ONE OF THE things that drew me to a career in journalism was its role in championing the underdog, the tilt toward “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” as it has been described. Well, that and the fact that both my parents and my grandfather had been in the newspaper business, so there was printer’s ink in my blood.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to write about things that matter to me and which I believed should matter to others. Like hunger and homelessness, addiction and abuse, the scandal of millions of abandoned children living on the world’s streets.
I have also admired the work of journalists who have risked—and in some instances given–their lives to bring uncomfortable realities to us from dark corners of society. Many of those in the news business share what poet Robert Frost once called “a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
But I’ve sensed something of a shift in recent times. Maybe it’s just that I have become more of a curmudgeon as I have grown older. Perhaps I have gotten comfortable, and what used to stir my sense of injustice now just makes me feel challenged, because I don’t want to be prodded to have to do something. So I deflect by criticizing the messenger.
That’s possible, but I don’t think so. Much of the news I read and see these days seems less to be fueled by a sense of righteousness indignation and more by an indignant self-righteousness. Rather than just providing the evidence, a lot of reporting is telling you—at least indirectly in its tone—that you are part of the problem, and what your verdict should be, too.
Journalism’s oxygen has always been a healthy skepticism. As a crusty old news editor used to tell cub reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” News baron William Randolph Hearst was even more blunt: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”
But the air of caution journalists have always breathed seems to have been poisoned by a lot of cynicism—a fundamental belief that there always has to be a negative interpretation to events. If a celebrity were to say that they liked pears, someone would want to know what they had against peaches.
It’s as though there just has to be a villain. Somebody or something must be wrong—maybe so we can feel better about being right? Journalism’s six pillars used to be who, what, where, when, how and why. Many times, these days, it seems to have become who, what, where, when, how and whine.
I’m not suggesting we ditch the news media. I believe it still plays a vital role in our society—maybe ever more so, as we become increasingly separated in our ideological and political silos. But I also believe we need to see more judgment-free journalism. Sometimes the facts should be allowed to speak for themselves.