(NOTE: Please check the late-breaking item at the end of this column if you’re curious about how Americans rate the media’s performance during the COVID-19 crisis)
I AM NOT HERE to ask you to love the press, the media, or whatever we call it these days. “Journalism,” another term, seems pretentious, although some of us in the profession like the way it confers a smidgeon of respectability, an elusive commodity for reporters, especially during the Trump years.
The president has been particularly ferocious during his coronavirus “briefings.” One of his more savage salvos came when an NBC reporter asked what Trump would say to people scared by the health-and-economic crisis:
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say,” Trump responded. “I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.”
Trump, although extreme in his media bashing, is hardly an exception. Reporters have always been regarded with suspicion at best, and at worst, opportunistic bottom feeders, subsisting on a diet of other people’s misery and misfortune.
In literature, film, the theater and TV shows, whenever reporters are portrayed, they are characters without character – venal, immoral, rude, conniving and self-serving hucksters, who, when joined by their unsavory fellows, become a shrieking mob of fools, rushing hapless interview subjects with spear-like microphone booms, battering-ram cameras and poison-tipped questions that no sane person should ever answer.
BUT AS I SAID, I’M NOT SUGGESTING that you like reporters, although in person many are likeable, a quality you should view skeptically, since their winning personalities are one more tool to get sources to say things they might regret.
Nor am I arguing that reporters are “good people,” although in my more than half-century in journalism, I’ve found my colleagues to be nothing like the caricatures described in popular media. Instead, most are talented, honest and bright, committed to advancing the public good, not unlike nurses, firefighters and people who search doorways and alleys for people who are homeless.
Which is not to say reporters are superior. Like everyone else, they make mistakes, exercise poor judgment and some have poor hygiene. The one thing that makes them different is that they have a job that’s unlike any other: scouting the available facts, then assembling them in a way that makes them comprehensible and public.
Nobody else does this. Nobody else is as interested in the truth as reporters. Everyone else is invested half-truths, those parts of a story that advance their particular interests. The police want us to know how they solved the crime or rescued the dog, not how they bungled the investigation or shot someone in the back. A scientist wants you to know that she’s cured coronavirus, not that she once doctored her research. A politician wants you know that he or she voted for the biggest bailout in history, not that they sold their stock before the market crashed.
Here’s the worst – or the best – thing you can say about a reporter: she or he cares only about the stories they tell. Everyone else cares whether a story advances their views and whether it has a happy or sad ending. But reporters don’t care about any of that. They care only about the story they’re working on at the moment, and worry only whether they’re getting it right and telling it well. Fixated on their stories, reporters are heartless, agnostic outsiders, single-minded, one-trick dogs – dogs who aren’t your best friend.
A COMMON QUESTION during the coronavirus emergency is where to look for information. My answer is to find those sources of news that have a brand, a reputation for being credible. You choose them not because you “like” or “dislike” them, or because they are “good” or “bad,” or because they are “left” or “right,” but because, through trial and error, you’ve decided that they are up to the job. Examples: the NPR broadcast service, the Associated Press and, because you’re reading it now, this website.
The news, when it’s done right, is neutral, just information. It’s to be used, not dismissed, ignored or berated, but deployed as a credible tool to help us make sense of our complicated lives and world.
When Trump attacked that NBC reporter, he missed an opportunity to be seen as a leader capable of guiding the nation through a terrible crisis. Later, news accounts correctly portrayed his answer to the reporter’s question – what to say to those of us who are scared – as bungled, off-point and mean.
Later, someone – perhaps the president himself or one of his advisors – digested that news and put it to good use. At the next day’s briefing, Trump said this as he read from his prepared notes:
“I want to say that I know this is a challenging time for all Americans. We’re enduring a great national trial. And we will prove that we can meet the moment … . For those of you feeling alone and isolated, I want you to know we are all joined together as one people, eternally linked by our shared national spirit. We love our country.”
What to make of Trump’s response?
There’s been plenty of news already, and there will plenty more in the future that can help you answer that question. Just don’t blame the reporters if you don’t like the answer, and please, don’t praise them if you do like the answer.
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A NOTE: As I was finishing this column last night, the Gallup poll released its latest survey asking Americans whether they approve of how various institutions and leaders are responding to the coronavirus crisis.
Topping the list: Hospitals, with 88 percent of respondents approving of how they are handling the crisis; farther down, President Trump, at 60 percent. And in last place, “the news media,” with just 44 percent approving, 55 percent disapproving and 1 percent with no opinion.