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.