The caller on the other end of the phone was adamant. “Have reporters lost their mojo?” She asked.
Before I could respond she explained all the reasons why reporters are taken advantage of by the current presidential administration, how and why reporters need to react and how she was “tired of watching you all take it all the time.”
She was also upset with reporters who “constantly tell me what to think,” and said the media are their own worst enemy.
If there is one point at which the left, the right and the center meet regarding the media then it has to be in the statement, “Don’t tell me what to think.”
The tipoff for such action can be heard in phrases from reporters on television when they say, “I think the president . . .” or “What the president means,” etc. At that point in time the reporter becomes part of the story and ceases to be a disinterested third party observer.
Walter Cronkite once said in an introduction to a book written about Washington reporters by noted author and investigator Steve Weinberg that the reporter’s job is “obtaining the basic information quickly and accurately and conveying it with a minimum of distortion.”
We are human transmission lines – conduits through which information flows and our opinions do not matter. Many an editor has told many reporters, countless times that they do not care what they think – only what they know.
Today with the expansion of news coverage, news analysis and continuous presidential tweets – along with the appearance of a scandal a minute, the appearance of news has drowned out the reality of news to the point that if they would but quit screaming, news consumers at both ends of the spectrum would find they have something in common.
Speaking before the White House Correspondents Association last week former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry spoke about the trust level of the media in today’s gilded social media age. “It isn’t very good,” he reminded reporters. “Congress is really bad, but you guys aren’t much better.”
There are a variety of reasons for this and much of it has to do with presidential and congressional actions since the time of Ronald Reagan that have served to destroy the integrity of the media. It is akin to the hunter standing over the corpse of the guard dog he killed by slow torture and screaming, “you’re not doing your job!”
It is the removal of the Fairness Doctrine, the 1996 telecommunications act, the deregulation of the industry that has allowed a mere handful of companies to own most of the means of distribution of the news that has served to kill the press – not to mention the Obama administration’s prosecution of whistle blowers and a Congress indifferent to supporting real reporting by failing to pass a national shield law to protect reporters from jail that have all combined to slowly torture and kill the guard dog.
"We're Gutless. We're Spineless"
- Dan Rather
McCurry wondered out loud how to help the media survive – after all he’s heard the cries from media owners for years about the inability to be competitive.
He, like most others, can see no way out of the woods.
President Trump says we’re the enemy of the people, but that rings hollow with anyone who’s spent any time in this profession. The trouble is we don’t defend ourselves very well – if at all – and we’d rather eat our own than come together to try and push for reform in order to pursue the public interest as we should. This inaction exists for a variety of reasons. Corporate sloth, reporters’ skittishness and of course the fear of tampering with the First Amendment by those practicing it – all combine to create overwhelming inertia when enemies of the free press strike against us.
“We’re gutless. We’re spineless,” CBS’s Dan Rather told the Boston Herald 25 years ago. “There’s no joy in saying this, but beginning in the 1980s the American press by and large somehow began to operate on the theory that the first order of business was to be popular with the person, or organization or institution that you cover.”
It isn’t a new phenomenon. “They come in as newspapermen,” wrote H.L. Mencken nearly 80 years ago. “Trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried.”
Traditionally we’ve thought of our jobs as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
"They end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets . . ."
Politicians operate from a realm of comfort. Elected to office to serve they spend time getting comfortable in their position and end up like Sen. Mitch McConnell – adept in pulling the levers of government without ever really considering the consequences outside the realm of winning or losing the game. We often do not afflict them; rather we try to grow comfortable with them. No reporter wants to be frozen out and no media company wants to have Congress or the executive branch fighting with them over regulations or mergers. Best to keep them pacified at every turn. The actions of the media, Congress and the president beg the old question, “Do the ends justify the means?”
Take for instance the current thinking of some of the members of the media who, while they do not like the pronouncements of the president, believe we should keep our heads low and persevere against the slings and arrows with a minimum of interruptions. Fearful of becoming the story, they forget they become part of the story every time they stand up on television and tell us what they think. Media critics are fond of pointing them out as a problematic source of criticism of our profession.
