From The New York Times – “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort” and further Reflections on Journalism

A needfully challenging appeal to raise the level of discourse, and an appropriate inclusion to The Rhetorical WHY, from an Opinion piece in The New York Times (Feb 22, 2018) by Op-Ed columnist, Bret Stephens:

This is the text of a lecture delivered at the University of Michigan on Tuesday [Feb 20, 2018]. The speech was sponsored by Wallace House.

“I’d like to express my appreciation for Lynette Clemetson and her team at Knight-Wallace for hosting me in Ann Arbor today. It’s a great honor. I think of Knight-Wallace as a citadel of American journalism. And, Lord knows, we need a few citadels, because journalism today is a profession under several sieges.…” [continue reading]

 

'Oddly enough, I feel offended...'
All That’s Fit to Print, Wiley Miller

Some thoughts of my own on the significance of a free press to our lives…

Next, I offer a series of responses I made to remarks by Hannah Arendt, published October 26, 1978 in The New York Review of Books, itself a report of her interview with Roger Errera). I encountered them in a Facebook post from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

 


Arendt: “… how can you have an opinion if you are not informed?”

Everybody has opinions – our five senses give us opinions. In order to be “informed,” we need discernment enough to detect accurate information.

Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

For me, continual lies ultimately yield zero trust, but again, how would I know who’s even lying, but for my own discernment and experience?

At the least, if I were aware that all around were lies, that much I’d know is true. It’s not that “nobody believes anything any longer,” so much as it’s “everybody goes about searching out truth on their own.” The downside is when those individual searches for truth become disrespectful, as we’ve seen lately, or worse, chaotic.

Nevertheless, investigate! Accept responsibility to inform yourself. Accept or believe all with a grain of salt until such time as you can prove to your own satisfaction who and what are trustworthy. And, at that point, be tolerant, if not respectful, of others – this applies to everybody, all sides, liberals and conservatives and all points between. Taking the high road is not to be done with pride or smug assurance. It’s easy to nod and say, “I already do while others do not,” but even so, reflect upon yourself with each conversation, each debate, each exchange.

Open-minded and open-hearted – both are virtues, but they don’t have to be the same thing.

Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

On its face, this statement could only be accurate if you had some clairvoyance or a crystal ball.

By “everybody” doing their own investigation and accepting responsibility to inform themselves, I mean everybody. We’re able to trust news & media sources to the extent that they have lived up to their responsibility… to the extent we’re aware that they have. I support proper, professional investigative journalism and public intellectualism, both of which I gather to be in decline.


'Well, apparently you haven't heard. . . personal opinions are the new facts.'
The New Facts, Chris Wildt

Finally, I offer two sets of remarks about journalism by two long-retired anchor-journalists of PBS fame, partners Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. The first is transcribed from an exchange between them during a tribute to MacNeil upon his retirement in October 1995. The second – comprising two parts – is Lehrer’s closing words upon the “retirement” of his name from the title of the PBS NewsHour, on December 04, 2009. Following that, I’ve included a thoughtful follow-up by the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, published the next week on December 11.

MacNeil’s remarks upon his retirement (October 20, 1995)…


MacNeil: You know, I’m constantly asked, and I know you are in interviews, and there have been a lot of them just now – I’m constantly asked, “But isn’t your program a little boring to some people?” and I find that amazing, because, well, sure, it probably is, but they’re people who don’t watch. The people who watch it all the time don’t find it boring, or they wouldn’t watch.

Lehrer: That’s right.

MacNeil: And it’s the strange idea that’s come out of this medium, because it’s become so much a captive of its tool – as its use as a sales tool that it’s driven increasingly, I think, by a tyranny of the popular. I mean, after all, you and I’ve said this to each other lots of times – might as well share it with the audience: what is the role of an editor? The role of an editor is to make– is to make judgments somewhere between what he thinks is important or what they think is important and what they think is interesting and entertaining.


Jim Lehrer’s guidelines of journalism (December 04, 2009)…


Lehrer: People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are. And here they are:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Here is how I closed a speech about our changes to our PBS stations family last spring:

‘We really are the fortunate ones in the current tumultuous world of journalism right now. When we wake up in the morning, we only have to decide what the news is and how we are going to cover it. We never have to decide who we are and why we are there.’


 

I am struck by the continuity of their respective final comments, about entertainment – each, in his own way, seeks to distance journalism from vagary, each thereby implying that we are susceptible to emotional or whimsical tendencies, which evidently seem capable of overtaking our focus to learn; otherwise, why mention the point at all?

 


  • Watch Lehrer’s remarks here, in a functional if awkward series of video archives of that 2009 broadcast.
  • In May 2011, upon Lehrer’s retirement, MacNeil returned to offer his own reflections upon his friend and colleague that include some further worthwhile commentary upon contemporary TV journalism
  • Watch them during a more recent (October 25, 2016) retrospective interview from 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural and community centre in Manhattan.

 

I recall “Lehrer’s Rules,” as they were called, making a small stir – some of it more substantive, meaningful, and some the critical “woe-is-Us” lament at the passing of favourite things. In amongst it all, as I mentioned, were the following comments from PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler, which I include here, at length, on account of PBS webpages’ tendency to disappear.

