Over the past several months, I’ve watched, read and heard much about the potential Armageddon facing the profession of journalism.
I’ve watched colleagues proclaim that “fake news” attacks by President Trump, crowd chants of “enemies” and the expulsion of CNN’s Jim Acosta from the White House press room pose the greatest threats to news reporting in history.
I respectfully disagree.
To be fair, there are many dangers I recognize and many fears I see as justified.
Forty-five members of the news media have died in the line of dutythis year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The death of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi government seeking to silence his voice is as horrific as it is unconscionable. The mail bombs sent to media outlets also are reprehensible and chilling.
But journalism, sadly, has laid to rest many a brave reporter, here and on foreign soil, and it managed to keep a neutral light of disclosure burning bright in far more difficult times than today.
We journalists have more freedom, more reach, and more ability to inform today than ever before. But with those advantages comes an even greater responsibility to the public, one I fear is being denigrated by journalists who substitute opinion for facts and emotion for dispassion.
Beyond the killings, the threats, and the vitriol, what most threatens journalism today is the behavior of its own practitioners.
We have become too full of our own opinions, too enthralled with our own celebrity, too emotionally offended by warranted and unwarranted criticism, and too astray from the neutral, factual voice our teachers in journalism school insisted we practice.
It was that neutral voice that compelled Americans to welcome television newscasters Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings into their living rooms each night. It was that commitment to factual reporting without slant that made the morning and evening newspapers mandatory reading.
And it was that relentless but emotionally detached commitment to truth, context and fairness — even when enemies sought to discredit us — that exposed such wrongs as Watergate, the Tuskegee experiments and the deplorable treatments at Walter Reed Hospital.
The traits that have made journalism great and respected and impactful for most of the past century are sorely lacking in many of today’s practitioners.
Instead of facts, many journalists today trade in supposition and opinion. Instead of dispassionate neutral coverage, many have offered emotional rants that border on disrespect. Instead of covering all sides of the story, entire news organizations have chosen to pick one side over another.
And Donald Trump’s broadsides have only forced reporters to hunker down even more with these harmful practices.
This self-destructive behavior was on full display this week as professional journalists strayed far from their neutral voice in reporting on — and simultaneously condemning — Trump’s statement on why he chose to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia despite its role in murdering the journalist Khashoggi.
Fox News anchor Shepard Smith declared:
“President Trump stands with Saudi Arabia. Today the president insulted the murder victim and sided with the Saudis, who said our CIA is wrong.”
On CNN, anchor Brianna Keilar suggested there was little difference in Trump’s annual rite of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey and his treatment of Saudi Arabia.
“And there you have it — President Trump pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, the annual tradition. Peas is the name of this turkey,” Keilar said on “CNN Newsroom.”
“And just the most unusual dichotomy here, as this comes on the heels of a statement that the president has put out essentially pardoning Saudi Arabia and the crown prince and the king there, despite what his intel community is expected to put out in a report today that Saudi Arabia is behind, that these leaders of Saudi Arabia are behind the killing of a Washington Post journalist,” she added.
Such rhetorical flair may make the journalist emotionally satisfied for a moment. But the injection of opinion and insinuation and condemnation disserves the public for a far longer time, depriving viewers and readers of a neutral set of facts upon which to make their own decisions and opinions.
With rare exception, the wise elders of the profession have not spoken up forcefully enough to denounce this creeping cancer of POV journalism, nor stem the demise of the profession’s core values of fairness, accuracy, precision and neutrality. In fact, some are gleefully cheering on some of the bad-boy behaviors.
Bob Woodward, my former colleague at The Washington Post, is one of the rare voices of consternation. He quickly recognized that President Trump’s double-down battle with the media risked evoking emotional responses from a profession that requires neutrality under fire.
His wise assessment of the Acosta dispute hearkened to the golden values of the journalism era just past.
If you are angry as a journalist, he suggested, don’t sue, opinionate or denigrate. Instead, strap on a camera or a notebook and break some meaningful news that illuminates what is wrong without tainting it with the soapbox.
I can put it another way, in the words of my first real mentor in journalism, George Reedy. He used to say, “You don’t use a bullhorn filled with opinion and emotion when a flashlight’s illumination of facts will do.”
Show dignity and neutrality as a journalist in the face of adversity, and ditch the swagger and attitude, he preached.
My old Irish aunt once admonished me in a slightly different, but equally effective, way. She used to say, “If you want to have people listen to your opinion, become a politician. Otherwise, just stick to some damn facts, Mr. Reporter.”