Lester Holt, the venerable NBC anchor is an example of a steady influence and calm hand who apparently nearly became physically ill when he saw my interaction with Sarah Sanders recently in the White House press briefing room. “Surely we can take these hits,” he said. Well we can’t and stop calling me Shirley. To be honest I’ve had a lifetime goal of disgusting everyone I know and I’ve apparently taken it to a new level by nearly making someone physically ill that I don’t even know.
Holt is a respected journalist and has earned it with a healthy career of solid reporting. But Holt and others are slow to understand the changing game we’re playing. The vitriol aimed at the press will soon escalate beyond the violence of being throttled by a congressman-elect in Montana. Somewhere in the U.S. right now is a young reporter going about his or her business who may have to pay a far higher price than merely being beaten – just because they’re doing their job. In Russia and other countries it isn’t unusual to find reporters killed. The day that happens in this country we’ve lost the high ground forever and we’ll be remembered as a nice experiment in self-governing that died in the dust of the vitriol and anger brought on by this last presidential election.
The reporter’s job is “obtaining the basic information quickly and accurately . . . "
If we have lost our mojo, then there is but one way to get it back: stand up and be accountable. We do not have to fight every fight that comes our way, but we have to selectively stand up for our rights while continuing to investigate and question a very different presidential administration than any we’ve ever encountered.
On one hand there are career bureaucrats in the executive branch of government who are doing a commendable job. As a very highly placed cabinet appointee recently told me, “I signed on for this because I truly believed we might have another Teddy Roosevelt as president. Many of our major problems exist because of the ‘swamp’ mentality. Insurance companies, banks and the media are too large. I thought we’d have a trust buster in our president – not someone who’d so quickly lose my trust.”
There are good men and women trying to do their job – and parts of the president’s message remains sound and good for the Republic – even according to the administration’s worst critics. But there are staffers suffering right now under the deluge of tweets, daily scandals and fights with the media – all of which serve to bury the president’s message and obscure whatever good he can potentially do for the country.
His fight with the media serves as a distraction from some of the failures – but it isn’t something we can afford to ignore. Our audience – if we want to keep them – would like to see us stand up for ourselves when appropriate to do so.
With that said, Sean Spicer also has a point. He is calmer and the press is also calmer when the cameras are turned off. McCurry takes responsibility for turning the cameras on and apologized to the press for that action. But you can’t go backward. The need for information – quickly and accurately can only be found in a press room and on camera.
This president has had fewer news conferences than anyone since Ronald Wilson Reagan. He is responsible to the Republic for which it stands one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all to give us an accounting of his activities on behalf of the electorate. When the president has reduced his communications with the public to a 140 character tweet several times a day the on-camera press briefing is all that remains of any accountability of this administration.
"I'm not advocating rudeness,"
That frustration is compounded by the fact that those conducting the briefing often rely on very simple statements to explain why we cannot get questions answered. “The tweet speaks for itself,” is very common as is, “I haven’t had a conversation with the president about that (whatever the issues of the day are).”
What good are these interactions with the public if we cannot even get the most basic questions answered? Did the president have a private meeting with Putin? What was discussed? Why weren’t other Americans present? Is our president engaged in espionage? Pinochle? Tiddly Winks? What?
So, Lester Holt, sorry for the indigestion I caused you – but after more than 35 years in this business I for one am not going to roll over for anyone on this issue. I don’t want to be part of the story, but I will not back away from someone telling me I’m the enemy of the people either – and we cannot back away from holding the president accountable for all of his public actions.
For the thousands of letter writers who’ve encouraged us to stand up – do not worry. We will pick our battles and we will continue. Yes, we will – on occasion – have to weather the hits. But I’m hardly unique in saying we must occasionally stand up for what is right.
Sam Donaldson was well known for his battles with several different administrations. He, Helen Thomas, and scores of others used to battle daily for access and straight answers.
“I’m not advocating rudeness,” Donaldson once said. “But I’m far more worried about those who are disinclined to ask the hard questions.”
We must push forward. We got our mojo workin’.