Sunday, January 11, 2009

Journalism - back in the day

Just to let y'all know where I'm coming from, my BA was in Journalism, way back in the day when many people KNEW the difference between journalism and slop.

That was, rather obviously, a long, long time ago.

Many of us way back when got into journalism in order to dig up TRUTH. (Yeah, I know -- it's a funny concept, huh?)

We grew up with Walter Cronkite (whom I still adore fervently -- and if you haven't read his autobiography, I highly recommend it).

We thought that Woodward and Bernstein had it goin' on, even though Watergate had been a few years prior to the time I started college, thankyouverymuch.

Do you know why Walter Cronkite retired from CBS news? It was because of the 24-hour, you-gotta-keep-talking-or-they'll-change-the station attitude. Say something, even if you're saying nothing at all. Or worse, even if you're making conjectures that you couldn't possibly justify. That's not journalism. That's keeping the advertisers happy. So he left. That's a man with principles.

When I went through the School of Journalism (henceforth known as J-school) and worked on the school paper, it was a paper with a circulation of 32,000 -- one of the larger papers in Ohio -- and it was a college paper!

Our adviser was a real newspaperman with an insistence on accuracy that would be utterly beyond belief today. We had to have TWO (count 'em!) sources for every story, or it didn't go in the paper.
Period.

Once -- and I just realized how very timely this little anecdote is -- I came in for my usual 8:00 a.m. staff meeting/class, and the word was going around like lightning among the staff. "Phil's furious! Somebody screwed up BIG TIME!" But no one knew quite what had happened until we all were seated and he walked in.

He was so angry his face was absolutely bloodless. Honestly, his lips had disappeared. He was completely pale, pale grey from hairline to collar. And he was practically trembling in anger.

It happened to be the holiday observing the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., so the paper had run a photo of Dr. King with a brief statement that this was the day of the observance, and who he was, and he had been assassinated, etc., etc.

Pretty straightforward, yes?

Welllll, it seems that whoever was on Copy Desk (I never knew who it was, but it wasn't me! ) made an eeensy error in the name of Dr. King's assassin, which was, as you will likely recall, James Earl Ray.

Most unfortunately, the paper went to press (after going through Copy Desk, final editor check and paste-up) with a nice boxed photo and paragraph prominently placed on page 1, erroneously stating that a rather famous actor with the same first two names (think "I am your father, Luke") had killed Dr. King.

Bad, bad, bad idea.

We had a scathing, fire & brimstone lecture on the responsibilities of journalists, accuracy, checking details, not assuming anything -- EVER! -- and the pesky problems of libel for a solid hour.

I don't remember all the words, but the burn marks in my brain are still there and will be there forever.

That's what journalism used to be.

'Tain't no more.