I’m always a little embarrassed when called on to defend my job as a journalist. It’s not because I’m ashamed of it — just the opposite — but because I didn’t get into journalism to save democracy. In fact, it feels a little self-righteous to suggest that I’m in the business of saving anything.
I’ve been in journalism for more than 50 years. And the reason I began — and the reason I’ve stayed — is that I love the job. I couldn’t imagine doing another one. As one discredited sage said on another subject, it’s the most fun you can have without smiling.
And so when I add my voice to the editorials across America decrying the idea that the press is the enemy of the people and noting the danger in having a president who thinks in such Stalinist terms, what I want to say is that Trump’s anti-press assault is an act and that those who are taken in by it are the real victims here.
As Pete Hamill, the great columnist, once explained about why reporters do what they do: “The best newspapermen I know are those most thrilled by the daily pump of city room excitements; they long fondly for a ‘good murder;’ they pray that assassinations, wars, catastrophes break on their editions.”
Hamill said this before there were many newspaperwoman. And now we all go by journalist, which, back in the day, was seen as pretentious. But the point is right. It may not be something to always be proud of, but I’ve rushed off from my desk to cover wars and riots and too many catastrophes to name. If you’re a reader, I don’t have to tell you the latest catastrophe on my list.
Like many reporters, and especially columnists, I get routinely slammed for some things I write. I also get overly praised at times for what I write. This is part of the job, although the criticism becomes critical when it extends to a madman walking into a newsroom and killing five journalists in Annapolis, one of the dead a longtime friend.
This is different. We live in hyper-partisan times in which “enemies” are everywhere, and when Trump says the FAKE NEWS press is the opposition party, it’s just to put one more enemy out there to skewer. As the Trump v. Media war rages in Washington, local papers are struggling and many are losing. Here in Colorado, a hedge fund is busily decimating the Denver Post, and meanwhile other outlets, like The Indy, are trying to make sure those in our town get heard.
Yes, the world changes. The Internet has vastly expanded the ability for voices to be heard. This is a great thing, and, as many great things, also dangerous. After all, the First Amendment is the greatest amendment of all, but also the one used by those who would harm us with demagogic lies.
Trump is basically the first president of the Twitter age but will not be the last. Here’s what I said about Twitter when it came out, and my editor at the time, John Temple, was hot for reporters to start tweeting: I told him this would be a six-month fad, which would soon be forgotten.
Reporters are often wrong. The vital question is whether you believe reporters are intentionally wrong, conspiratorially wrong, which is what Trump wants you to believe.
I saw a pretty good tweet from S.E. Cupp, the conservative columnist and TV pundit: “The press is not the enemy of the people. The press is the enemy of the powerful, unaccountable and corrupt. The unjust, unethical, and dishonest. The bully, the blowhard. The cover up, run around and false pretense. Let’s be clear: that’s made the press the enemy of one person.”
She’s right about the bullies and the blowhards and the unjust and the dishonest. And she knows, as I do, and as my friend Dave Kindred, the great sports columnist, likes to say: I’m thankful for the opportunity to try to write better than I can.
He could have said the same about reporting – about trying to do it even better than you can. Failing is, sadly, an option. Not correcting your failures is not. I used to have an editor at the L.A. Times who would begin his shift saying that that this would finally be the day we were going to put out the perfect paper. And the next day, he’d come in to say this is the day we try all over again.
I’ll tell you a little story – a true one — about the most famous quote in newspapers, one that every journalist learns by heart, even those of us who never took a journalism class. (Confession: I’m an English major.)
The quote goes this way: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
The quote was written by Finley Peter Dunne in the late 19th century for the Chicago Evening Post. He was a columnist and humorist who often quoted a fictional Irish bartender by name of Mr. Dooley. And the original piece of wisdom from Mr. Dooley went this way:
“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”
You see, the mistrust of institutions is not a new story. And what I love about newsrooms is that most of us don’t take ourselves too seriously but take the responsibility of the job we’re so lucky to have with all the seriousness possible.
If you’d understand just that much, you’d know why this column — and all those high-minded editorials about the phony issue of fake news — should never have had to be written.