for a sophisticated audience whose education went far beyond the fifth grade level that general assignment reporters are expected to infuse in their storytelling.
In making this transition, I learned the ropes on writing for business people rather than consumers of news in the general populace. That meant emphasizing solutions and not belaboring problems. But one thing never changed, which was to present a balanced view wherever possible.
Much has changed since I became a journalist. Members of the media are no longer viewed in a positive light, and in fact, we’re seen as no better than used car salesman, telemarketers or other smarmy folks. The public eventually turned on the profession and lost its trust in us. News outlets were accused of false or biased reporting, not covering important stories or reacting to events rather than being proactive or muckraking enough.
Given this trend, a growing number of the sources I interview routinely ask to review the accuracy of my reporting prior to publication so that they’re not misquoted. Some of my editors confirm the same request being made to other freelancers like me or staff writers.
While I totally understand and appreciate why such criticism is so intense and agree that the profession must do a much better job to restore public trust in the so-called Fourth Estate of democracy, I take issue with the way President Trump and his foot soldiers are portraying us. They have gone way off the deep end in making hysterical and incendiary generalizations – demonizing the entire news-gathering field.
At least Trump recently walked back some of the vitriolic remarks from those in his inner circle by pointing out that not all journalists are doing a lousy job. He even praised members of the media for showing restraint on reporting unconfirmed allegations about his behavior in Russian hotels during business trips.
But his administration’s new war on the media is disturbing on a number of levels. Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon recently made several blanket statements about news organizations that I found overly emotional, hyperbolic and offensive. In a rare interview with the New York Times, the former head of Breitbart News described journalists as “among the most dishonest people on earth” and possessing “zero integrity, zero intelligence, and no hard work.” He went on to describe the media, and not democrats, as “the opposition party,” and even suggested the profession “keep its mouth shut.”
His remarks are not only unfair, but nonsensical in a society that prides itself on having a free press. It’s the job of journalists to question authority, and while many conservatives rightfully gripe that media members with a liberal bias didn’t do nearly enough of that when a democrat ran the White House, now that the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak, they need to respect our mission as well as freedom of expression.
Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica, perhaps said it best when he recently wrote that journalists “are part of an essential function in any democracy.”
Now more than ever, the media needs to be even more aggressive, yet also painstakingly accurate, in its reporting for a few reasons. In pledging to drain the proverbial swamp of ineffective or corrupt Washington, D.C., insiders, bureaucrats and lobbyists, the newest occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. must show a willingness to accept the personal scrutiny that goes along with his new job title.
We’ve never had a president or pack of nominees for key cabinet posts who have collectively shown such an alarmingly high level of potential conflicts of interest where business and politics intersect. It’s only natural and logical that these connections be reported on and investigated. That’s a healthy thing.
I actually admire the fact that Donald Trump disrupted politics as usual and pledged to make government more efficient. The system most definitely needs to be fixed, but we also need the return of a bipartisan spirit that places love of country ahead of ideology. That could very well be why I've been a registered independent voter for as long as I can remember.
My readers, largely comprised of HR executives and consultants, certainly appreciated these campaign promises and are hopeful that his administration will roll back regulations that have hamstrung businesses and triggered unintended consequences. Four years from now, we all might be pleasantly surprised if he’s able to produce some positive results.
But until we reach that point, I hope the Trump administration takes a deep breath before deepening any bitterness toward the media and realize that not all journalists are out to bring down the White House or Republican establishment. Some of us are even brave and have died over a commitment to reporting the truth. There have been 1,228 journalists killed since 1992, while a 2016 prison census shows 259 journalists jailed worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In hostile parts of the world like Iran or North Korea, government officials would just as soon chop off the hands of journalists or execute them without a trial in the face of any criticism. In the U.S., where a free press flourishes – warts and all – the worst we can expect is a tongue lashing or losing our job over an egregious mistake. The new leadership in Washington, D.C., needs to be reminded of these facts and place its view of the press in perspective before fueling a senseless war on free speech. I think they have more important things to do – like create more jobs, weed out terrorism, improve our infrastructure and education, and, dare I say, make American great again!