Words to the wise
Here comes the first legacy of the Trump presidency
Among the mainstream media’s manifest faults is the high regard in which it holds itself. The average “journalist,” as uptown newspapermen want to be called in a culture where titles get ever more extravagant, is a forgiving fellow, and never more forgiving than when he confronts his own errors (if any). Being a journalist in Washington means never having to say you’re sorry.
But among the legacies of Donald Trump that we can already see are the wounds — and may they be mortal — on political correctness and its parent, high-sounding hypocrisy. Since the Washington journalist doesn’t want to say he’s sorry, others are coming forward to say how really, really sorry some of Washington journalists are.
Calling out “fake news” is currently all the rage, and most of the people who denounce it aren’t talking about the fake news reported daily — even hourly — by the big newspapers and the talking heads of television. Since there is no consumer protection agency to protect consumers from the media, a reader and viewer has to do it.
“If you don’t read the newspaper,” Denzel Washington, the Hollywood actor and director, told reporters Tuesday in Washington, “you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed.” A harsh indictment, but Mr. Washington knows whereof he speaks. He was the subject of a fake news dispatch during the campaign, when it was breathlessly reported that he was switching his allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.
Mr. Washington, who was in town to promote his new movie, “Fences,” about a black family growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, diagnosed what’s wrong with the media (which used to be called “the press”) at a press conference at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
“It’s the effect of too much information,” he says, “the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So what a responsibility you all have — to tell the truth. In our society, it’s just [to be] first, who cares? Get it out there. We don’t care who it hurts. We don’t care who we destroy. We don’t care if it’s true. Just say it, sell it. Anything you practice you’ll get good at, including [spreading BS].”
Most reporters work hard at their craft, and try to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the journalists who keep the wheat and spread the chaff damage the reputations of everyone else.
The absence of competent editors, charged with holding reporters to the line of accuracy and decency, is the source of the angst. It’s a pity Denzel Washington’s stern lecture came from Hollywood, not from a tough old bird in a newsroom, but the species is almost extinct.
Once upon a time in Chicago, where the practice of journalism has always been loud, rowdy and not for the faint of heart, a famous editor reduced his warning to get the facts straight to 11 well-chosen words of newsroom gospel: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” And then, and only then, shout it loud and clear, and in ink.