I’ve spent part of my working life as a journalist and found it to be an exciting and fascinating occupation.
You got to be where the action was, you came to know the movers and shakers as three-dimensional human beings and you could find yourself in some dicey situations, but you were seldom bored. Journalists rank along with the sleaziest of used car salesmen in the public mind and, quite often, with good reason.
Journalists get it wrong. Journalists inject themselves into their reporting.
This column is not reporting; this column is opinion. It’s what I think. Back in the day, when the reporter hat went on, my opinions left the building. My job was to communicate what I saw and heard, to check facts before I put them on the air, finding other sources to confirm what I had learned. Failing confirmation, no story. Sad to report that this kind of reporting is going out of vogue, replaced with a personality driven amalgam of fact and fancy.
I worked in radio and in that medium every minute is the deadline. Radio delivers fast. There is a fatal accident. Within minutes you can be there, you get the story, you turn on your Marti unit or phone and you are on the air. The trick is to deliver the right information, to edit as you go and only report what you know for a fact. I never forgot, in my youth, reporting the death of a noted man in a wreck. I got the name from the police, recognized who he was and went on the air. Unfortunately, his next of kin had not been informed and his son learned from my broadcast that his father was dead. That is a mistake that haunts you.
The Boston bombing brought out the worst in reporting. The cable news channels were awash in speculation and inaccuracy. The New York Post published a front page picture of two men completely unconnected with the event. CNN egregiously reported an arrest when none had been made. We were treated to reporters explaining that there were police cars on the street, but could not explain why, where they were going or what, if any, significance this had. They filled, they repeated and ran the same “B” roll over and over again.
Depending upon the ideological tilt, channels read meaning into things that had none. It’s notable that the reporting that stood out in all this was Pete Williams of NBC who repeatedly said, “That is not so, we do not know.”
Journalists walk a fine line. There is the pressure to be first, to build the reputation that, when the big things happen, it’s your spot on the dial that delivers the goods, ”First, Fast, Factual.” The most common casualty is Factual while fast is increasingly so. TV can now do the things only radio could do in terms of immediacy. Thanks to Skype and FaceTime, reportage needs nothing more than a smart phone. With Twitter, facebook etc. there are a million “reporters” and as a news consumer you have to be your own editor because what you are getting is unfiltered. Nobody has a red pencil that strikes through a Tweet with the note “ Source?”
Journalists have to master the balancing act between being an advocate and being a doormat. If you do your job you’re going to make somebody mad. If you want universal love, stay out of journalism. It takes a smidgen of backbone to write something unflattering about a local politician.
As a journalist you ask the questions that ordinary folks would ask if they had the chance and, frankly, the gall, to do so. Some years ago I asked the then-mayor of Quincy, “ How incompetent must you be to be fired by the City of Quincy?” She paused for what seemed an eternity, then answered, “ Pretty incompetent.” No, it wasn’t nice, but it was the question ordinary citizens of Quincy were asking. I once explained to a County Administrator that the relationship with the press was a cordial antagonism. It was not my job to make him look good and it was not his job to cut me out of information the public had a right to.
This past week the critics of “the media” had caused to rejoice. There were awful blunders made, some by experienced reporters who should have known better. In the end, however, our free press delivered the goods and we knew what happened in Boston. The same is true of the more mundane stories at the local level. When journalism is done right, you know Who, What, Why, When, Where and So What?