Years ago, I worked at an afternoon newspaper called The Richmond News Leader. It was a great place to work, populated by reporters and editors who ground it out every day, against the odds, hitting very tight deadlines.
As the police reporter, I started my workday at 6 a.m. and my first deadline was, as I recall, 9:10 a.m. There was a lot of pressure, and a daily rush, and I loved every minute of it.
A good friend and great reporter who went on to high-profile beats at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Wall Street Journal, where she covered the White House, once told me that working at the Good Old News Leader, or GONL, as we called it, was the most fun she ever had in journalism.
I joined an organization back then called the Society of Professional Journalists, or SPJ. One day, our SPJ representative, a great reporter who went on to be a publisher, told the newsroom that the local chapter of the organization was looking for a slogan they could use and he invited us to make submissions. The winner would get a free T-shirt bearing the slogan. I submitted, “You can trust me, I’m a reporter.”
I won. Some editor along the way changed it to “Trust me, I’m a reporter,” but that’s what editors are for and I got credit for it anyway. I got the T-shirt and I wore that thing until it fell apart.
It was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, a little ironic. Even then, politicians and corporate bigwigs regularly attacked reporters who had the audacity to reveal what they were really up to. I remember pumping gas at a station in Nags Head one day when the woman at the next pump cracked up and asked me where in the world I got that shirt. Her husband, she said, was a reporter and she had to get one for him. I hope she did.
Another great reporter I worked with at the GONL, who is still out there on the street writing great stories, was fond of saying “put the lies in the paper.”
His point, I think, was that we should “quote them accurately and fondly” as yet another great reporter I knew used to say, on the theory that someone else would call them out. It was based on a belief that it’s not the reporter’s job to correct people’s blatant lies. I agreed back then, but I’m not so sure anymore.
Times have changed. We believed that people caught lying by others would be disgraced and our readers would be made all the wiser when the lies, and humiliation, were revealed. If you put the lies in the paper, the liars will be exposed as liars, won’t they?
The problem now is that it doesn’t seem to matter. They lie, they’re quoted accurately and when the lies are exposed they don’t care. Or they lie about lying. We seem to have reached a point where ego trumps humiliation.
Led by The Boston Globe, hundreds of newspaper editorial boards last week banded together to call out President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the media as “fake news.” Trump’s favorite rhetorical cudgel, however, appears to be bearing fruit. A stunning poll released this month found that a quarter of Americans (and 43 percent of Republicans!) agree that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
No politician has ever gone wrong attacking the news media. When politicians are caught saying something stupid, they often simply claim they didn’t say it. Most of the time, they did. As a new and honest city councilman once said to me: “People who complain about being misquoted are usually complaining about being quoted.”
But complain they will continue to do. Like everyone, reporters would prefer to be loved but are used to being hated. They simply move on to the next story. They gather the information, organize, categorize and analyze it. Then they sweat over every word they type because they know that any mistake they make will be made in public.
Lately, reporters have been accosted not only by the ne’er-do-wells they uncover, but also by people the ne’er-do-wells have riled up into a mob. Soon that mob will do more than curse and shout and shake their fists and spit at reporters. There will be blood.
It’s time for reporters to go back to that slogan, without the irony. The SPJ, at some point in the past, sold T-shirts printed with “Trust me, I’m a reporter.” They don’t seem to be selling it anymore, but they should. And every reporter out there ought to get one and wear the thing until it falls apart.