In fact, a number of the PBS pages where I found these articles are no longer active – where possible, I have checked, updated, and even added weblinks. But I believe Getler’s comments, like the rest, are worth preserving, on account of their potential to provoke us to think and learn more about a free press and its relation to ourselves.

 


“Lehrer’s Rules” by Michael Getler (December 11, 2009)

A couple of people wrote to me in the aftermath of that Dec. 4 sign-off to say how much they liked Lehrer’s guidelines and asked how they could get a copy. That’s why they are reproduced above. A subscriber to the widely-read Romenesko media news site also posted them there on Dec. 6 and they also were posted on the campus site of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). “Whether you agree with all of Lehrer’s guidelines, or not,” that posting read, “he has surely earned our attention.”

That’s certainly true in my case. I’ve also been a devoted watcher of the NewsHour in all of its evolutions during most of the past 30-plus years, long before I took on this job four years ago. Although segments of the program have been the subject of critical ombudsman columns on a number of occasions, I’ve also said many times that it remains the best and most informative hour of news anywhere on television, and it has never been more important. I follow the news closely but almost always learn something from this broadcast every night.

Boring, at Times, But a Luxury Always

Sometimes, of course, it can seem boring. Sometimes the devotion to balanced he said/she said panel discussions can leave you frustrated and angry and no smarter than you were 15 minutes earlier. Sometimes the interviewing is less challenging than one might hope. But the luxury of an uninterrupted hour of serious, straight-forward news and analysis is just that these days, a luxury. And, in today’s world of media where fact and fiction, news and opinion, too often seem hopelessly blurred, it is good to have Lehrer – clearly a person of trust – still at work.

I had the sense when he added his guidelines to that closing segment last Friday that the 75-year-old Lehrer was trying to re-plant the flag of traditional, verifiable journalism that he has carried so well all these years so that it grows well beyond his tenure – whatever that turns out to be – and spreads to all the new platforms and audiences that the contemporary media world now encompasses.

Oddly, I did not get any e-mail from viewers commenting on the new NewsHour format, other than one critical message that said “do not post.” Maybe that’s a good sign since people usually write to me to complain.

Make no mistake, the now defunct NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is still quite recognizable within the new PBS NewsHour. So those who wrote earlier and said they didn’t want any change won’t be terribly disappointed. I, personally, found the first few days of the new format and approach to be a distinct improvement. The program seemed to have more zip and energy, faster paced, with good interviews and without the always predictable language that introduced the show in the past. It presented its news judgments more quickly, benefitted from the early introduction of other top staff members as co-anchors, and from the introduction of a promising “new guy,” Hari Sreenivasan, a former CBS and ABC correspondent who presents a headline summary from the newsroom and is the liaison to an expanded NewsHour Web operation.

Now, just to keep this a respectable ombudsman’s column, let me add a few quibbles when it comes to Lehrer’s rules, as posted above.

First, one of the interesting things about American journalism is that there are no agreed-upon national standards, no journalistic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. There are, of course, many universal values and practices that vast numbers of journalists have voluntarily adhered to generally for many years, best exemplified by SPJ’s Code of Ethics. But the fact is that all major news organizations – from the Associated Press to the New York Times to PBS and CBS – have their own guidelines and standards that they try and live by. And they all have their differences.

Naturally, a Few Quibbles

Lehrer’s guidelines embody lots of the good, praiseworthy stuff, and we come out of the same journalistic generation and traditions. But I think on a couple of points they are actually too nice, too lofty, cruising somewhere above some of the grittier realities of journalism.

For example, “Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.” Really? Bernard Madoff? Osama bin Laden?

Then there is: “Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.” I would argue, and have, that the NewsHour withheld from its viewers at the time a legitimate turn in a major story – reported by all other major news organizations – last year when it declined to inform them that a former senator and former candidate for the vice-presidency, John Edwards, issued a public statement and went on ABC Television to acknowledge that he had had an extra-marital affair with a woman who had been hired by his political action committee to make films for his campaign. That’s news.

Finally, there is, “Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.” I agree about the blind quotes when they are used to attack someone personally. But anonymous sources have often proved to be absolutely crucial to the public’s right to know what’s really going on in scores of major stories as they have unfolded from Watergate to secret CIA prisons overseas.

The most accurate and important pre-war stories challenging the Bush administration’s on-the-record but bogus case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were based on anonymous sources. Many of those stories, in part because they were based on anonymous sources, got buried or underplayed by newspapers at the time. Many of them never got reported at all on television, including the NewsHour. But there are times when there are mitigating circumstances – like internal threats within an administration or maybe jail time for leakers – when some sources must remain anonymous and when editors need to trust their reporters. And often you don’t know if the occasion is “rare and monumental” until it is too late. Pre-war Iraq, again, being Exhibit A.


 

Freedom of the Press_ Matteo Bertelli
Freedom of the Press, Matteo Bertelli

Some other links…

World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

World Press Freedom Index

Ryerson School of Journalism

Edelman Trust Barometer

Freedom House

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