Watching television news the other night, I saw a young man boasting about the made-up junk he’d sent out on his blog, how many times it was tweeted on and out, and how much money he’d made from all of it ($8,000 for ads drawn by the eyeballs). Anyone, as we’ve learned, can peddle trash (lies is the better word) and cash in.
These days, as faith and trust fade in professional, trained, and fact-checked journalism, millions of readers now swallow distortions without question as long as they confirm a prejudice or a gut feeling or prior belief. These are hardly the solid foundations of a democratic system that might well agree about the facts, yet disagree heartily on policy. Such reflections started me thinking again about the usual apprenticeship required before taking on the name and work of journalist.
Take my case, typical for those times. I began in the age of rotary phones and 25-cent gasoline, ripping and reading AP and UPI copy, scanning the Daily Idahonian for local bulletins, checking in with Everett police, fire, hospital, etc. to gather news and interviews, then doing the same at KING Radio a year later. I was calling police and precinct locations and the fire department’s overnight switchboard, looking for information and interviews as I prepared a 15-minute newscast for Ted Bryant.
Later, working at KING-TV, I went around with tape recorder, pen and pencil and a little notebook to city hall and the county courthouse to cover local government (attending meetings, interviewing sources, getting to know staff members through coffee and chats to grow more sources). That all moved to the expanding TV newsroom, which grew from 15 minutes to an hour. I was being trained to run A and B rolls for better story-telling, how to beat deadlines, and to write with clarity and brevity, all the while being fact-checked by the experienced and sharp eye of newsroom mentor Al Wallace.
In that apprenticeship, I would no more have qualified as a journalist by merely sitting at a keyboard pounding out unverified bilge than would my dog. Yet in the age of Trump, and aided by his own disregard for fact, misinformation mushrooms, is believed, and is feasted upon by late-night comics as farce. It is no joke, but rather a profound danger to our democratic character and destiny and the future of journalism.
The New York Times asks the central question: “How can Americans find the path back to a culture of commonly accepted facts, the building blocks of democracy?”