Huston: A Time to Affirm Journalism Traditions
by Tom Charles Huston
In this country, people who read the news on television are called “anchors.” In Great Britain, they are called “presenters.” The latter term strikes me as more honestly descriptive. An assortment of editors and producers put together what they have concluded constitutes today’s news, and key up the teleprompter. Dan Rather, Katie Couric or another in the long line of attractive personages reads the text, smiles broadly and, on cue, nods knowingly.
I gave up watching television news years ago. I had my fill of it at the White House, where I shared with Pat Buchanan and Mort Allin the chore of summarizing the network evening news coverage for the president’s daily news summary. I prefer to read news on my own, in print or online. I don’t need to have someone read it to me.
The dust-up over the whopper that Brian Williams told about his experience under fire in combat is being cited as a time of choosing for the journalism community: affirm its institutional commitment to objective — or at least truthful — reporting by reproving Williams, or live with the ignominy that the high-profit theatrics of television news is just a step above grand theft auto.
Journalism was once an undertaking for gentlemen and adventurers, and they were often, as in the case of Winston Churchill, one and the same. During World War II, Edward R. Murrow opened his CBS broadcasts for the American home front: “This . . . is London.” His recruits for the London bureau of the network included men of impeccable skill and talent — among them, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Richard Hottelet and William L. Shirer. When CBS executives complained that these men did not possess attractive radio voices, Murrow responded that he was “hiring reporters, not announcers.” Murrow and his colleagues did their reporting in the bombed out streets of London and on the battlefields of France and Italy. Logging 25 flights over occupied Europe, Murrow reported about the “orchestrated hell” the crews experienced, not the courage he displayed by flying with them.
Journalism of the Ernie Pyle variety, heavy on facts, flavored with striking scenes and focused on ordinary men doing extraordinary things, once constituted a profession. War reporting has always had something both romantic and terrifying about it, but domestic reportage could be just as dangerous. The syndicated columnist Victor Riesel made his reputation reporting on corruption in the labor movement. As he was leaving a New York City restaurant in the spring of 1956, sulfuric acid was thrown in his face by a hit man for the Genovese crime family. Blinded, he continued his reporting for another two decades.
Ferreting out truth was not only risky business, but often poorly compensated as well. Journalistic respect — as contrasted with fame — didn’t always translate into big dollars. In fact, no one thought of reporters as celebrities until the jihad against Richard Nixon needed to be dressed up as a triumph of investigative reporting by immortalizing the team of Woodward and Bernstein on the silver screen.
There are still working journalists who earn their keep by exposing wrongdoing, writing useful expository stories or providing an accurate account of a school board meeting. The hard times experienced by print journalism has taken its toll among reporters and editors of the old school. The high-profile journalists of the new media are those who express opinions rather than those who dig up the facts. This dumbing-down is not unique to journalism: there aren’t many youngsters coming out of law school these days who can write a simple declarative sentence. It is the times that plague us.
The embarrassment of Brian Williams has no partisan significance. There is no reason to believe liberal journalists make up stories about themselves and conservative journalists don’t. My take is that some men have an irresistible impulse to enhance their standing among their peers by willing into existence life events that they have not been fortunate enough to experience.
This is a defect of character, not an ideological failure. It is jarring when displayed so conspicuously, but it ought not to be as surprising as some seem to think. Lamentably, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review who resides in Indianapolis, served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.