A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Opining on greatest of journalism as it once was (or wasn’t), why it’s better than alternative

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The late Jimmy Breslin, the greatest columnist in the history of the world (and my personal journalistic hero), was renowned as a reporter who could care less about what other people thought of him.

“You’re supposed to be scruffy and despised,” Breslin once growled regarding his chosen profession. “You’re not supposed to be honored.’’

Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, news reporters have never exactly meshed well with polite society. Mark Twain, as always, may have said it best, although it’s never been verified, when he travelled out west in the 1860s and became a newspaperman.

“I hated to do it but I couldn’t find honest employment,’’ he reputedly said.

Yet some folks continue to maintain that journalists, at one point in our history, were once admired members of the community, up there with the wise local judge and the kindly, old family doctor who treated the kids for mumps, and that somewhere along the way they (we) went terribly wrong, sort of like Darth Vader embracing the dark side.

All of this is pertinent given the salvos the journalism craft has experienced over the past few years with no less a presence than the President of the United States calling news folks the “enemy of the people.’’ And there’s the governor of the distinguished Commonwealth itself, St. Matt the Divine, going on ad nauseum about the members of the press being a bunch of liars, snakes in the grass and how one in particular, Tom Loftus (a close personal friend), the Frankfort Bureau chief for the once great Courier-Journal of Louisville, is “a sick man.”

There are others, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who can proudly be hailed as the stupidest of the bunch. All of them seem to think the nation would be much better off without the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate.

And they seem to have plenty of support. The Pew Research Center recently issued the results of a poll showing that only 28 percent of those surveyed feel the media have a positive impact on the way things are going while 63 percent view the press as a negative. A whopping 85 percent of Republicans have a dour impression of news folk.

Even some news folk don’t like it. John Shindlebower, editor of The Spencer Magnet in Taylorsville, recently penned a column (http://www.spencermagnet.com/content/differing-views-bevin%E2%80%99s-battle-media) voicing the woe-is-us outlook while suggesting that another friend of mine, Joe Gerth, a columnist for the Courier-Journal, apologize to St. Matt for some unkind, yet accurate, claims.

As Jed Clampett would occasionally say to his nephew Jethro, “Don’t help me, boy. Don’t help me.’’

Eliminate copy editors?

Let’s dispose of a couple things. First, the journalism profession isn’t as great as it once was, but it has nothing to do with insipid claims of bias and the alleged spewing of lies. The economic bottom has essentially fallen out from beneath the industry and as a result newspaper employment has declined precipitously, from 66,490 newspaper reporters or editors in 2005 to 41,400 in 2015, a decline of 25,090 journalists, or 38 percent.

Some newspapers have completely eliminated their copy desks, sending stories to some far off outposts to be edited. The results are often humiliating, but at least it has caused reporters, for the first time in recorded history, to sing the praises of those who once toyed with their stories.

The digital world made up for some of those job losses but online publications don’t generally have the wherewithal of traditional print organs, at least not yet. Most of those scribes and editors who lost jobs were just as good, if not better, than their forebears, but they’re no longer there to produce. And the old canard about “doing more with less’’ fooled no one.

The idea that the press once issued the news in a respectable, objective manner loved and admired by millions is kind of silly. Growing up outside of New York I can tell you the city in the ‘50s and early ‘60s had 11 newspapers – all offering a particular slant. The Herald-Tribune was the Republican paper, the Daily News the populist conservative voice, the Times leaned slightly to the left and the Post, believe it or not, was darn near Socialist.

Kentucky had its own similar system. In Lexington, the morning Herald was the Democratic paper while the evening Leader sided with Republicans. In his book, Journey From Beaver Creek, Paul Jordan, an Associated Press correspondent based in Frankfort in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, talks about his close ties to Democratic Gov. Bert Combs and methods they used to keep the editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, S.C. Van Curon, a Republican who sided with Combs’ political rival, A.B. “Happy’’ Chandler, in check.

Objectivity: The great myth

Objectivity has always been the great myth in journalism. For one thing it’s boring as hell. It makes your teeth hurt. If people really sought objectivity the PBS NewsHour would be a ratings juggernaut and the circulation of the Christian Science Monitor would outstrip all others combined. Regardless, by objective, it seems, readers need papers that confirm their point of view. Those that fail obviously are biased liars.

The news, as many folks realize, is a messy business. Information comes in, some of it conflicting, some folks want to talk, other don’t, some threaten, some are less than truthful. The great Russell Baker, erstwhile columnist for The New York Times, once said his job consisted of “sitting on marble floors, waiting for someone to come out and lie to me.’’

From this mélange reporters are supposed to take the information, separate the wheat from the chaff, and put it in semi-readable form. Most of the time it works. Occasionally it doesn’t. So it goes. Like a closer leaving the mound after a blown save, you acknowledge it and get them next time. That doesn’t mean that reporters, for some inexplicable reason, are lying to you, as pols like to claim.

It’s obvious why President Trump and St. Matt the Divine are constantly bad-mouthing the press – it’s one of the few outlets whose job it is to hold them to account. It was H.L. Mencken, the Bard of Baltimore, who said, “The only way a reporter should look at a politician is down.’’ And that’s the way it needs to be done to assure the public is being properly served. Both Trump and St. Matt, it has become obvious, are up to things they would prefer the voting public not find out about. And the easiest, most effective way to deal with it is to kill the messenger by questioning their truthfulness.

Before long others have joined in — radio shouters, political sycophants, the occasional academic and organizations funded by special interests whose primary job it is to undermine the press for shedding light on the schemes they’ve bought and paid for.

The sad part is the public, which benefits from the revelations found in your local newspaper, generally are too often siding with the foxes in the henhouse. To some degree it’s a result of the growing sense of resentment against certain societal institutions – the Pew poll cited earlier also found that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents maintain that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

But there’s hope. The Washington Post and The New York Times are slugging it out like Graziano and Tony Zale at Chicago Stadium in 1947, trying to one-up each other in uncovering the scandals permeating the Trump administration. In Kentucky, the Courier-Journal is a shadow, really a wisp of a shadow, of its former self. But Loftus, Gerth and other are still in there swinging, revealing to the people of Kentucky just what a fraud their governor really is.

Do your job and tell the truth.

Words to live by.

Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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One Comment

  1. Marv Dunn says:

    St. Matt the Devine. To quote 45 Jr. “I love it!” That’s even better than Bill’s “Mad Matt” of a year or so ago.
    I also fear that good journalism is in a bit of a death spiral. It seem to me that most of the people I know don’t read newspapers. Maybe that’s a comment on the quality of my friends, I don’t know. TV news seldom delves deeply into a story and its fed to you on their schedule. If you watch cable news its probably because you agree with their particular political view. I know that I’m in the minority but I still like newspapers. I subscribe to the Enquirer, not necessarily because the news is fresh, but because I like holding it in my hand and I can skip stories I’m already familiar with. I have digital subscriptions to The Washington Post and the Lexington Herald Leader. I agree with Bill that the Courier Journal is a mere shadow of its previous self. Ten years ago I was wishing it had a Northern Kentucky edition but I now find the Herald Leader to be a better newspaper.

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