When I look at what seems to have become our national “conversation” on the press, it appears that every level of journalism has devolved into such an endless barrage of insults and calumny that I want to flee to some quiet, hidden place, safe from the very give-and-take I have treasured all my life.
We know, of course, what Donald Trump thinks, or at least what he says. He cannot get enough play out of the words “fake news.” He even dons the mantle of the infamous Vladimir Lenin, the true author of efforts to brand the press as the “enemy of the people.”
Well, all right, that’s the marquee for the unreality show now playing at your local White House. But isn’t it time we looked deeper — if we remain a serious people — and our national discussion about journalism?
As a local reporter in Chicago, then a foreign correspondent and columnist, I have some experience in journalism. Don’t ever believe that print journalists are somehow casual about their shockingly low-paid work, for there are great passions and world-shaking predications inside them.
I was taught at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and my generation of journalists lovingly absorbed the meticulous delineation of our responsibilities: The reporter had a special responsibility to stand aside and craft the story as objectively as humanly possible; the foreign correspondent could write more fulsomely and romantically, having historical space; the columnist and editorial writer had the authority to give opinion.
It may sound simplistic, but it was not simple in any way. The achievements of my paper, the famous Chicago Daily News, and the hundreds of other great papers in this country, were made possible by layers of editors, by checks and balances and, most important, by gatekeepers at every level, devoted to keeping things straight.
And then came today. For many Americans, the press is not composed of newspapers and print journals but of cable television news that they devour like Cleopatra did Mark Antony’s caresses, and therein lies the problem. Most of the safeguards, the checks and balances and gatekeeping have broken down in the cable news realm, be it FOX News, CNN or MSNBC.
Please take note, fellow Americans: This is not good journalism. Note, too, that virtually all actual reporting is still done by the remaining newspapers and then purloined by TV for profit.
Not that we do not have our problems. Famous Watergate journalist Bob Woodward wisely warned recently: “A number of reporters have at times become emotionally unhinged” about the Trump reign.
There is also a kind of free-floating arrogance among many younger reporters. That started with Watergate, too. I remember so many young journalists at the time savoring the idea of “killing our king.” Vanity. Ego. Deadly.
Undermining the craft of journalism is the indisputable fact that newspapers — often the only places where true journalistic principles still exist — have been failing for years. (In 1990, daily and weekly newspaper publishers employed roughly 455,000 men and women; by 2016, that number was 173,000.)
But I am happy to say there are incipient signs of a turnaround. Semi-private groups such as the Pulitzer Center have stepped in to foster foreign news coverage. Another inspiring event is the purchase of the ailing Los Angeles Times by a brilliant Chinese-American billionaire doctor, Patrick Soon-Shiong, who promises convincingly to return the paper to its previous greatness.
And this week The Boston Globe’s editorial board called for a rally of editorial boards across the country against the ridiculous “enemy of the people” slander.
What we are seeing is the problem we’re seeing all cross our beloved land, only writ larger and more discernibly in the press: The founding principles of our great institutions are withering and fading. Are they still there, waiting? Are we capable of reviving them?
In the end, the future of journalism in America is going to depend on the commitment of individual reporters, editors and columnists to fight for their honor and their integrity with the strength of giants. But it will also depend upon millions of Americans, who either have to start reading, and paying for and appreciating, real news as reported by newspapers — or just lean back and be had.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.
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