Be thank­ful for jour­nal­ism — no, this isn’t self-serv­ing

The Mercury News Weekend - - OTHER VIEWS - By E. J. Dionne Jr. E. J. Dionne is a Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist.

WASH­ING­TON » Thanks­giv­ing is a splen­did hol­i­day, but also a use­ful one. It re­minds us that grat­i­tude is a virtue. We owe the most sat­is­fy­ing parts of our lives to oth­ers and fool our­selves if we imag­ine oth­er­wise.

We usu­ally be­gin, rightly, by thank­ing our fam­i­lies since they are (if we are lucky) both the orig­i­nal and on­go­ing sources of love and nur­ture. But we should also be aware of our debt to in­sti­tu­tions and their stew­ards. This year, a pe­cu­liar candidate for ac­knowl­edg­ment kept forc­ing its way into my think­ing: jour­nal­ism.

Since you are read­ing this in a news­pa­per or on­line at a me­dia site, you might chuckle de­ri­sively at my pre­sump­tion. The guy makes a liv­ing from jour­nal­ism, so of course he’s grate­ful.

Since jour­nal­ists are hu­man be­ings, we are by our very na­tures flawed. It’s not hard to point to our short­com­ings. So in the in­ter­est of of­fer­ing a model of what jour­nal­ism is sup­posed to be (and, in the spirit of Thanks­giv­ing, to ex­press ap­pre­ci­a­tion to some­one I hold dear), per­mit me to in­tro­duce you to Shelly Binn, one of the best edi­tors I will ever know.

Shelly, who died 11 years ago at the age of 83, was The New York Times’ met­ro­pol­i­tan po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor back when I cov­ered state and lo­cal pol­i­tics for the pa­per. One dra­matic ex­am­ple will suf­fice to give you a sense of his de­vo­tion to ser­vice — and also of how­much he loved pol­i­tics.

On Nov. 3, 1944, Shelly, an Army anti-tank gun­ner, was gravely wounded in Hol­land and lost an eye. He was un­con­scious for four days, and when he fi­nally came to, his very first ques­tion was not about his con­di­tion. He wanted to know if Franklin Roo­sevelt had won re-elec­tion.

Shelly be­lieved pas­sion­ately that an es­sen­tial jour­nal­is­tic task was to pro­vide cit­i­zens with un­bi­ased in­for­ma­tion so they could in­flu­ence the de­ci­sions that af­fected them. At one news meet­ing, he and his col­leagues pon­dered an ar­ti­cle for the next day’s pa­per about a pro­posed new mas­ter plan for devel­op­ment of Man­hat­tan’s West Side.

It­was not the most ex­cit­ing ac­count, and one asked, “Can’t we wait un­til they de­cide on it?”

To which Shelly shot back: “What the hell are we, Pravda?”

It’s a ques­tion I hope we ask ev­ery day. Jour­nal­ism shouldn’t wait for some pow­er­ful “they” to set­tle things.

The best les­son Shelly ever taught me came when I shared in­for­ma­tion with him about al­leged cor­rup­tion by a politi­cian. I knew an­other news­pa­per had it, too, but I wasn’t sure it all checked out.

Shelly said some­thing more edi­tors should be will­ing to say in this age of in- stant pub­li­ca­tion on­line: “Some­times, it’s bet­ter to be sec­ond.”

He was not try­ing to quell my com­pet­i­tive in­stincts. He very much wanted us to be first when we were right. But above all, he didn’t want us to be wrong, es­pe­cially when some­one’s rep­u­ta­tion was at stake.

The com­pet­ing pa­per pub­lished the charges first — and they turned out to be false.

It might sur­prise reg­u­lar read­ers that one of my very fa­vorite edi­tors was rather con­ser­va­tive in his pol­i­tics as he be­came dis­il­lu­sioned with what he saw as lib­er­al­ism’s fail­ures.

But his per­sonal pol­i­tics never shaped his view of what con­sti­tuted a valu­able story. The writer Charles Kaiser, also a Shelly fan, noted that he “was so ut­terly straight that his judg­ment was never clouded by ide­ol­ogy” or, more mirac­u­lously, by “in­ter­nal pol­i­tics.”

This is what day-to-day re­port­ing strives for, and I give thanks that I en­coun­tered some­one early on who truly took this mis­sion to heart.


Boxes of old news­pa­pers and other items from the for­mer of­fices of the East Bay Times sit in stor­age await­ing sort­ing at the An­ti­och His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum in An­ti­och.

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