Littwin: A column I never should have had to write

Mike Littwin in 1980 as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times

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.

 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Your recounting of your comments to your editor regarding Twitter and its expected six-month lifespan brings to mind comments my mother made back in 1964: “The Beatles! Pah. in six months nobody will know who they are.” Mothers can be wrong, too. You’re in good company.

  2. Thank you Mike for your insight and heart felt and heart lived honesty. We are indeed at a crisis regarding the free press. My good friend Henry Lowenstein warned of such things as a survivor of the holocaust and a kinder-transport child. His words constantly ring in my ears to – not let a dictator assume power in the United States. He truly saw it coming years ago.

  3. Mike,
    I too was in Journalism for many years (way before what is called journalism today) and watched it change and not for the better.
    Honest journalists and journalism are not enemies of the people. Honest journalists report the facts, don’t take sides, don’t put spin of any kind on the article, don’t unload their personal opinions in the factually based news article. Once spin, bias and opinion (what passes for serious journalism these days) enter the picture, it belongs in the opinion side of things as opposed to factual based news.
    The problem is and has been that journalists (I have had current ones tell me this) are not “recognized” (publicity etc) for writing or telling a fact based article that has no opinion/spin/bias/political bias in it. Likewise they don’t get attention unless they spin the article, to some political side, and or put in some notably bias feelings, If Journalist X threw out some article claiming Trump was no good because …. he would likely get 100s of thousands of hits/mentions/shares. If Journalist X puts out a factual based article, which shows just the facts only, likely he or she will get few hits, few shares and few mentions.

    Media at the local level tends to be more pure to true journalism. Once true journalism hits the national level these days, much of it seems to turn into hustling/promoting some political agenda that is at work at the national level, i.e. hate Trump.
    I have to agree with these comments:
    “The job of a true journalist is not to be sad or happy by what happens in a press briefing room. It is to ask questions and report facts about what was said/not said. Your feelings, antics, + self promotion are hurting journalism, not helping it.”
    and this one
    “Unbiased, honest, responsible journalism is a bulwark of free society. Vain, narcissistic, biased blather is not journalism. ”

    It seems like many people tend to like and enjoy the “Vain, narcissistic, biased blather” which is not journalism, but one giant oped piece.

  4. I have been reading you for a while…and your experience and knowledge shows…I thank you for being a journalist of the first degree…

  5. Those on the right who are clearly suffering Dunning-Kruger syndrome have a fundamental need to view facts as hostile entities. You and the rest of the brave journalists trying to bring some much needed knowledge to the national dialogue are, in their minds, enablers of said “hostility” into their carefully crafted fantasy world.

    Unfortunately, until the fever breaks and the alternative reality bubble bursts, you’re going to continue to be the enemy of rubes who aren’t swift enough to know they’ve been conned (or whose egos won’t let them admit as much).

    Best of luck. Those of us who are fans ,and who remain unaffected by the seemingly insidious creep of ignorance that has disabled so many of our countrymen, continue to applaud your efforts in spite of the danger.

  6. Perhaps the biggest change is that so many journalists find themselves working on behalf of “some people.”

    As I was beginning to understand the world and the place of news in it, there were two community newspapers and three commercial television stations. Everyone I knew got “the news” from a very limited set of options and looking back, the differences between them was scant. Even those presenting editorials and personal opinion comments assumed they were speaking to the whole community. Even if there was disagreement over a political party or candidate in a particular report or column, there seemed to be a recognition that “next time” could be different.

    With the decline of newspapers and general circulation magazines and the rise of multiple sources equally accessible through our devices, “community” sources have dissipated. I browse widely, but cannot recall ever watching more than an isolated story from Fox nationally or locally. The only Sinclair material I remember was the network “must run” statement repeated verbatim by local anchors. I read a great deal of the Washington Post, and virtually none of Washington Times or Washington Examiner. I am much more likely to peruse Westword than the Glendale Chronicle.

    Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted is a fine ambition. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there is a common definition of who among us is comfortable or afflicted. Going after “the catastrophe” means little to those who separate themselves by who they consider to be catastrophic. Until there is some broader sense of community, of recognizing “We the People” as a coherent whole, of having some common value shared by all or nearly all, the complaint of “fake news” will continue to resonate.

