I’d had a whole pile of nice, Mainey, mystery writing topics I was trying to choose from for this blog post.
But something else has come up and those are going to have to wait. Normally, I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but things really haven’t been normal lately, have they? Anyway, this isn’t about politics, it’s about the news media, which isn’t politics, even though it may seem like it is.
I recently finished a 33-plus year journalism career. I was a third-generation newspaper editor, following in the footsteps of my dad and grandfather. I’ve come across a lot of journalists in my life. Hundreds, at least. And I can count on one hand the ones who made things up. Seriously. They stood out. They weren’t respected. I asked my dad, and he could name two journalists who made things up — or possibly did — and he had to reach way back into the 1960s or early 1970s to find them. Neither of them worked for or with him, but the newsroom talked about them. He easily remembered their names. In fact, most journalists can reel off the names of their colleagues who made things up. And we can all recall the infamous ones: Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Mike Barnicle. Getting caught making things up is total humiliation. It’s one of the biggest sins, after plagiarism, that you can commit as a journalist. Journalists who did it are remembered.
And you know why? Because journalists don’t make things up. That’s all the way from the biggies — CNN and The New York Times, for instance — right down to the local free weekly that you find in your mailbox.
It bothers me that people in power would toss off accusations about the press so easily, that they’d treat the press as though it’s under the control of government and that it’s some kind of “enemy” because it’s reporting things that those in power don’t like. But there’s been some form of that forever, though not to the degree we’ve seen it recently.
What bothers me just as much is that people buy it so easily. People who’d be insulted if any one of us went into their workplace and questioned their honesty or ethics seem to find it more than easy to believe that hard-working American journalists — all of whom had to display a certain amount of skill, work ethic and commitment to honesty and accuracy to get where they are — would so easily make things up because they don’t like the guy who is in the White House. [It’s also a little laughable that there would be a big conspiracy in the press to do it. Journalists can’t even agree where to go for a sandwich, they’re not going to all get together on making up major government misdeeds.]
Sure I’ve seen plenty of lazy journalists. Plenty of stupid ones, or those who just didn’t care enough to do the job right. It’s the same as where you work, right? But those ones don’t get very far and certainly aren’t the majority.
And as a former journalist I can say that we’re used to being unpopular. I honestly felt when I was a reporter that if the people I covered didn’t like me on some level, then I was doing my job right. I wasn’t supposed to be their friend, I was supposed to shine the light. So this isn’t babyish whining because the press is taking some hits. We’re uncomfortable if we don’t.
But understand this. I’ll say it again, because I can’t say it enough. We do not make things up. Simple as that.
The job of the press is to inform, but also to keep a watch on government, to tell you what the people you elected (or at least the ones who were elected to represent you) are doing. If no one fills that role, then the people running the government can simply do whatever they want. If they tell you that what you’re reading in the paper, or more likely hearing about on TV, is a lie, then they are in total control. That’s how dictatorships start.
I’ve heard people high in government say that the press doesn’t “represent” the people right now, and that’s why you shouldn’t trust it. Well, aside from the fact that the press isn’t some giant slithering hydra, but actual human beings just like you, single parents and people with mortgages and Little League games to go to, and coffee stains on their shirts. It’s made up of people. Normal, everyday people. But, no, it doesn’t “represent the people.” The press is its own institution, not beholden to government or to anyone. It’s not under the single control of any one force except truth and information. The free press is exactly that. It’s obligation to the people is to inform and be a watchdog, and if it represents the people, that’s how it does it: by being a check on government, corporations, institutions and anything or anyone else that may only operate the way it’s supposed to if someone is watching.
Does this sound pedantic and condescending? Sorry. Actually, I’m not. We live in a time where things need to be spelled out in very stark black and white terms if they’re to be understood.
I don’t think the public realizes just how important it is to news organizations to be ethical and accurate, or are aware of the discussions that take place in newsrooms every day to make sure that happens. The things that even the youngest, least experienced cub reporter does to make sure sources and information are the real deal. When a news organization uses an anonymous source, a lot of discussion goes into why the source should not be revealed. It’s not something anyone takes lightly. That source is vetted and editors make sure that the person is credible and there’s backup to what he or she is telling the reporter. I’ve never worked at a newspaper where use of anonymous sources was taken lightly, or where we sat around and made things up and created anonymous sources to sell it to the readers.
News organizations and journalists feel a huge responsibility for what they do, and they are among the most ethical and accuracy-driven people I know. They frequently do this in the face of criticism, being lied to and being disparaged publicly. They usually suck it up and still do their jobs the best way they can.
Since I’m no longer a working journalist, I can say what many of them can’t, because they still have to stay objective in the face of insults and lies.
We Maine Crime Writers write fiction, for the most part. Several of us have journalism backgrounds and even protagonists who are journalists. I bet every single one of us who was a journalist will tell you how difficult it was in some ways to make the transition to making things up when we started to write fiction because it goes so much against our gut.
