As a high school student I was transfixed at Watergate’s unfolding.
I watched in awe as the web of deceit surrounding a president unraveled, a process begun and accelerated by the nation’s free press.
Before Watergate I always had wanted to be a writer. After seeing Richard Nixon brought to justice I knew it would go one step further, I would become a journalist.
Note that I did not say I wanted to be a journalist. My feeling ran much deeper. I was called to be a journalist.
The Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had elevated journalism to an exalted position in American society. It was indeed a noble profession.
To this day I feel called to the responsibility and public service that solid journalism demands.
When I cut my teeth as a young reporter four decades ago I imagined the pedestal beneath journalism to be rock solid, impervious, permanent. I had not yet learned I came into the profession at it’s pinnacle, and that powerful interests with large hammers and sharp chisels will always be chipping away at the foundation of press freedom.
I now appreciate the hard work and determination that elevated journalism to its late 1970s status. It will take more of the same to stem the ongoing decline, and rebuild the former levels of public trust.
Yes, I am alarmed that journalism’s foundation, and with it the health of our democracy, has eroded. Much of that has to do with journalists themselves. Although newspapers are not without sin, I will lay much of the blame on broadcast and electronic media, which have blurred the line between straight news and opinion.
As a young person watching network television news it was clear I was seeing the journalists’ earnest efforts at unbiased reporting. If opinion was expressed, the show or segment was labeled as an editorial, generally right at the bottom of the screen.
Today we see entire television networks focused on presenting what I consider propaganda for the left or for the right, one network attacking the “demon rats” and another saying GOP policy is an “insult to democracy.”
Much like the bystander who sees a deadly accident unfolding and can do nothing to stop it, I have watched corporate takeovers of networks and with it their news shows foster a profit over public service attitude.
With today’s 24-hour news cycle, some in the electronic media feel compelled to constantly throw out exciting tidbits to grab your attention, feeding the partisan sharks, so to speak, with fairness and straight facts lost in the shuffle.
Not that there aren’t many great journalists out there today performing solid work, including broadcasters. Unfortunately we in the public are too often left with the task of filtering out the noise, and ferreting out the facts of the matter.
Newspapers play a vital role here. In the print media there is more lead time before deadlines to get the facts and get them right, and to explore and explain the background. Once the printed paper is in hand, the public can take time to read, reread, think though and analyze those facts, and come to a much clearer, deeper understanding.
To a degree, newspaper readers and reporters can insulate themselves from the 24-hour news cycle insanity.
At a local level, newspapers like The Bryan Times truly are the sole watchdog over unscrupulous or power hungry businesses or politicians in our own backyard.
I suffer great frustration when I hear people say they don’t need or read newspapers anymore, because they get all the news they need from social media. Well, to those folks I have one thing to say: Social media gets its only reliable news from the newspapers and then passes it on. With no papers, you would have no reliable news.
It is no coincidence that the first target of authoritarian governments and despotic leaders is the free press. When you take away citizens’ information, you take away their power. If you hear a leader at any level speaking of “lying press” or “fake news,” watch your back.
Without a free press in a democracy, you are easy prey for those wishing to take advantage of you.
I don’t see journalism as a noble profession because I am a journalist. Rather, I am a journalist because it is a noble profession.
Ironically, as my career as an editor and journalist is winding down, the responsibility facing whose who follow me is ramping up. I pray they are up to the task.
Don Allison is a Williams County native and senior editor of The Bryan Times. His email is: DAllison@bryantimes.com