So I walked into work one morning, maybe 20 years ago, at the community newspaper where I was the one-man editorial page shop. I was greeted by the executive editor, who got right to the point.
A young reporter who I had a role in hiring, to whom I’d been a bit of a mentor, had been fired the night before. At practically the moment the editor had realized that the reporter, unable to find out why the superintendent of a rural school district was no longer employed there, had turned in a story that said the official had been fired. Just because it was deadline and he needed to file something.
And we published it. We had no reason not to.
The superintendent hadn’t been fired. But the reporter was. On the spot. No suspension. No appeals. No denials or lawyers or stepping back to spend more time with his family.
The news business can be like that. All we really have to sell is our accuracy and trustworthiness. Lose that, as an individual reporter dealing with editors or a media organization seeking readers, and you’ve lost everything.
The Washington Post returned the Pulitzer Prize won by Janet Cooke’s made-up story about a pre-teen heroin addict. The New Republic canned Stephen Glass for making up stories and sources. The New York Times fired reporter Jayson Blair for plagiarizing some stories and making up others. A few days later, forced out two top editors who, less than two years before, had led the paper to a pinnacle of performance covering the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The fact that newspapers do things like that, quickly and publicly, might lead people who aren’t paying close attention to think the sins being exposed are commonplace. They are not.
Newspapers and other journalistic enterprises are generally made up of people who are in it for the love — as there’s not much money about for most of us. The institution and the craft are venerated. We don’t fool and we really, really don’t like being fooled, though it happens.
Last week The Washington Post, just by applying the standards of good old shoe-leather reporting, dodged an attempt by a phony journalist to plant a false story — one that was designed to undermine public trust in the paper’s other articles about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in particular and the mainstream media in general. And outed the would-be fraudster for all to see.
Such agenda-driven false journalists seem to believe — or want their audience and financial supporters to believe — that all journalism is cooked and phony and its just a matter of which side gets there first. But that is not true.
Real journalists do not misrepresent who they are. Every reporter’s name basically gets a few words longer — “... from The Salt Lake Tribune” — whenever they introduce themselves to anyone who may be a source of information.
A new, very sad, case, at least to me, is the matter of Garrison Keillor. The long-time host of the popular public radio program “A Prairie Home Companion,” has lost his remaining gigs with Minnesota Public Radio due to accusations of more of that sexual harassment we’ve been flooded in lately.
After a day or so, The Washington Post, which sold Keillor’s weekly newspaper column to The Salt Lake Tribune and many other papers, also severed its relationship with the man who, I would argue, may be the most talented writer and humorist since Mark Twain.
The Post did not base its decision on any conclusion that the accusations against Keillor were credible or true or just nasty. It did what it did because, just the day before the news broke, Keillor had filed, and The Tribune and other outlets had published, a column in which he ridiculed the idea that U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a fellow Minnesotan, should resign over the sexual improprieties he has been accused of. And he had done so without disclosing, to his editors or his readers, that he was at that moment under suspicion of similar wrongdoing.
If Keillor had fessed up to that circumstance, and gone on to explain how it feels or maybe argue that some of that behavior wasn’t so bad or should be forgiven, it would have been a much better column. At least readers would have been put on notice that Keillor and Franken were in similar boats. Those readers then would have had crucial information they would need to evaluate whether they wanted to believe him or take his argument seriously.
The Post’s editors, freed of the burden of judging Keillor’s guilt or innocence on a matter of what might have been he said/she said, had before them a clear case of lack of disclosure. The kind of disclosure they demand of, say, George Will when they note that his wife is sometimes a consultant for political candidates, or that Marc Thiessen was a speechwriter for George W. Bush or Jared Bernstein used to work for Joe Biden.
Maybe it also means that even, or especially, the most talented fiction writers shouldn’t write for newspapers. Garrison Keillor won’t be. I’ll miss him. But there really isn’t any other choice.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, like all of his colleagues, now moves up one slot toward being the best newspaper columnist in the country. firstname.lastname@example.org