“The viability of news organizations today rests in their ability to make themselves relevant by providing news that improves people’s lives.” ~Bob Schieffer
The Newseum’s event “The President and the Press: The First Amendment in the First 100 Days” attempted to open the dialogue on the present and future of the press in politics. At times contentious and at other times collegial, all of the conversations were open and honest. And this idea was clear: journalists are determined to uncover the truth in every facet of their work and they won’t rest until they do. Their commitment and passion, often at their own personal expense, is inspiring. This isn’t a job; it’s a calling no matter where a journalist sits on the ideological spectrum. This is sacred work and it deserves respect.
The state of news today
And that said, the criticism often leveled at the press must be listened to and acted upon. Feedback, whether or not we agree with it, is a gift because it allows us to figure out what matters to us. 21% of Americans have little or no faith in media. That is a massive number. We think more highly of nearly every other profession.
And it shows in the sales numbers. In the past ten years, we’ve lost 126 newspapers in this country. Today many remaining ones are thinner than our water bill now. “If we don’t fix this,” said Bob, “we will see unprecedented corruption across society. It’s the great crisis of journalism today.”
So how do we fix it? What do we do? What do we stop doing?
And I go back to Bob Schieffer. He’s been a journalist for 60 years. And in his long history in the only profession he’s ever had, he sees the answer as not only relevance but in impact. The news must make people’s lives better.
How do we do that? I think we need to get more trained reporters on the ground in more communities uncovering the facts, listening to people, and telling a greater array of stories. I appreciate data, but I appreciate the narrative the data reveals even more. As a society, we’ve become analytical to the point of sacrificing our humanity. We’ve been so busy assigning labels to ourselves and to others that we’ve actually forgotten to walk in their shoes.
Does more data make us wiser or overwhelmed?
In his closing address, Bob Schieffer went on to share a few quotes that had a powerful impact on me.
“We have started thinking in statistics and analytics,” said Peter Hart, NBC/WSJ Pollster. “That’s doesn’t work. [Polls] don’t tell you what’s in people’s hearts.” That’s quite a claim from a man who makes his living in statistics, but we can’t deny its truth. Our latest presidential campaign revealed that a significant number of voters, though not the majority, had more faith in Donald Trump than the polls ever thought possible.
“We look on polling data as higher truth,” wrote Jill Lepore, Pulitzer Prize winning historian at Harvard and staff writer for The New Yorker. “Too many times we are replacing beat reporting with polling data. Publications don’t send reporters to PTA meetings or local bars anymore, to talk to people. They can no longer afford it and there aren’t enough reporters to do the job.”
The evolving role of social media in news today
Many of the conversations at the Newseum focused on the integral role of social media and the press. Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold credits his Twitter following with helping him win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Trump’s charitable contribution claims. Facebook is now the number one source where we access and share news. CBS now has a 24/7 streaming news network, and during the election it often had more engagement than hallmark programs such as the CBS Evening News. Dan Rather’s News and Guts is another fantastic example of new channels for news.
“Hillary Clinton challenged norms [of what a woman should be.] And the hatred that has hung around her for that is irrational.” I put that quote from former Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri on Twitter and it drew immediate attention for and against Hillary, much of it very intense, and that level of response sums up the key insight I got while at this event. The news, in every channel, has become more a point of connection for people and less a vehicle to change hearts and minds. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a fact.
The Buddha said, “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” Nowhere is this more true than in journalism. Martin Luther called the printing press “God’s highest act of grace.” That was in 1436. It took centuries for society to make full use of his invention. It may be many more years before we realize the full extent of the power that we now have in all of our current communication channels and the many more that are to come. Equilibrium, as Bob said, is going to take some time. But we’ll get there.
The gift of the First Amendment
As I walked home from the Newseum, I kept thinking how lucky we are to have our First Amendment. While we may fight vehemently and against one another for our beliefs, the fact that we can do so is a priceless gift. The freedoms of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and complaining to / seeking the assistance of government are the lifeblood of our society. They must be protected by all of us, not just those in elected office. And if anyone, our elected officials included, attempts to take those rights from others, it is our collective responsibility to fight that injustice. The press fights for us every day, and we must fight for the press.
The job of every journalist, and every citizen, is to ask questions, and keep asking until we get an answer. A deep and unabiding ability to question everything and everyone is the foundation of our society. We cannot silence ourselves or others, and we cannot allow anyone else to do so. Nevertheless, we must persist.
More Newseum programming
The Newseum is offering a year-long program about the relationship between the Trump White House and the press. Many of the events will be available on live stream. You can learn more by visiting http://www.newseum.org/.
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