‘The press’ is doing its job

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By Michael Getler

PBS

Somewhere at the bottom of a large, dusty, cardboard box—among scores of them in my storage locker—is a bumper sticker from 1973 or ’74 that says: “Thank God for The Washington Post.”

The slogan was thought up, as I recall, by an enterprising public relations man at a big aerospace company and it was meant to capture the then almost daily drumbeat of exclusive stories appearing in the Post, mostly by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, about the still-unfolding scandal called Watergate. It wasn’t just the Post, of course, that eventually lead to President Nixon’s resignation. It was Democratic and Republican members of congressional committees seeking to get at the truth of what was happening. It was civil servants coming forward and testifying. It was, in the end, judges and the courts.

Television was a part of this unfolding as well, with the three major networks taking turns broadcasting the congressional hearings daily to a large and rapt national audience. At the same time, public broadcasting gave birth to a small startup by two journalists named Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer who put PBS television news on the map with their award-winning, gavel-to-gavel coverage every day that would, in time, grow to become the NewsHour.

That Thump on the Doorstep

All this happened at a time when the news media, not unlike today, was widely distrusted by the public, at least according to opinion polls. But the Post, especially, seemed to me then like the proverbial “daily miracle” that big metropolitan daily newspapers look like from inside. I was a reporter there at the time, but just like hundreds of thousands of others, I waited for that thump on the doorstep every morning when that paper landed to read what else had surfaced in the extraordinary drama that was Watergate.

I spent 35 years at the Post, some here, some overseas. Four of those 35 were as editor of the International Herald Tribune when it was still jointly owned by the Post and the New York Times. Then, after I “retired,” I served for five more years as the Post’s ombudsman, an independent, contractual, non-staff position as the paper’s internal critic and pain in the neck.

But despite echoing some of the inevitable reader criticism, and a fair amount of my own at times in that role, I love that newspaper, then and now, and have the deepest respect both for its dedication to seeking truth and for the people who work there. They, and their thousands of colleagues at serious news organizations around this country, are not the “enemy of the American people,” as our new president says. Nothing could be further from the truth. The enemy of the people lies elsewhere. A free press and an independent judiciary are bulwarks against enemies of the people.

It is ironic that after calling the press the “enemy,” and other degrading comments, President Trump, in one of his early morning tweets on March 4 accusing President Obama of tapping “my phones during the very sacred election process,” invokes Watergate. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” our president tweets of his predecessor.

If true, that would indeed be a scandal on the scale of Watergate, which involved an attempt to influence the 1972 election, and it could have been an impeachable offense against then-President Obama. But no evidence was provided by President Trump when he made such a serious assertion—with some mind-boggling personal insults thrown in for good measure—and none has surfaced so far. Yet he used the presidency to launch it in front of all Americans and a global audience.

“But if the allegation is not true,” writes Harvard constitutional law professor and Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman, “and is unsupported by evidence, that too should be a scandal on a major scale. This is the kind of accusation that, taken as part of a broader course of conduct, could get the current president impeached.”

A Tip of the Hat

I will be stepping down from this position soon. I’ve been here much longer than either I or PBS anticipated. I will probably post a proper farewell to readers of this column in coming weeks. But at this crucial and, in some bad ways, unprecedented time in our national life, I wanted to take advantage of this space to tip my hat, one more time, especially to the Post and the Times, and to the Wall Street Journal and other news organizations that are not being intimidated by words and tweets and are doing their job reporting, investigating, and fact-checking at another time when trust in our leadership is lacking for many, when attacks upon the press are high, and when public distrust of “the media” is also reportedly high.

We also need to understand that “the media” these days means a lot more than the major and mainstream newspapers and television networks. It is a confusing blur that runs from “Access Hollywood” to bloviating talk show hosts promoting extreme views. It includes a bewildering array of material online that too often is unverifiable and untrue. It includes battalions of commentators, talking heads and political pundits, and partisan outlets on all platforms. They are not journalists.

It is the trained, experienced and dedicated reporters, and their editors, within serious news organizations—the old familiar brands and the new ones that have the same commitment to getting as close to the truth as possible—who are “the press” that I speak of. They are the ones that deserve the public trust. Their names and bylines are on their work. Their credibility is all they have going for them. There surely can be a bad apple or two among them. And everybody makes a mistake now and then. But a pattern of mistakes means you are out of the business, and there is no benefit in biased or inaccurate reporting.

PBS, especially the nightly NewsHour, remains part of that mainstream news establishment. And like its role back in 1973 and ’74, it is a valuable, steady presence serving the public.

It is not a place like the Post or Times or Journal or other big papers or the Associated Press where news will be broken, where big stories will be revealed, where original investigative reporting will unfold. It is not the place where you will first hear those “holy —-“ stories or the “bacon coolers” that stop you in the middle of breakfast while reading the newspaper

Rather, it is a place where the news of the day will be presented, where policy will be explained or debated by opposing specialists and politicians, where viewers can usually become more educated on a wider array of national and international news and events than they can by watching the shorter network nightly news. It is a place where questions and answers are polite and civilized, and segments will be devoted to events far afield that are informative and good-to-know, yet mostly distant from the nastiness that surrounds us.

You can at times get bored or bewildered by the “what do you think about that” back and forth. But most importantly, it is routinely a valuable place to listen and learn.

This column was originally  published on PBS.org on 09 March 2017.

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