Don’t take my word for any of this, though. It’s easy to not be bamboozled, either by politicians or, if you don’t trust it, by the press. Simply seek out as many sources as you can for your information, and keep an open mind to what you’re finding out. Educate yourself. The biggest enemy of free thinking isn’t the lies you may be hearing from politicians, or the ones you perceive in the news, but the inability to think for yourself. Understand what you’re reading and what’s being said, question and analyze. Learn history, and economics and about how the world works.
Don’t believe everything you hear, even if it’s from the most powerful person in the country. As we say in the news biz, “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”
Sure it’s hard to educate yourself and be informed. It’s a lot of work. but living in a world where you let others tell you what to think is a lot harder in the long run.
And you know what? The events of the past year or so? It’s way stranger than fiction. We couldn’t make this stuff up if we tried.
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at@mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
Wow, Maureen. Thank you for this.
The press has always been here to keep BIG anything in check…I hope they never quit!!!
Maybe the younger generations need to be reminded of the role the press plays in this country.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, it’s just as dangerous to take at face value what the press is saying as it is what politicians are saying. The lines have been drawn, quite clearly, and it didn’t happen overnight. However, I do agree: Check as many sources as possible, from left, right, and center, including those you ordinarily wouldn’t give two figs for. the truth typically lies somewhere between your favorite outlet and the one you wish would dry up and blow away. Unedited videos (when you can find them) are also valuable, as sound bites and political talking points now prevail in the media.
Well said, and thank you for saying it. It’s been clear to me from the beginning of this very not-normal “situation” that it’s not the press who are making things up. I never imagined that real life would become so much like bad fiction.
Thank you, Maureen. This needs to be said, over and over.
However, I do think we find ourselves in present circumstances because over the past decades the political press allowed itself to be bamboozled into a warped understanding of “objectivity.” Fairness is not reporting two sides of a story when one is obviously false. It took a long time for some of our major media outlets to wake up to the fact that they were being played (I’m especially looking at you, NYT). I’m glad to see the current revival of good, old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism and believe that will be what saves us in the end. But the political press should not be allowed to shirk its own responsibility for leading us to this worrisome place. For too many years, it cared more about access than truth. My 2 cents.
My feelings exactly, Brenda! I am also hopeful we will work our way back to true objectivity and see small signs of it in some rather surprising places. And, as Martha says, that is a good thing! 🙂
Totally agree, Brenda. I was really frustrated before the election with the press. But not that things were being made up, but rather the pack mentality that just repeats superficialities rather than dig a little and report the hard facts. I see it all the time on the local level and used to fight against it all the time when I was in the biz and try to set the bar higher.
Much praise to today’s fact checkers. Our unsung heroes in this seemingly shameless, and often brazenly harmful world of misinformation.
I really want to say Thank You for this wonderful post. I’m 82 and My love of papers and authors started when I was very young and my mom read the paper to get as much information about my daddy fighting in the Pacific. We went to the movies to see the newsreels to see what was happening. The reporters were the very best and fearless. Who was it that broke Watergate and in the following wars posted stories and pictures, some positive some not but the truth. Even today the latest that comes to mind is Standing Rock and who told the stories and often arrested.
As the wife of a former political consultant who has a love/hate relationship with the press, I have to say I am going through a love cycle, particularly for the print press, right now. I think they are one of our few hopes at this point. I always support the print press, from the New York Times to our local papers, the Citizen when we’re in Key West and the Boothbay Register when we’re in Maine. I’m happy to pay for thorough reporting, even if I happen to consume it online.
The level of dumb in the rural areas is unbelievable and attempting to challenge people for facts to back up what they say is harder than nailing jello to a cement wall. There are days (yesterday at the dump being one of them) where I wanted to scream, but left instead.
OMG, John. I live one house down from a Trump flag. Nuff said.
and two houses over from 2 Confederate flags.
and I live in Ohio!
Where is spontaneous combustion when you need it?
Well done, Maureen. Thanks.
This was an excellent blog, well constructed, thoughtful and honest. Thank you for expressing your ideas concisely and truthfully.
Thank you for voicing these thoughts. It is a reminder we all need. There are so many things going on in our government and the world that individuals need journalists who do their best to report accurately. I personally think they do a great job – although I am careful which sources I use.
Maureen – Great post that hits home. As a scientist (marine), I’m also outraged by the disregard for evidence, data, and the like so rampant out there now.
Five years ago, I turned to mystery writing as a way to expose harassment scientists suffer at the hands of climate change doubters, including claims that researchers make up data. Now the situation is so much worse than I could have invented, as you say. Charlene
“Cold Blood, Hot Sea”, published by Torrey House Press June last summer – a Maine oceanographer investigates something even hotter than the warming sea”. “Demon Spirit, Devil Sea” out June 2017.
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