Some thoughts on “the media” and journalism

journalism

I decided I wanted to be a sports writer when I was 10 years old. As you might expect, it was a very thorough and scientific process that led me to that decision. With the wisdom that only comes with being in elementary school, I realized I wouldn’t be making a career as a professional athlete (though I did still believe I could go to Michigan and play both football and basketball, which was an equally insane idea).

So, if I couldn’t become a professional athlete, what would be the next best thing? How about going to games for free! That would be fun! And that, believe it or not, was the basis of how I would move through the rest of my life.

I say all of this as an explanation for how I came to find myself in the job I have now, as a sports writer working for The Washington Post. I didn’t grow up wanting to be Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. My goal was simply to find a way to have a job of going to the ballpark or the field or the gym every day – and I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself being able to do just that.

But as I pursued a path in sports journalism, and specifically after arriving at St. Bonaventure University in the fall of 2003 to study the subject, I quickly became enamored with the craft as a whole. It didn’t take long, with the combined help of my friends at the school newspaper and from my many wonderful professors, to realize the importance of journalism in our lives, and how even at that level it could have an impact on people’s lives, be it on campus or elsewhere.

Over the past 10 years that I’ve been a working journalist, that feeling has only been reinforced by getting up and going out and doing the job every day. I freely admit that my job is a wonderful one – but also one that, at the end of the day, isn’t altering the course of humanity. That’s the beauty of sports, right? That it allows us a way to distract ourselves from the banalities of daily life – and, these days, from the depressing daily discourse in our political system.

The same, though, cannot be said for my colleagues, both in The Washington Post’s newsroom and elsewhere across this country. Journalism, whether anyone reading this wants to admit this or not, is the lifeblood of democracy. If we didn’t have journalists going out every day and trying to tell the people what is happening in their government, we would be Turkey, Russia, China or any other country that’s run by some form of autocratic government that suppresses free speech and the ability to have an alternate viewpoint of those in power.

Every day, though, it feels like fewer and fewer people understand this. Instead, “the media” is blamed for everything, and by all sides. This is not a partisan problem, as Democrats are just as likely to do this as Republicans are.

And why do they do it? Because it’s far easier to simply say “It’s the media’s fault” when confronted with a problem, or with something that goes against what someone believes or is attempting to do, than to actually address what’s being brought to their attention. The problem with this rationale, with this line of attack against journalists, is that it’s made it easier and easier to try and dismiss the profession entirely.

I went on a bit of a rant on Twitter Sunday night while watching the second Presidential debate, in part because of how tremendous a job both Anderson Cooper from CNN and, particularly, Martha Raddatz from ABC were doing of attempting to keep both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on topic, and to force them to actually answer the questions they were being faced with.

Naturally, this led to many people retweeting it and saying something along the lines of, “That’s right!” But there were also plenty of people who had some variation of, “No way, the media is the worst” as their immediate response.

All of these responses get to the heart of what I was referring to earlier: how the discourse in our society today is threatening the way journalism is perceived. This, in turn, is undercutting the profession.

A few points in response to all of these:

– The complaining by either side that “the media is all for the other candidate” is nonsense. And, frankly, this comes mostly from cable news, which often isn’t journalism at all, but instead is entertainment.

Go walk around a newsroom at any metropolitan newspaper in the country – The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, etc. – and here’s what you’ll see: a declining number of people being paid a declining amount of money trying to do an ever-increasing amount of work for their readers.

Trust me: people don’t go into journalism, don’t go to work at a newspaper, to become rich or famous. They do it because they’re intellectually curious. They do it because they want to show people how their government is working. They do it because they think it’s important.

– Here’s what just about every journalist I know spends much of their day worrying about: first, they focus on whatever they are covering that day. Then, when their work is done, they think about this: is this profession going to exist in five, 10, 15 or 20 years? And, in the same vein, will we convince people that it’s important to pay for online content in the wake of people no longer buying print products?

The reason all of these things are a problem is because of what I said earlier: that fewer and fewer people see journalism as an essential part of our lives.

 

If there were no newspapers, how much “news” would there be on cable television and elsewhere? Not very much. As I said before, there are some excellent people doing great work in television news, and they should be commended (tonight’s two moderators are perfect examples of this). But there are just as many, if not more, who get much of the news they put on television from the local newspapers covering things throughout the country.

Remove those newspapers, and what do you have? Government officials being able to go unchecked, doing as they please, grabbing power – and the profits that come with it – wherever they can. If we have learned anything, it’s that human beings will always reach for as much power as they can get; if there is no one there keeping them honest, there’s no reason for them to stop.

That’s why all of these endless attacks from all sides on the media, and how it does its job, become so frustrating for me to read and to listen to.

It’s been a little less than 11 months since I walked into The Washington Post’s offices for the first time, and every day I’ve gotten out of bed more proud to work there than I was the day before. Just look at the remarkable coverage my colleagues have delivered to this country over the past year or so, breaking down every angle of this remarkable election cycle. David Fahrenthold should win him a Pulitzer, and he’s just one of a cast of hundreds who have done an incredible job breaking down this race in every possible way.

I know I’m biased in thinking my newspaper has been better than everyone else in terms of its coverage of this campaign, but there have been plenty of other outlets that have also done outstanding work over the past 18 months as this odyssey has played out for the world to see. But imagine what would be happening if there were no fact-checkers, if there wasn’t anyone making sure everyone was held accountable for their words and deeds? How could anyone watch this election and believe journalism is unnecessary, or isn’t – in the case of The Washington Post – worth $2.50 per week, otherwise known as less than one small Starbucks specialty coffee?

My hope is, at some point, people will realize the value journalists are providing to them, and to this great democracy of ours, on a daily basis, rather than constantly attacking the profession. But whether that ever happens or not, here’s what I know: every day, journalists across this country will wake up every day, get out of bed and spend their days trying to make the world a better place, and trying to hold the people in positions of power accountable to those who they’ve been elected to serve.

And, whether everyone will admit it or not, we’re all better off for it, and would shudder at what life would be like without it.

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