What I learned from being called out
I WAS AT a conference when I left a message for one of the featured guests, asking whether he might have time in his schedule for an interview for the magazine article I was working on.
He turned me down in his reply note, mentioning that he had been less than happy with a recent review I’d penned of his latest project.
I remembered what I’d written: that the work was like a collection of family snaps, of passing interest but not something you’d go back to. Pretty clever, I’d thought at the time.
My would-be interviewee’s handwritten refusal of an interview—including a few exclamation points, if memory serves me right—told me bluntly that he had not appreciated what I’d had to say. He had no interest in speaking with me.
He pinned the reply to the noticeboard of the conference office for all to read. Highly embarrassed, I quickly took it down so no one else would see me being called out.
Only this week, many years later, did it occur to me as I thought back to that situation: he had done to me just what I had done to him. Caused public embarrassment. Only I’d been able to minimize the reach of his message, while he had been stuck with all those copies of the magazine out there in circulation.
At least those printed pages disappeared in due course. Nowadays everything lives on forever online, where your past hangs around like a bad smell.
That only further raises the already high bar for journalists to be accurate, true, and fair—at a time when the same technology creates an insatiable demand for immediate content that can threaten those three fundamentals.
If the digital world has created ethical/operational (and financial) challenges for journalists, its democratic culture has at least one positive, however. It has encouraged more openness and accountability from the news media, like the New York Times’ “Understanding the Times” series explaining some of its practices.
I’m not suggesting that journalists shouldn’t write things that are unpopular, whether that’s hard-hitting news or unflattering commentary—as the old saying goes, the job is about “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.”
But journalists’ work does need to be well-researched, well-checked, and well-argued. And it is important to remember that all those we write about are flesh-and-blood people, with feelings and families.
Journalism at its best is a high calling but also a serious responsibility. Not just livelihoods but lives can be at stake. Back in the 1990s, two Newsweek journalists went to interview a high-ranking member of the military about his wearing an unearned decoration for valor—a serious matter of honor in the armed forces.
They never got to speak with him, because he committed suicide before the appointment.
A Newsweek article dissecting what happened observed that, tragic as it was, the incident “shouldn’t make the press less aggressive in pursuing stories, just more thoughtful”—an admonition that is perhaps even more true today.
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