It’s not as if we haven’t been called names before. It’s not the first time that those in power wish reporters weren’t telling people what they’re really up to. Or thinking about.
Criticisms or attacks from those who wish we weren’t so bothersome to them are not new nor will they ever go away. And what they say about us is sometimes not nearly so scathing as some of the things we say about ourselves.
We have accumulated through the years some of the noble things said about our profession and some of the criticisms leveled at it, internally and externally. From time to time we will share them with you because we know that journalists have responsibilities and obligations of which they need at times to be reminded. We live in a world of kicks in the butt and occasional pats on the head and we are glad to toil in a nation that allows, if not encourages, both. Here is a sample of the things said about those of us who do a job that is essential, regardless of whether you agree with what we say and write.
“Controversy? You can’t be any kind of reporter worthy of the name and avoid controversy completely. You can’t be a good reporter and not be fairly regularly involved in some kind of controversy. And I don’t think you can be a great reporter and avoid controversy very often, because one of the roles a good journalist plays is to tell the tough truths as well as the easy truths. And the tough truths will lead you to controversy, and even a search for the tough truths will cost you something. Please don’t make this play or read as any complaint, it’s trying to explain this goes with the territory if you’re a journalist of integrity. That if you start out a journalist or if you reach a point in journalism where you say, ‘Listen, I’m just not going not touch anything that could possibly be controversial,’ then you ought to get out.”
—Dan Rather, Staff, May 5, 2001
“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”
—Norman Mailer, The Snark Handbook
“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism. I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”
—Walter Williams, founder of the nation’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri (1908), The Journalist’s Creed (partial)
“Journalism is unlike any other craft. It most closely resembles show business. There’s an undeniable element of ego in journalism, and an equally undeniable element of self-sacrifice. Performers know the show must go on. Journalists know the paper has to come out on time.”
—Donald L. Ferguson, Opportunities in Journalism Careers
“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.”
—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross
“There is a line I would often share when I was a newspaper reporter talking to people who complained that we only reported ‘bad news.’ I would tell them: ‘It’s not news when a plane lands safely.’ And it’s not. ‘Everybody lived happily ever after’ is a great ending, but if they lived happily the whole time you wouldn’t bother reading.”
—Rick Polito, newhope360, January 20, 2016
“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.
Citizens do not think through the meaning of a free press. Too many regard it merely as a profitable privilege of publishers, instead of the right of all the people and the chief institution of representative government. A free press is that privilege of citizenship which makes governmental dictatorship impossible. When editors fight for the liberty to speak and write, they fight for the greatest of all human rights under government. He is not thoughtful who cannot see that democracy cannot exist except through the maintenance of a channel through which information can flow freely from the center of government to all the people and through which praise and criticism can flow freely from the people to the center.
—American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1938
So the journalist, the reporter, flourishes in this climate of scorn and principle. And your correspondent cannot think of anything he would rather be doing with his life than living in that climate.
We’ll let you inside that climate from time to time in the future.