THE LAST WORD: Journalism keeps the light on in a dark world
Throughout my career in journalism I have endured many criticisms of my calling, a profession considered so important by our Founding Fathers that our law prohibits its curtailment in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Certainly there have been many times when individual journalists and even the organizations they work for have blundered, fumbled, turned a blind eye, slanted the news and served their own purposes. For those mistakes in judgment and professionalism, criticism is certainly due.
Critics of the Fourth Estate have increased as much as the scope of what the press has become through the decades. What was once confined to newspapers expanded through invention and technology into radio, television and the internet. Now the voices of a free press are vastly widespread, diverse and immediate and have often been confused in the world of freedom of expression with those who have no journalistic ethics or scruples.
Today the news media are struggling to hold on to the public’s trust while fighting to regain shrinking audiences and advertising revenue. CEOs, publishers, news directors and editors are trying to adhere to the standards they have been taught while producing a product not only worth the price, but necessary to the republic for which it stands.
As a member of the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame board of directors, I attended the 54th induction ceremony recently in Indianapolis. One of the inductees was a fellow board member, Stephanie Salter, who finished her outstanding career as a Tribune-Star columnist in her native Terre Haute. In the following excerpt from her acceptance speech she captured the importance of American journalism:
Over the years, I’ve sat in these Hall ceremonies and listened to stellar journalists impart deep wisdom and profound advice about the future of our craft. I wish I had some of that to share. I don’t.
I don’t know what kind of business model will ensure that good, solid journalism keeps getting committed every day, in small towns and big ones. I don’t know the magic combination that will vanquish the most dangerous threat to journalism our nation has experienced.
It’s a threat that doesn’t look — yet — like journalists being imprisoned or disappeared, or news outlets being torched. Instead, it looks like tens of millions of our fellow Americans thinking we lie for a living. They don’t trust the hours we put in, the rules we have always played by, the ethics to which we adhere, the commitment to verification of what we publish or broadcast, or the corrections we are bound to run when we learn we didn’t get it right.
Since I first saw Tom Stoppard’s play, “Night And Day,” I’ve held fast to an observation by one of the journalist characters. He’s a war photographer, whose young colleague has just been killed, and he’s answering the rage of a woman who says the young man died for nothing but gossip, tabloid frivolity, profits and a bunch of macho newspaper men’s egos. The photographer tells her:
“I’ve been around a lot of places. People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. It really is. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light. That’s all you can say, really.”
I still believe that, with one caveat: the word “reliable” has to accompany the word “information.” Right now, there’s so much scattered and fractured information – coming from lightning strikes and blown transmitters of sources – it can be a nonstop strobe that blinds and disorients.
So, here’s my only advice: While legitimate journalism tries to figure out how to survive and thrive, the people who practice it should just keep on practicing it. Or as the late, great Molly Ivins often said: “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”
The gathering and dissemination of reliable information – FACTS, as they can best be discerned by human beings on a daily basis – is the one that brung journalism to the dance. Whatever’s ahead – good, bad, death or resurrection – do not change partners.
I needed to hear that. And so did you.
Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.