By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
Journalism has never been the most admired of professions, and in recent years the rap on its practitioners has only gotten worse.
Gallup puts trust in the news media at about 40 percent nationally, a steep drop from its high point of more than 70 percent in the 1970s; the days of The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting, the publication of the Pentagon Papers revealing the secret history of the Vietnam War, and the nation’s nightly ritual of watching CBS’s Walter Cronkite, known as the most trusted man in America.
Even President Biden, in Geneva for a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, took a swipe at journalists’ approach to their jobs.
“To be a good reporter, you got to be negative. … You got to have a negative view of life, it seems to me,” he charged, addressing his angry reaction to CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins, who earlier had challenged him about whether there was any reason to characterize the meetings positively, considering Putin’s relentlessly authoritarian record. (Biden apologized for being a “wise guy.”)
Biden’s predecessor, of course, spent his entire presidency trashing what he called “fake news,” calling reporters scum or enemies of the people and gleefully insulting specific journalists and news organizations. As president, Donald Trump had particular scorn for CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Do journalists really deserve these low grades and smackdowns? The celebrated long-form journalist Janet Malcolm certainly thought so.
When she died last week, obituaries reprised the famously devastating critique that opened her 1989 New Yorker magazine piece, later to become a book, “The Journalist and the Murderer.”
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
It’s a criticism that’s been so widely quoted that many journalists have internalized it as a strange kind of self-flagellation.
“It’s remarkable how widely the journalistic elite came to accept and even venerate the famous Janet Malcolm quote, which, while valuable as a puncturing corrective to the profession’s smarmier conceits, is at best plainly untrue and at worst deeply damaging,” wrote tech journalist Will Oremus (a Washington Post colleague as of this week). Admitting that he’s quoted it himself, in part because it’s “a little bit punk,” Oremus objects to its perpetuation, especially at a time when “perhaps half the country believes we really are immoral liars and con artists.”
But two other well-known journalists who also recently died offered an alternative view of our profession; and a more accurate one.
Ron Ostrow, the longtime Washington reporter for the Los Angeles Times who broke one of the most important Watergate stories, was respected on both sides of the aisle. “He was tough as a journalist, kind as a person,” Attorney General Merrick Garland recalled for an obituary of Ostrow in the Times. It also quoted former attorney general William Barr’s praise and this from William Webster, a former FBI and CIA director: “You could trust him. … If somebody got hit by Ron, it was because they deserved it.”
This doesn’t sound like a con artist or a relentlessly negative nabob. It sounds like a lot of reporters I know who are still working today or just making their way into the craft.
Then there was Dick Stolley, whose several claims to fame included getting his hands on a copy of the Zapruder film footage of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination for Life magazine. It was a scoop for the ages, made possible only through Stolley’s sheer persistence, mixed with his sixth sense of when to stop pushing.
A stringer for Life told him about the existence of amateur film footage showing the moment when the president was shot, according to Stolley’s Washington Post obituary: “She could not spell the photographer’s surname but told Mr. Stolley that it was pronounced Za-proo-der. Thumbing through the Z pages of the phone book, Mr. Stolley came upon the entry ‘Zapruder, Abraham.’ He called, again and again, every 15 minutes, until sometime around 11 p.m., Zapruder answered.”
Zapruder said he was exhausted, and Stolley was wise enough not to press. They agreed to meet at 9 a.m. the next day. Stolley showed up early, before other reporters, and viewed the astonishing 26 seconds of film.
Stolley later recalled Zapruder’s assistant asking him whether he knew why he got to see it ahead of all the other clamoring journalists.
“I have no idea,” Stolley said he replied.
“Because you were a gentleman,” the assistant explained.
It would be easy to say that these are stories from the distant past, that Stolley and Ostrow exemplify qualities that no longer exist. But that’s simply not the case. I won’t embarrass any of my current or past colleagues by making a list here, but I can think of many of their names. And I could point to several young journalists — or even student journalists — who share these admirable attributes: persistence, decency, the ability to be both tough and fair.
Twenty-first century American media has some terrible flaws, no doubt. It too often chases clicks and gossip over substance, turns minutiae into mountains and shamefully gives a platform to proven liars.
Apparently fearful of being criticized for taking sides, journalists disastrously equalize the unequal, falling prey to a misguided sense of fairness to both sides of a political fight. (Typically, something like this: “Some observers see the Arizona vote recount as a forensic audit; others see it as a partisan farce.” It is, in fact, a partisan attack on democracy.)
Mainstream news organizations have too often failed to rise to the challenges of covering today’s ugly politics or navigating the unending flood of viral disinformation. So it’s hard to give out many good grades, and I don’t.
But are journalists too negative? That’s not the problem. Our role is not to cheerlead for the people we cover.
Are our ranks jammed with immoral con artists? Not in my experience.
Does mainstream journalism deserve only a 10 percent approval rating among Republicans? Absolutely not. There are valid complaints about bias, but many of these respondents, I’d wager, are simply averse to the intrusion of reality.
But could we — must we — be much better? I can’t argue with that.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.