Archive for August, 2020

The Nobility of Journalism

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

No one pursues a career in journalism to get rich. It’s one of the most underpaid and insecure professions available. When I worked as a journalist in the 90s for a chain of regional Florida newspapers my salary was $7 per hour (this after some years making $100k+ in Hollywood as a screenwriter). It was unsustainable to get ahead or start a family. Yet I loved every minute of it. I interviewed the mayor, police chief, artists and scientists, museum curators, covered the police blotter, city council meetings, did police ride-alongs, went on an alligator hunt, hosted a weekly cable news program, flew in a bi-plane, snorkeled for five-million-year-old shark teeth, and took a ‘ghost tour’ of the city of Fort Myers. It was thrilling because I was on top of everything newsworthy happening on my beat. You become addicted to researching and knowing precisely what’s going on. And pursuing the truth. That’s essentially the draw of the profession: what’s really going on?’

          You will not find a better source for the truth than a newspaper. Investigative journalism requires multiple sources to confirm a story or the facts before going to print. If the reporter gets one fact wrong or over-exaggerates one element of the story, they lose their job and their credibility. It’s that simple. Broadcast journalists usually face the same standards. NBC anchorman and journalist Brian Williams lost his job because he exaggerated the story that a helicopter he was flying in over Afghanistan was fired upon from the ground multiple times. Legendary CBS anchorman and journalist Dan Rather lost his job because he went ahead with document evidence that former Presidential candidate George W. Bush was AWOL an entire year while serving in the National Guard before that evidence was fully vetted – even though the story later proved to be true. And yet it has been clearly documented and recorded by The Washington Post that President Trump has lied to the American public more than 20,000 times since his inauguration… and he suffers no consequences.

          I cringe every time he accuses the legitimate press of being ‘fake news’ or ‘the enemy of the people’ when the reality is the opposite. It is the job of a journalist to hold people in positions of power to account for their actions or statements; to question authority. President Nixon was forced to resign after an extensive investigation by journalists for The Washington Post uncovered various crimes (Google it) for which he claimed were not crimes because ‘the President did them.’ He thought he was above the law. He wasn’t.

          My father was the County Attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland when I was a child. This was a position of great prestige and solemn responsibility to the law. And as long as we lived near Washington, D.C. he read The Washington Post every day of his life as if it were the Bible. Because his first professional love was journalism. He was the editor of the Louisiana State University weekly newspaper The Reveille while attending college. After serving in World War II and Korea he had a family of a wife and three children to support, so he used the G.I. Bill to go to night school and become a lawyer to earn enough to support us. He used to tell me, and often, that you can’t always get the job you love, but you can learn to love the job you have. I have often taken this advice to heart in my own pursuits, while taking survival jobs in my preferred occupation as screenwriter. But I always knew he was talking about his own first love that he left behind; journalism, and the idealism and pride that goes with doing it well.

          Journalists are not in it for the buck or even for the glory. Very few reporters ever get a story that justifies a possible bestseller, or even more rarely results in a Pulitzer Prize. You do it because you have an insatiable need to know the truth, and through extensive research or interviews you can uncover and reveal that truth to your readers, and have thereby made the world a better place. It sounds corny, but there’s no other way to explain it. That’s the basic thrill of this difficult and inglorious profession. And this revelation is not necessarily something negative. That truth from a subject’s own mouth may be valuable to someone reading to make their own life or situation more positive. Or it may reveal the often-hidden agenda of a subject opposite to what they are trying to project. The goal is not the ‘gotcha,’ but the ‘I get it;’ where some action or event makes greater sense to pass along to the reader for them to make their own decisions based upon the facts. If you give them the facts and straight-forward, legitimate quotes, those decisions or conclusions will be soundly-based. There’s nothing fake about it. No matter how many times he says it, Trump cannot undermine this intention in the minds of those who hunger for and can fully acknowledge the truth. It only reflects back on his own need to obfuscate or distract from something he doesn’t want you to know about his own actions, incompetence, or lack of human empathy.

          The next time you see a journalist or reporter challenge or question one of the President’s statements, remember what they came to this profession for and what they consider their calling. In most instances they are just doing their job the best way they know how, and despite the pushback, questioning, or challenges to their own motivations. They ultimately have nothing to gain BUT the truth. And for most of us, that is reward enough.

          If you want to get as closely to the facts and the truth as possible, turn off the cable TV noise, avoid social media propaganda and read a local city newspaper (online is just fine). Or The Washington Post. Or The New York Times. This isn’t an opinion.