Despite our inclination to look backward to the likes of Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Woodward & Bernstein, I’m fairly certain we are in the golden age of journalism right now.
I know mine is not a popular opinion, but I remain convinced. Reporters and editorial staffs at the New York Times, Vox, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, MSNBC, Vice, and so many others are practicing their craft with a proficiency and a productivity never seen before.
And they’re doing it while being attacked on two flanks: by the hyper-charged pace of evolving technology that keeps re-inventing the norms of journalistic consumption; and by an orchestrated campaign to paint the profession’s leading practitioners as the “enemy of the people”.
Those who rebut my theory will undoubtedly point to the overwhelming amount of misinformation and bias available in print, digital, and broadcast formats. Fair point. But I’m not swayed. I’d tell you that you’re looking in the wrong place. The same day Eiud Kipchoge threatened the “unreachable” two-hour mark while setting a new World Record in the Berlin Marathon, thousands of other marathoners ambled leisurely through the streets of Germany. But those glorified joggers did not obscure the quantum leap being made at the tape. Like Kipchoge and his fellow elites, journalists at “the front of the pack” today are taking their discipline to a new level and distinguishing themselves on a daily basis while navigating an increasingly chaotic world.
They are, of course, not perfect. Philip Graham famously referred to journalism as “the first rough draft of history.” It’s a great quote; equally poetic and perceptive. It’s also a good place to start when considering reasonable performance standards to which journalists should be held. A rough draft is just that.
When I was in high school, a local news story caught my eye. It was a brief Long Island Press account of a double murder a night earlier in a Queens lover’s lane. It noted a police theory pointing to a scorned mate. That theory ultimately proved unfounded and the young couple was eventually revealed to be among the early victims of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer.
The article was not flawed. It was, in fact, a “first rough draft” — lacking both detail and perspective, but factual and properly sourced.
Moreover, it was not biased. The question of bias requires a deeper and more nuanced discussion. As long as journalism is created by human beings, it cannot be totally free of bias. That’s precisely why the profession relies so heavily upon a code of ethics and its standards and practices; the tools that protect a journalist from his or her own biases impacting the final product. Just like misinformation, bias is rampant. But that’s a reason to seek out skilled journalists, not to avoid them — a reason to look to the front of the pack, not the most crowded spot.
In fairness, I should note that institutional bias — including editorial decisions on which stories to cover, highlight, or hide — is another issue, but, for the most part, one that rests with corporate media entities and not journalists.
When we think we see bias from a responsible journalist, we may be assigning undue import to the missing elements of a first draft. But most of us are simply reacting to reporting we don’t like; reporting that looks too closely or critically at something we want to celebrate or defend. We forget that history has been impacted over and over by reporting we did not want to hear — about our military, our government, our courts, our clergy, our heroes, and our neighbors. There was a time we consumed these stories with a sense of duty. We occasionally recoiled. We asked questions when unclear, and pushed back with anger when we disagreed. We did not, however, denigrate the profession. We didn’t look at the truth and call it something else. We did not kneejerk toward a judgement of bias. We did not shout “fake news”.
We’ve long understood the vital role of journalism to our freedom and recognized many heroes dedicated to bringing truth forward. Social justice warriors like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and James Baldwin. Investigative reporters who took down the mighty. Even martyrs like Daniel Pearl, Manuel de Dios Unanue, Bill Biggart, and Marie Colvin. They were all revered as patriots and an integral part of a free society. Today, they’d more likely be vilified and labeled the enemy.
As traditional print deadlines have given way to online immediacy, there’s little doubt the rough draft has become a bit rougher and subject to more revisions. The changing face of media has threatened long-form and photojournalism with extinction. More importantly, actual journalism has become more difficult to pinpoint in a sea of “media”, “content”, “clickbait”, and various forms of “social media” and “citizen journalism”.
But pinpoint we must. A free society cannot exist without a free press. A great society cannot exist without a great press. Our Founding Fathers recognized this and so did our actual fathers. This one’s on us. Our generation owns this self-inflicted attack on our liberty. In an era where we literally carry a device capable of providing infinite information, we’ve become too lazy to seek out real journalism. It’s not hard to find the front of the pack. Look for reporting regulated by industry standards. In print, look for terms like “according to …”, “when reached for comment …”, “… confirmed by …”, “…a search of the records revealed …”, etc. Online, follow the links and the layers. Read the draft and follow the revisions. Know the difference between legitimate opinion journalism, legitimate news reporting, and unregulated content.
If you want to read about child sex rings in pizza parlors and conspiracy theories around murdered children, that’s your prerogative, but don’t confuse it with journalism and don’t use it to sully the reputations of real journalists. Our parents understood the difference between supermarket tabloid fodder and real news. It shouldn’t be too much for us to make the same distinction.
We are at a crossroads … if we’re lucky. Perhaps the battle is already lost and we will inevitably join so many other countries whose only news comes from its government and its corporate oligarchs. In a recent case involving CNN’s Jim Acosta and The White House, a public servant told the taxpayers who pay her salary that a clearly doctored video from a universally-untrusted source was the truth. She told them to ignore the obvious recorded truth and the accounts of a roomful of trusted journalists. Far too many people chose to believe her — essentially to believe the state account above the truth. This should not be a matter of conservative vs. liberal or Democrat vs. Republican. It should be what it is — fantasy vs. reality, free press vs. state propaganda.
We need journalism more than ever. I know the “front of the pack” is up to the task. Now it’s up to us.