When Newspapers Die and Reporters Go Bad

When right wingers go off on NPR and the New York Times for being mouthpieces of the Democratic Party or left wingers criticize Fox News and PBS for having too many conservatives on the air, it makes my head spin. Is there no such thing as truth anymore or not a single honest reporter in town?

No. And we shouldn’t expect there to be. Journalism is one of those bedrock institutions that are critical to a democratic society. Reporters are supposed to inform citizens of things they need to know, to help them navigate the world confidently, effectively, to live well and prosper. Such a noble calling reporters have. From the outside journalism looks like public service. Sometimes it is. But from the inside, the news business is like making sausage or politics. The average person really wouldn’t like to watch how the news is actually made. It’s a pretty dirty and disgusting business even if people like the news product they consume every day.

Reporters are supposed to be fair and thorough but they are often fatuous and sloppy. In order to make their deadlines they take short cuts, make deals, trade information, manipulate gate-keepers, misrepresent themselves, snivel, dissemble and act disingenuously or even dishonestly. Some are quite vindictive and write just enough of the truth to tell a lie or support one. Judith Miller’s shameless reporting about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction when he didn’t have any comes to mind. Not exactly the kind of people who follow the golden rule in their work life. But theirs is such a noble calling.

There is a kind of catechism you learn when you go to J-School: get the facts, get the story, get if first, but get it right. That inspiring code of ethics is a load of hooey because in the real world there are a number of factors that limit the unfettered competition for the public’s attention and they have little or nothing to do with the pursuit of truth, journalistic ethics or the craft of reporting. I shall call these limits Journalism’s Ten Commandments. If you break these rules, you will be ostracized and banished from the 4th Estate to an alternate reality called the 5th Estate. In the world of alternative news everything is the same except you don’t get paid for the work you do. If you fall from grace and lose your job with the MSM you can keep reporting but then it’s a hobby. Just when you really need to, you can’t itemize deductions and take off the cost of your cable, telephone, and magazine prescription anymore. The news is such a noble pursuit.

But this is the price you pay for taking too much for granted. It catches up with all reporters eventually. They think they have a divine right to tell the truth. They don’t. They have a platform to tell stories. Hopefully, the stories they tell are good ones bolstered by the facts. But if a reporter gets the facts wrong or if somebody else has a story that is false but more persuasive, then the Greek goddess Nemesis first makes proud and then destroys. As a character type, reporters are notorious for their cocky disrespectful attitudes about sacred things and important people. When they’re not that kind, they are something else: lickspittles for the masters who “make the rules for the wise men and the fools.” That is a Bob Dylan line from “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”. He wasn’t singing about reporters but he could have been.

Legions of reporters are out of work since newspaper and television news layoffs began about ten years ago. Those people didn’t do anything wrong but they got the shaft anyway. They were good soldiers, loyal to their news organizations, covered their beats, and served the public good. Then the news business changed almost overnight. Ad revenues that supported local print and broadcast news operations declined and like a rising flood the layoffs began to drown the ranks of an entire profession. Most cities could no longer support two newspapers, so many of them merged or simply ceased to exist. According to PaperCuts, a website that tracks the decline of the print media, 166 newspapers in the U.S died between 2008-2010. More than 30,000 reporters have lost their jobs in the last decade. That is a big deal but not my major talking point here. The financial troubles in the news business are serious but that is not the only crisis reporters are facing.

You work hard and long hours and you’re a reporting machine, a truth seeker who gives comfort to the afflicted and who afflicts the comfortable, but then one day you make a mistake. Even really good reporters like Dan Rather make mistakes. A CBS story Rather reported in 2004 was based on what turned out to be forged documents critical of George W. Bush while his father was running for President. This proved to be Rather’s downfall. The truth is what the editors and owners of news organizations say it is. Not what a reporter or even a famous news anchor says it is. Rather paid the price for being the talking head of his network that could not authenticate the documents the Bush story was based on. This is something they don’t tell you in J-School: don’t let your mouth get bigger than your dick or you’ll have it cut off and stuffed down your throat. Reporting the news is such a noble calling—and quite a wonderful life–until, for whatever reason, it suddenly ends. In Rather’s case, it didn’t. He got a gig with Mark Cuban’s AXS cable channel, so he was lucky. CBS bought a piece of the channel in 2013 so now, ironically, Rather is back working for the same people who hung him out to dry. Go figure.

