Never have the lines between good journalism, comment and fake news become so blurred...
I took a deep breath and opened the door. The meeting was well underway. The attendees swivelled around to look at me and the politician at the lectern scowled.
I nodded apologetically and tucked my tape recorder under my arm. I cursed my heels as I clopped across the wooden floor heading for a seat at the back. The politician stopped and peered over his glasses. “So the media’s here,” he sneered. “Finally. Too much to expect that they’d be on time.”
Everybody turned to look at me, heads bobbing, eyebrows knitted with collective contempt. I felt like yelling ‘You bastard. That’s so unfair. I’m late because I am the only reporter on duty tonight and have been covering a car crash that killed a child!’ Instead, I slid down in my seat, my face burning.
On the scale of humiliation, it was nothing compared to what young NBC reporter, Kay Tur must have felt being repeatedly singled out for scathing criticism by Donald Trump while reporting on his run for president. Tur tells of her ordeal in her just released book Unbelievable.
Trump called Tur a ‘third-rate reporter’ said she ‘should be fired’, that her reporting was ‘dishonest’, that she was ‘incompetent’ and that she ‘lied’. He attacked her so personally at one rally that she had to be escorted out by the Secret Service because of fears pumped-up Trump supporters might physically harm her.
Such an attack on an individual journalist is deeply disturbing and probably unprecedented in modern politics. Good on Tur for using her skills to expose the reality of being on the receiving end of such nasty, cruel and systematic bullying.
Trump’s demonising of the media, pre and post election, has been unrelenting and obsessive, a crass attempt to unite the masses against a common enemy, not so much to ‘shoot the messenger’, but mow down entire networks.
So how are we supposed to respond to this? To the veterans among us the strategy is so unsophisticated and over-the-top it’s hard to take it seriously but daily claims of ‘fake news’ and the portrayal of journalists as ‘dishonest’, ‘bad’ and ‘crooked’ must be doing some damage.
My interest is with young people and how this is landing with them. What are they to make of this increasingly complex world where a hugely influential politician demonstrates zero respect for the press, manufactures his own fake news and uses social media to insult, bait and discredit others?
In my lifetime I’ve seen the power of good journalism topple governments, expose war crimes, unmask institutional child abuse, crusade for social justice and overturn wrongful convictions. This was the work of watchdog journalists who were prepared to invest weeks and months, sometimes years, in painstaking investigations and verifying the facts.
This type of journalism is still happening - ask Harvey Weinstein - but the true craft of investigative reporting, that inspired many to enter the profession, has lost its distinct identity. It has become part of the amorphous mass media and been devalued.
As Lorraine Branham, Dean of the S.I Newhouse School of Public communications at Syracuse University recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “the terms journalism and ‘the media’ have become interchangeable and that’s part of the problem, because media includes everyone- the pollsters, the pundits, the spin doctors. They are not journalists but they help create the avalanche of information in which true journalism often gets lost.”
Branham is calling for journalism schools to differentiate the true craft of journalism from ‘the media’, revitalise the role of the watchdog journalist and teach students to pursue the truth, wherever it takes them. “In this post-truth era, we must fight to ensure that journalism lives to speak truth to power another day. Not because we think it should but because we know it must.”
Rather than being dark days for journalism, particularly in the US, this is a time for the profession to recalibrate and re-establish its founding principles. To educate a generation that may be unaware of the constitutional role of a free press and its importance to democracy.
Maybe some broader education is also needed for news consumers, to define what journalism is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. It’s not blogs, spin, comment and click-bait and it’s certainly not tweets from a partisan politician.
For outing unacceptable behaviour and standing up for common standards of decency in the treatment of others, Katy Tur has done us all a favour. I like to think my indignant 20-something self may have also made a small contribution in that draughty hall many years ago.
The meeting finished and the politician saw off the last of his devotees. He turned to me and smoothed his lapels. “So you’d like to interview me?”
“Possibly,” I said, making no attempt to reach for my tape recorder, “but first I’d like to talk to you about how you treated me when I walked in.” He looked shocked but I got a genuine apology. It was another era and, unlike Trump, this guy totally grasped that a politician without an audience is nobody.