In Defense of Journalists… by Steve Safran

Journalists know they are doing a good job when they get hate mail from both sides of a story. By that metric, most political journalists have been doing an excellent job this political season. While I no longer cover news, I write about television and social media. I did produce coverage of the New Hampshire primaries for an online news organization earlier this year, but that’s been the extent of my official reporting. And, since we’re in an era of everyone crying “Bias!” you should know my bias right up front:

People have to shut the fuck up about how journalists are covering this election. Now.

Let’s get this right out of the way: Journalists lean liberal. They don’t deny it. They go into the profession with the idea of changing the world, taking on government and speaking truth to power. They do that, knowing the job does not come with a lucrative salary. Those are not the personality types of a conservative.

Having said that, I am a conservative in a liberal profession. I am a conservative who does not like Donald Trump. There are my biases.

If I had to distill the biggest complaint people have about “The Media” this campaign it is this: The media created Donald Trump in an effort to get ratings, and now they have to expose him as a fraud.

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard that Donald Trump tells lies? For that matter, is there anyone who thinks the media has gone easy on Hillary Clinton? And does anyone think that a person who has decided to vote for either candidate would change their mind if they were to read, in “The New York Times,” that their candidate lied?

It is not the job of the news to call news subjects names. Journalists are supposed to tell you what happened, and leave it to you to decide how you feel about the topic. You’re not going to see “Hillary Clinton (D): Hides Emails” and “Donald Trump (R): Lies a Lot” as their titles on TV.

Reporters are operating under unprecedented conditions. One candidate puts them in a pen, calls them names on Twitter, mocks them on live TV and even has them arrested. The other candidate won’t even speak to reporters in a formal setting. So we have a campaign in which neither candidate wants anything to do with the media, and yet the media is called irresponsible. Face it: the candidates are the reason their own coverage sucks.

When you heard there was an explosion in Manhattan Saturday night, you may have first found out about it on Twitter or Facebook. What did you do then? You went to cable news. And you saw great coverage. On Twitter, people were screaming about terrorism and ISIS and all sorts of as-yet unfounded theories. Good journalists don’t do that. They report the facts. They tell you what they know and what they don’t. We need these people on the street– people who are willing to go where a bomb just exploded and tell you what they found out.

Journalism as a profession is a skeleton of what it used to be. Newsrooms are decimated. Newspapers have either gone out of business or drastically cut staff. Reporters are asked to write, tweet, shoot video, post on Facebook, use Instagram and still file a complete version for the web and the next day’s newspaper. Bias? They’re biased toward getting six hours of sleep.

They do this in an industry where the median salary is $38,095. Oh– and it’s a job that CareerCast ranks as the worst job in America, right below pest control.

A word about “The Media.” There is no “The Media.” There aren’t daily meetings to decide how to advance the liberal agenda. There is no consensus. There are conventions, and they are full of seminars on how to improve coverage, have good relations in the community and other ways to improve your skills. There are also free drinks (…but fewer than there were 15 years ago).

Did TV give too much coverage to Donald Trump early on? Yes. He made for good TV. And because he was on TV so much, the newspapers couldn’t ignore him. As for the accusation that TV news put Trump on because he was good for ratings: Guilty. These are businesses. People demand high-quality coverage, but aren’t willing to pay for a newspaper or website. You have to get ad money somehow. I love it when people razz us with, “So– trying to sell more newspapers?” Yes, yes of course we are. We make $18 an hour. We could use the extra $1.25.

But nobody forced people to vote for the man. CNN could have aired a five-knife juggler cracking jokes as a Presidential candidate, and it would have been great TV. I don’t think the juggler would have received many votes, though. Don’t blame reporters for not asking Trump the tough questions. They ask. He doesn’t answer. Or he answers with outrageous statements that used to get candidates disqualified– and he gets more support. This is asynchronous warfare now. I would argue that showing Trump’s press conferences did a world of good by showing people exactly the kind of person he is. It just turned out that he is the kind of person those voters want.

Hillary Clinton gets away with plenty, too. Her supporters should really demand more of her. She is running a campaign not to lose. She isn’t running to win. I can tell you five of Trump’s plans off the top of my head. I can’t tell you what Hillary plans on doing, because it keeps changing and because she answers questions on substance with a “We’re going to look into that.” You should really want more from her. The Clintons don’t answer so much as put together pre-tested words and hope a sentence comes out.

So, with all of these problems– candidates that don’t talk, jobs that don’t pay, reporters hoping they’re not fired tomorrow– miraculously, the news still goes on. Media bashing is a fine political tradition. But when it becomes a habit of the public, it is dangerous. Hold the media accountable, by all means. But consider the alternative. These guys hate the Republicans. Those guys hate the Democrats. Everyone hates the media. The alternative is a one-party state with no press.

And in those places… you’re not allowed to complain at all.

 

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The Local News, by Steve Safran

I want to tell you a little bit about working in local news.

It’s messy and complicated. It’s filled with drudgery. It’s overnights for years without recognition. It’s reporters who start in small markets with pay so low they take a second job, usually as a waiter or waitress. Pilots describe their job as “Hours of boredom with moments of terror.” There’s not a lot of terror in news.

Until Monday.

My friends in local news work their asses off to tell stories that affect people’s lives. They are lumped in with “the media,” so often used these days as an insult. But “the media” is people: normal people (mostly). People at work the same way you work. Working in news is just like working in any company.

Except when you get something wrong.

I do not for a moment defend the inaccurate reporting that went on Wednesday. That was terrible journalism. That was rumor-mongering. That was the absence of the rule to have at least two sources. The oft-quoted saying in journalism is “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.” News let us down Wednesday.

But, for the most part, that was the national news. What inaccuracies were reported locally were sourced, as in “According to the AP…” That’s not an excuse. That’s how it works. And how it doesn’t. My friend Cory Bergman at BreakingNews.com had a perfect tweet midday Wednesday as the networks were pulling back from the report that a bomber was arrested. Cory’s site was not reporting any such arrest. And Cory tweeted “And that’s why Breaking News is still waiting.”

Props, Cor.

Local journalism can be silly. We’ve all seen those “WILL THIS THING KILL YOUR CHILDREN? TUNE IN AT 11!” teases.

But it can also rise to the occasion. On 9/11, NECN was on the air for 60 hours straight. Tom Melville, the Assistant News Director anchored overnight. Everyone pitched in. NECN News Director (and now GM at WBUR – an example of excellence in reporting) Charlie Kravetz gave cool-headed direction and insisted upon accuracy. We held off until we knew.

On Monday, as the bombs went off at the Marathon Finish Line, I am quite certain the instinct would have been to run like hell. But the journalists stayed: people like Steve Silva of Boston.com, who was there simply shooting what he hoped were inspiring stories. As soon as the explosion hit, Steve ran to get more footage. That’s not sensationalism. That’s journalism. And, though he’ll shrug it off, that’s bravery.

My friends in local news tried to make sense of the chaos. Mike Nikitas at NECN anchored calmly and accurately. Kathy Curran of WCVB, there to report on the race, put on her local news hat and stood within yards of the explosion reporting. Producers and Assignment Editors in every newsroom – unheralded though they are – scrambled to keep things organized and on the air. The national anchors dropped in later. But the local newsies were there from the first second.

I worked in local news from 1992 – 2006, and continued to work with stations as a consultant right up to last month. 20 years of experience. I can tell you what I know for sure: the people who bring you the local news are, well, wicked awesome.

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