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Sneer When You Say 'Journalist'

A Writer Tries to Understand How His Profession Lost Public Confidence By Michael D'Antonio

August 24, 2003|Michael D'Antonio last wrote for the magazine about the role failure plays in improving performance. He is the author of 11 nonfiction books and has contributed to this magazine for 12 years.

Like most habits, this one took hold without any conscious choice. I only realized I had been doing it--hiding my occupation--when a stranger caught me off guard. His name was Phil, and he had joined my group on a public golf course. In a quiet moment on the 17th hole we had an exchange. As I recall it:

"So Mike, what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a writer."

"Really, what kind?"

"Nonfiction. You know, journalism."

"Wow. The perks must be great."


"You know, the things that people give you--trips and stuff--so you will write what they want."

"I don't do that."

"Yeah, right."

I don't believe that Phil winked, but he didn't have to. The inference was clear: Of course I take bribes. I'm a journalist. That's what we do. For good measure he also told me that he doesn't believe much of what he gets from the press in general. It's all biased and deceptive.

Taken alone, his comments might mean little. But at the time, journalists were taking a beating. The New York Times had just fired reporter Jayson Blair for a pattern of lies and fabrications in his articles. (Eventually the paper's two top editors also would be forced out.) Weeks earlier, the Salt Lake Tribune had dismissed two reporters for secretly shoveling material on the Elizabeth Smart story to the National Enquirer, taking cash as a reward and then lying about it.

With these scandals, every Phil in America could feel justified in his low opinion of journalists. A national survey last year by the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press found that just 21% of respondents said they believe "all or most" of what they read in their local papers. In fact, the public's level of trust in journalists has been going south for 14 years, as illustrated in a sidebar to the Blair fiasco. It turns out that some of the people he betrayed never complained because they didn't expect a reporter, even one from the New York Times, to get it right in the first place. One of them, a teacher in Ohio named Carol Klingel, explained to a Los Angeles Times reporter: "You expect people are going to get misquoted, or quoted out of context."

Such comments appall my colleagues and make me embarrassed about my trade. The professionals in my circle of devoted and veteran (read middle-aged and older) editors and writers are working as diligently as ever. Yet in the span of their careers, they have gone from respected to ridiculed. They feel overmatched by forces beyond their control, like firefighters in a howling wind.

What happened?

When I took my first college newswriting course, in the fall of 1973, remarkable reporting on Vietnam, the civil rights struggle and Watergate had confirmed the aggressive role the press could play in uncovering truth, and cutting through partisan propaganda. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who led the Watergate coverage for the Washington Post, gained a level of recognition rarely seen for reporters. Journalism became a calling for young idealists, which explains why the class taught by professor Donald Murray at the University of New Hampshire was filled to overflowing.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Murray had been at Time magazine and published several books before turning to academia. He also was a consultant for several big East Coast papers and the author of a series of texts on writing, reporting and editing. At 48, he seemed to me a great eminence grise.

Murray taught that serious journalism is not so much a talent as it is a craft, like carpentry. Of course, some carpenters make fine cabinets and others rough out the frames of houses. But all of it can be respectable work. The hard part is adhering to the trade's values, which apply in every setting. For journalists the most central of these values are fairness, honesty and independence. Bias is impossible to eliminate, but you can police it and compensate for it. And there is no substitute for skepticism. True believers have faith that provides answers. Journalists ask questions and challenge assumptions.

The only problem with journalism by the Murray rules is that it takes a great deal of hard work, and the results are not always scintillating. Balanced stories rarely get the blood boiling. But what good reporting lacks in sizzle is made up for in authenticity. Deep down we all know that reality is muddy. This is why a little alarm goes off in our heads when a piece blazes with drama from beginning to end. We just know it is out of balance.

A case in point was Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke's infamous series, "Jimmy's World," which was about an 8-year-old heroin addict. I was working as a reporter in Washington when it was published in 1981, and was so struck by Cooke's portrait of depraved despair that I put down the morning paper and said to my wife, "This is unbelievable."

It turned out that it was unbelievable. Days after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Cooke admitted that Jimmy was a fabrication. The Post gave the prize back, and Cooke left Washington and journalism.

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