My father, a journalist, died a few days ago. He taught me that journalism is not just a job but a calling, a high form of public service. I did my best, and still do, to live up to that commitment. This essay is for him, and all my friends and colleagues in journalism who serve the public far more than they get credit for.
I am 19. I like to write, and I want to be a reporter. I religiously watch The Most Trusted Man in America, Walter Cronkite, on the CBS Evening News, and dream of having such a job. But the way he signs off his newscast…”And That’s The Way It Is, April 23.…” annoys me. What arrogance! Who does Cronkite think he is, declaring that the news he’s presented is THE way, the ONLY WAY, it is?
I get a summer job running the Newark, New Jersey bureau of the wire service United Press International on weekends. I’m the only one there and my job when I get in is to check with area police departments to see if anything newsworthy happened overnight. One Saturday I learn that a kid in a nearby park threw a baseball at a low flying helicopter and forced it to make an emergency landing. No one was hurt. No big deal. Except it turns out the pilot had flown three tours in Vietnam without ever having been shot down, and this kid brought him down with a baseball. Now it’s a great story.
I write it up and send it into UPI headquarters, and forget about it. A few weeks later the UPI internal magazine comes in, featuring clippings of UPI stories from the newspapers around the world in which they ran. My feature on the kid that downed the helicopter is on the front page, and the clipping is from the front page of the London Times! With MY BYLINE on it! I call my dad (who got me the job in the first place), copy desk editor at The Trenton Times, and we both beam with pride.
That night I watch the CBS Evening News and Walter signs off with “And That’s The Way It Is…” and suddenly it seems to have a whole different meaning. It is The Way It Is for me, because I know nothing else. I can still think whatever I want about what the newscast has told me, but how they have framed the news...which stories came first and which ones came later...which facts led each story and which ones were buried...the language used, the tone of voice...they all surely shaped how I think. What about the facts that were left out...the quotes left out from the interviews they did, or the experts not interviewed in the first place…or the stories they didn’t cover at all...? I know nothing about those. The only thing I know about the world, beyond my own personal experience, is what CBS News has just told me.
And the only thing those people in England knew about the New Jersey kid who “shot” down a helicopter being flown by a decorated Vietnam pilot, is what I told them! It all becomes clear to me as a budding journalist. The news media do determine what people know about the way it is. What a cool job! What an opportunity! What a responsibility! It’s like my father has always said. Being a journalist is a calling, an important public service, a chance to be of value and make a difference in the world by informing people about the wider world.
It is suddenly obvious that being right, being fair, being thorough and clear and doing my best to be objective and set my own biases aside…those truisms of Journalism 101 are there for a reason. Along with the opportunity to serve comes the profound responsibility of serving honestly and well. I didn’t get that last part from Walter Cronkite. I got that part from my Dad.
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These are dangerous days for journalism. Old forms are being replaced by an anything-goes Wild West of new media blurring the very idea of what ‘journalism’ means. Anybody who wants to can purport to be a journalist, and many of the people and organizations telling us The Way It Is have no problem with blatant bias, vapid shallowness, egregious inaccuracy, or excessive “He Who Screams Loudest Wins” alarmism. Even among higher quality “mainstream” news sources, the fracturing of the marketplace by the new media has produced a pandering-for-profit-journalism that all but abandons the high responsibility of true journalists to inform people about what they need to know, in pursuit of luring them in as customers by giving them only what they want to know.
But people still need to know, and most people want to know, The Way It Is…not just about the latest celebrity gossip or irrelevant political spat-du-jour or bizzarro crime on some foreign country, but about the basic facts that can help us live safer, smarter, happier lives. We still need honest, decent, quality journalism. And we still get it, from many editors and reporters and producers and photographers who, despite fierce constraints and shaky job security and public mistrust, still practice the kind of journalism-as-public-service that my father practiced.
The New Jersey state senate just passed a proclamation thanking my father for the way his work as a journalist made his community better. We need not wait until they are dead to be grateful to all the other journalists who, like my father, find reward in the opportunity, and take seriously the responsibility, of making a difference to all of us by helping keep us informed - honestly and fairly and thoughtfully - about The Way It Is.