Sunday, January 29, 2017

From all the most dishonest people

Since I spent 33 years in the newspaper business, I'm thinking that Donald Trump includes me in his complaint that members of the news media are "the most dishonest human beings on the earth." Even though I have been out of the business nine years, I take offense at the president's insult.

Throughout my career, I had one goal in mind: to provide honest, accurate reports to readers of information they needed to know to be good citizens, good neighbors and knowledgeable voters. I repeatedly emphasized this to the reporters who worked for me. In an age when a few reporters "went undercover" to ferret out scandal and corruption, I warned the reporters who worked for me that they must always be honest about what they were doing. They couldn't pretend to be a survey-taker or a municipal official to get information they wanted. I did not require that they identify themselves as reporters upon greeting someone (though that is usually the best practice), but if asked what they were doing or who they were working for, they had to reply honestly. The only reporters I recall firing during my career were fired for lying to me about what they were doing or had done.

So I have good reason to be offended by Trump's attack on a profession that I believe is honorable as well as essential for a working democracy. Long ago, the press earned the nickname "the Fourth Estate." The name came from the French, who saw the church, the nobility and the common people as the three estates with the press tagged as the fourth. Although the press and government officials have often been at odds, never in American history has a president (even Nixon) been as hostile to the press as Trump is.

Trump speaks of "the media" and other politicians refer to the "mainstream media" as a monolithic organization with centralized management and orders issued from all-powerful and secret managers. As anyone who has spent any time in journalism knows, nothing could be further from the truth. The news media (a plural word — medium is the singular) comprise many thousands of news outlets, including newspapers, TV stations, broadcast networks, cable channels, radio stations and networks, magazines, and online news reports. No single hierarchy could control all these disparate and widely dispersed organizations, and no one would want to.

Yes, the Associated Press distributes news to news outlets around the world, but so do Reuters, New York Times News Service, and others. My experience with the AP was that it was exceedingly careful about making sure the facts were right.And most larger papers rely on their own remote bureaus for national and international news.

It is true that some news sources lean to the left or to the right, but the vast majority of news organizations, from the small-town weekly newspaper to the New York Times, aims to report fairly and completely all the news that their audiences want or need. The president likes to pick fights with people who threaten his self-image, so he condemns the news media for reporting facts that differ from his "alternative facts" (facts are facts, not alternatives).

The news media have gone through a lot in the last 10 or 20 years. Advertising sales, which pay for the news coverage you receive, have fallen off the cliff. Classified advertising, once the cash cow of newspapers, has gone nearly 100% to online sites. Hundreds of thousands of news personnel (including me) have been laid off. Newsrooms are hollowed out, yet newspapers and other outlets keep trying to keep their readers informed about the important events of the day. For that, they deserve the thanks of everyone who thinks an informed public is essential to democracy.

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