  7. Elections have consequences

    “Hiding news that doesn’t fit an ideological or a partisan agenda is perhaps the worst form of media bias. And it’s one more reason the public holds the press is such low esteem.” – Investor’s Business Daily

    “(Mr. Trump) won’t be president. He was sliding in the polls before the video, and the video now means that he has no way to climb back. Which independent voter, which suburban woman, which Main Street Republican on the fence is going to vote for Trump now?” – Mike Littwin

    Magical thinking: The belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world. It is common in very young children. – Radiotherapy

    President Trump 306 Electoral votes
    Hillary Clinton 232

    #droptheMike

    }{

    Poor, Mr. Littwin!

    Not only is the President of the United States a man Mr. Littwin predicted “won’t be president” but on his way to the White House he defeated Hillary Clinton despite being portrayed by Mr. Littwin as “a demagogue, a xenophobe, a misogynist, a bigot, a sexist, an authoritarian, a boor, a crypto-fascist and the least-prepared person ever to be nominated by a major party.”

    Mr. Littwin has yet to explain how that could possibly have happened.

    And if all that wasn’t bad enough, now President Trump has said “FAKE NEWS press is the opposition party”. That has made Mr. Littwin mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. He feels like journalism’s Rodney Dangerfield because journalists aren’t getting the respect (or, as Al Sharpton would spell it, r-e-s-p-i-c-t) they deserve when in reality—-something Mr. Littwin long ago abandoned—-journalists get more respect than they earn.

    Applying the same political acumen that predicted defeat for Donald Trump, Mr. Littwin believes the problem isn’t fake news the problem is when reporters make mistakes are those mistakes “intentionally wrong”. But that’s a red herring, the real problem is reporter’s refusal to admit their biases.

    Investor’s Business Daily said it best, “Hiding news that doesn’t fit an ideological or a partisan agenda is perhaps the worst form of media bias. And it’s one more reason the public holds the press is such low esteem.”

    Mr. Littwin writes an opinion column and intentionally ignores anything that contradicts his narrative du jour. Case in point: Laquan McDonald whose death Mr. Littwin couldn’t spin so he ignored it completely.

    Here’s a quote from the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin explaining how anti-Trump “journalists” rationalize their anti-Trump “journalism”:

    “After President Trump was elected “New York Times media columnist James Rutenberg began with a question:

    “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

    Under the Times’ traditional standards, the right answer is that you wouldn’t be allowed to cover any candidate you were so biased against. But that’s not the answer Rutenberg gave. Instead, quoting an editor who called Hillary Clinton “normal” and Trump “abnormal,” Rutenberg suggested “normal standards” didn’t apply. He admitted that “balance has been on vacation” since Trump began to campaign and ended by declaring that it is “journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.”

    I wrote then that the article was a failed attempt to justify the lopsided anti-Trump coverage in the Times and other news organizations. It was indeed that — and more, for it also served as a dog whistle for anti-Trump journalists, telling them it was acceptable to reveal their biases. After all, history would judge them.

    Because the Times is the liberal media’s bell cow, the floodgates were flung open to routinely call Trump a liar, a racist and a traitor. Standards of fairness were trashed as nearly every prominent news organization demonized Trump and effectively endorsed Clinton. This open partisanship was a disgraceful chapter in the history of American journalism.”

    Even the Columbia Journalism Review admits President Trump “was treated as a joke” by the press. And the CJR also said this: “The data paint a picture of a press that only came to terms with the idea that Trump would become the Republican nominee when that fate was all but sealed, and that never came to terms with the idea that Trump could actually become president. Because, we think, they didn’t take Trump seriously.

    Running underneath, through, and beyond these gaps between normal politics and Trump politics, is the Trump Conundrum: How should the press cover a showman who turns out to be deadly serious—and who refuses to play by the rules of the long-running game of presidential press politics? Alec MacGillis of ProPublica got it right when he observed, “What the press wasn’t able to do, and what it was almost not set up to do, was to get across the sheer ridiculousness or surreality of Donald Trump running for president.” What the press did do was consistently portray Trump as a non-serious candidate, all the way to his win on Election Day.”

    After 50 years as a journalist you’d think Mr. Littwin would understand more about journalism.

    November 08, 2016

    “’Cause I don’t have no use
    For what you loosely call the truth” – Tina Turner

    Flags of Valor
    Folds of Honor
    Special Operations Warriors Foundation

    Veterans Day – November 11, 2018

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