Those thousands of laid-off reporters are victims of changing times, not their own malfeasance. There are lots of reasons why they are no longer employed: because circulation numbers and TV viewership declined, because ad revenues could no longer support the business side of the news, because the Internet brought ubiquitous news to the masses for free, because people are no longer served by a single primary source of news in their community, because the role of a daily newspaper has been eclipsed by the public’s boutique appetite for news and entertainment selected from a wide menu of choices available via cable, satellite, and the Internet, because a la carte news reflects people’s particular values and interests and not the choices of editors who once decided what is important for people to know, and because newspapers have not been able to generate sufficient revenues from their on line editions to hire enough reporters to cover the news as well as they used to.

In addition to the widespread layoffs and newspaper closings, there is another challenge journalists face that is at once both philosophical as well as profoundly personal. What concerns me here are the knockers, the misfits, and the unreliable sources that must constantly be weeded from the grounds of respectable journalism, like pulling out crab grass in a well-kept lawn. Here are the ten commandments of mainstream journalism that if broken can be career-ending mistakes:

1/ Thou Shall Not Consort With the Enemy: don’t give your sources away to the competition or to law enforcement authorities or anybody not on your team.

2/ Thou Shall Not Get too Close: don’t become part of the story.

3/ Covet your access and protect your sources at least until you publish. Don’t trust anyone who isn’t a trained dispassionate observer of the truth like yourself but take authorities at their word.

4/ Thou Shalt Not be Vulgar in speech or manner of expression when it comes to omnipotent figures and descriptions of their affairs. Use of AP stylebook and proper terms is mandatory.

5/ Thou Shall Work on Sundays because the news cycle is now 24-7. It never stops.

6/ Thou Shall do a good job to support your family but you may rarely see them.

7/ Thou Shall Not Kill does not refer to the competition or the ridicule of hateful people.

8/ Thou Shall Not Freelance except when specifically authorized.

9/ Thou Shall Not Plagiarize but stealing leads and stories is often required.

10/ Thou Shall Fact Check and double-source all allegations of wrong-doing or controversy.

And then there are the unwritten rules, or the Ten Corollaries, as I call them, just as important, but more or less understood by all reporters who have any common sense. Mainstream reporters are members of what Bernie Sanders calls the the media establishment and they need to act like it. They need to internalize the rules of engagement and the limits of what Noam Chomsky once called the “bounds of thinkable thought’. There are certain rules of conduct and ideas to keep in mind that go above and beyond the commandments listed above.  Among them are:

1/ Always give two sides to the story even if you can only find one.

2/ Don’t Bite the Hand that Feeds You: if a colleague or the news organization or an advertiser become the subject of a news story, do not criticize but defend the company line.

3/ Don’t Call the President a Liar: repeatedly pointing out that politicians lie and that some lie compulsively, risks repeating the news, which by definition, is not news, so don’t do it.

4/ Don’t break a story that will offend your superiors, impugn their political opinions, or undermine their influence with important public figures.

5/ Don’t go beyond the limits of what is locally permitted. For example, if you work sports in St. Louis it is okay to hate the Cincinnati Reds but not the Cardinals.

6/ Don’t go beyond the limits of what is ideologically permitted. For example, you can call the War in Iraq a huge mistake. You cannot call it genocide. That would require an impartial judgement of the actual facts, which is not always, or even mostly, in your job description. You don’t judge, you cover things. If you start uncovering the wrong things, it’s career suicide.

7/ You can violate the tenets of so-called “objective” news reporting whenever you like, as long as you bolster the conventional wisdom, policy choices, and ideological premises of the political establishment in Washington or wherever you work. If you do otherwise, you are painting a big red X on your back. Don’t do that if you know what’s good for you.

8/ Break stories when you can. Follow up on good stories you didn’t break but act like you did.

9/ Practice your deadpan and never appear surprised regardless of what people tell you.

10/ Do not get emotional unless it’s a ploy to get your source to become emotional themselves.

If you violate any of these rules, you will start getting shit assignments and working weekends or nights. If you complain, your work ethic or news judgment will be called into question. This will really piss you off.

The final straw will be when the brass calls you on the carpet and calls you unprofessional and claims your job performance is unsatisfactory. Doesn’t matter that last month you collected an Emmy or some other prestigious award. If you have a union you can file a grievance but they might not stick up for you. Whether this is your first mistake or your last, if you get the boot, you have made your final mistake. Then, it’s time to leave and open up a pizza joint or drive for Uber. If you are very very lucky, you can take your beat on line or find something at one of the Internet news start-ups that will at least help pay the rent.

If any of these things happen to you, your life as you have known it, is pretty much over. One good thing to keep in mind: you are now free of all those confusing rules than didn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway! And you’ll have time to read about Greek mythology.