I was saddened to hear of the death of Glenn Himebaugh, co-founder of the journalism department at my alma mater, Middle Tennessee State University. Although I hadn’t kept in touch with him since graduation 40 years ago, I have to wonder what he thought of the current reality and public perception of the journalism field.
Sadly, trust in journalism has been underwater in surveys for at least two decades. Whether you attribute it to bias, hubris or groupthink, newspeople (reporters, editors, publishers and broadcasters) — especially on the national level — suffer innumerable self-inflicted wounds. Retractions receive perhaps one-tenth the prominence of the original error. Stealth editing of archived articles is the antithesis of accountability. Sensationalized headlines prey upon readers who don’t have the time to trudge their way to the more nuanced information buried in the 13th paragraph.
Some reporters can’t get through a news conference without the all-purpose “Some people are saying…” ploy. “Bombshell” after “bombshell” after “bombshell” fizzles out, revealing more about the wishful thinking of the reporter than the people or institutions they’re covering. One public figure gets asked, “Who do you like in the World Series?” Another gets asked, “When did you stop beating your wife?” “Ready, shoot, aim” seems to be the default reaction in the dreaded “24/7 news cycle.”
Words are tweaked for the most manipulative connotation. Favored people “state” things. The wrong people “claim” things. Race and political affiliation get mentioned only when it serves some agenda (*ahem* Higher Purpose).
The media jealously guard the secret blend of herbs and spices that determines how one gets to be an “expert,” what constitutes a “person close to the situation,” how the valued whistleblowers are separated from the disgruntled cranks, what distinguishes an “independent fact-checker,” what defines an “extremist,” when a sensitive topic gets cushioned with “context” and when it’s left to twist in the wind, etc. “Trust me” requires some minimal basis for trust.
Don’t get me started on those three exasperating words: “nothing has surfaced.” Bulletin: It’s not the job of journalists to wait for things to surface! (I picture an underworld informant going missing for three weeks, his apartment left in shambles and the police refusing to investigate it as foul play until the corpse dislodges from the cement overshoes and bobs to the surface.)
Get off your butts, do some digging, show us your expense report for shoe leather. If you ask the fox guarding the henhouse, “Did you do anything incompetent or corrupt?” and they swear they didn’t, don’t grin and assert that you’ve done your due diligence.
Remember the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”? Too many journalists have adopted the iconic line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” No, facts are facts. Legends may become more embellished or more useful for steering the public, but they do not grow more rooted in objective reality with the passage of time. Stuff happens because stuff happens, not because it’s needed for some grand, noble narrative.
I’m confident that Himebaugh and his colleagues trained many journalists who have upheld high standards of accuracy, fairness, honesty and public service. If there are such dedicated newspeople in your community, don’t hesitate to thank them. But let’s all seize every opportunity to shame the bullies who give the journalism profession a black eye.
Copyright 2023 Danny Tyree, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Tyree welcomes email responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”