December was a milepost month for my wife and me. It was finally time for our downsizing, empty-nest move. We’d spent months shedding stuff that no longer mattered or fulfilled any needs. But some items don’t lend themselves to selling or donating quite so easily.
Rummaging through a cardboard box, I found yellowing clips of forgotten stories I had written as a young reporter. I wondered how much it mattered. Did I touch a few lives; add to some understanding; do something positive that found its way into a scrapbook from time to time? Did I do my job with honesty and integrity? I cringed a few times at the writing quality but was pleased that I appeared to get my facts right, grasp the context of my material and treat my subjects with respect. Such are the values of good journalism.
One clip chronicled my first trip to Washington. I met our Congressman, House Speaker Bob Michel, and wrote about legislation to strip-mine prime agricultural land in rural Illinois. A few years later, I followed Ronald Reagan around a Wisconsin dairy farm. There were personality profiles of colorful lawyers and stories about children who got sick while swimming in municipal pools. I covered high school football for two seasons in the Chicago suburbs and exposed the secret bigamy of a Manson-like murderer in Racine, Wis.
A few weeks later, I stumbled upon notes of talks I gave in the 1990’s on “Journalism’s Core Values” based on work by the American Society of News Editors. By then, I had become editor and a publisher of the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania.
I considered the quaint notion of “journalism values” in the context of Donald Trump.
The president’s assaults on the media have reached remarkable levels of venom, immaturity and cynical manipulation. And I say that as someone who came of age during the Richard Nixon years, though presidents ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Nixon to Bill Clinton would have found plenty of uses for Twitter, too. Some of Trump’s manipulations are obvious gamesmanship. For example, the first media call he made to announce the death of the Obamacare replacement bill went to a reporter at the allegedly deplorable Washington Post. This president who whines about document-leakers and anonymous sources praised WikiLeaks during the campaign. New York journalists knew him for years as a frequent source on everything from real estate deals to his sex life.
Still, The Donald has given the news media and all Americans a gift in his own Trump-like way. Thanks to him, more citizens than I can ever recall are paying attention to politics and government — to issues that really matter. This fresh appetite for serious news is both a huge opportunity and consequential obligation. Will the news media seize it?
There is great work that shouts to be heard, including at many “traditional” newspapers and newcomers such as Vice and The Intercept. Still, evidence of slanted, trivial and low-standard journalism is all around. There’s nothing new about pandering, but it’s easier to do than ever. There’s a reason that digital photo galleries that include attractive women are called “chicks and clicks.” There’s something even worse than pandering. We know that some alleged news sites indeed make things up for reasons of greed or to influence our political process.
By getting overheated and defensive, the mainstream media plays into the hands of those who use media sins — real and imagined — to whip up the base. It’s hard not to lash back. I recently said to a friend, “Imagine if the President of the United States and his supporters regularly attacked not only your profession but your very integrity as a human being.”
Well, you can take the bait. Or, you can be like the many trout that kept swimming by my lure in a crystal-clear stream the last time I tried fly fishing: Ignore temptation, stay focused and keep moving forward.
So, I looked again at an old piece of paper that described the values of good journalism. Here they are:
1. Balance/Fairness/Wholeness. Journalists should be fair. They should provide context. They shouldn’t write about conflict just because it’s easy or sexy.
2. Accuracy/Authenticity. Accuracy is more complicated than you think. Great journalism isn’t just about disgorging facts, and certainly not selectively picking facts that support a predetermined thesis. It’s about using the right facts that are most relevant and in context. It’s about “tone.” (Let’s eliminate snark.) It’s also about using reliable sources and keeping anonymous sources to a minimum.
3. Leadership. Leaders stimulate discussion and help people talk “to” each other; not “at” each other. Leaders offer possible solutions to problems. Ask your local editor or news director how they’re doing at this.
4. Accessibility. Journalists should provide windows into new worlds, new ideas and fresh connections. As more citizens isolate themselves with others who share identical views, that’s more important than ever.
5. Credibility. Media outlets must take responsibility for actions and explain what they do when necessary. Trust is earned.
6. News judgment. Journalists should understand their audiences and their community. Never condescend.
Turns out this list isn’t quaint at all. Citizens are paying attention, and I don’t think it’s just to watch the train wreck of D.C. politics. We’re living through a period with potentially epic consequences. More than ever, Americans need media outlets that embrace the responsibilities implicit in the words of the First Amendment.
Donald, you’ve certainly helped people wake up.