WASHINGTON, March 13, 2016 – A free and functioning press has long served as America’s watchdog. From the so-called mainstream media (MSM) to independent press sites like Communities Digital News, the press was once charged with vigilantly watching people, events, and government officials, poring over words and deeds and looking for dishonesty, scandal and criminal activities in order to expose them.
Ranging from coverage of pleasant events, like concerts, family reunions, graduations and parades to observing local governments’ abuse of parking tickets or graft in city hall to the more challenging work of “political reporters” who follow a candidate’s every move, the press has long been an important part of who we are as a nation.
They provided a necessary and important service to not only those who made the news, but those who wanted to know the news.
An old school reporter once told this writer that we like to call news “the first rough draft of history.” While that still rings true in the work of foreign journalists like Christiane Amanpour, on a local and domestic level the role of the reporter—the news gatherer—has all but withered away.
Today, a journalist more often than not comes to page or broadcast desk with an agenda, whether personal or corporate, avoiding actual news while instead providing instant “analysis” of what someone else has said or written.
Pioneering reporters like Edward G. Murrow, John Cameron Swayze, Walter Cronkite, or Barbara Walters are now regarded as dinosaurs, relegated to footnotes in the story of modern journalism and replaced with the sound bytes, gotcha questions, and pretty faces that dominate today’s TV and online media infotainment hype.
Journalism then and now
In his will, Benjamin Franklin stated his profession as “printer.” Franklin is historically revered by the press for being behind the first monthly magazine in the American colonies.
John Webb, whom Franklin had hoped to engage as editor, shared these plans with Franklin’s rival, Andrew Bradford, and the two decided to publish a magazine.
Both printers issued their first number in February 1741, and the race for the story began.
This writer has been penning stories since well before there were computers, and cut-and- paste literally meant cutting a line from a typed document and moving it to another place.
My career has been far from lofty or newsworthy. I leave the political coverage to political writers, though I have also been known as a media watcher and commentator for more than five decades.
Being a Chicagoan, at a very early age I became familiar with the likes of typewriter legends like Mike Royko, Bob Green, Len Chandler, Irv Kupcinet and Studs Terkel, reading all of them avidly from an early age. My first “newspaper” memory is grabbing Royko’s column in The Chicago Sun Times to read over breakfast cereal at the age of eight.
As a Chicagoean, I find that the thrill of standing on Michigan Avenue looking up at The Sun Times building on the left and The Tribune on the right is as strong as it ever was.
Unfortunately, the relationship between the press and the newsmakers has taken a turn for the worse over recent decades.
There was a time when press knew boundaries, and worked within a set of mutually accepted rules. The relationship between reporters and their subjects was often almost quid pro quo; both sides wanted to get the story out, and reasonable accuracy was expected.
Today’s 24/7 online and cable news media have changed all that. Media handlers are now creating news on the fly, pushing stories out over their web sites and social media with the aim of being “first” at a much more rapid pace than traditional newsprint.
Gateways and gatekeepers are becoming a thing of the past. Oftentimes, so is accuracy. Online sources pick up items from other online sources without checking the facts or speaking with a subject or his or her representatives to get the other side of the story.
And it has gotten tougher and more challenging to cover news stories in person.
This writer’s experiences over the last five years include being taken down, seriously injured and then arrested by police while conducting a taped interview of an #Occupy protestor. At a recent political conference, the press loudly complained, at least to each other, about being treated badly by an event press office that was at best disorganized and at worst, downright rude and aggressively unhelpful.
Covering concerts at local, outdoor venues—something we have done for years—is now something we avoid; the press office takes media handling to a new rude level, as if our goal were no longer to create entertainment reviews that are useful to our readers, but instead to hype the artists to serve as free publicity.
Anything negative often shuts off access to artists, or political candidates, in the future.
What’s wanted today by political and entertainment machines are articles trumpeting their own hype. Real news and honest, studied opinions are stopped at the front door. It’s all part of the hype machine today.
What gets lost in the process is the truth.
The Michelle Fields-Corey Lewandowski flap
Today’s political handlers, corporate and government gatekeeper,s and often the police hold an obvious disdain toward reporters, particularly those viewed as likely to offer unflattering views on their clients.
This disdain, even outright hostility, has left me with a permanently damaged shoulder, the result of that cop turned rogue at the #Occupy protest I covered. That is the price we pay to get the journalist “street cred” that comes with a story colorfully related later over a stiff bourbon at the original Billy Goat cafe, deep in Chicago’s media underworld beneath the Sun Times building.
Or is it?
In the latest media-hyped flap involving a confrontation between Breitbart writer Michelle Fields and Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, we have to ask what protections does the political press enjoy today? Similar to a lion tamer in a cage, none, it appears.
If Fields’ allegations of physical assault are true—as of Sunday morning, reports conflict—Lewandowksi should not have touched anyone at anytime. That means a member of the press, who should be displaying a press badge if not the tools of the trade: notebook, pen, recorder and camera.
But as every good reporter knows, there are two sides to every story.
Well-known to be anti-trump, Fields may have pushed for a quote when his handlers were rushing candidate Trump to the stage or out the door. Fields was not wrong to go for the quote, but she appears to have been rushing into the scrum that was attempting to gain access to the candidate. That is dangerous territory in which to rush.
It’s vulnerable moments like this, when a candidate is on the move, that can become dangerous for a reporter, especially when a candidate is receiving numerous death threats, a Trump is. Everyone is on high alert.
Based on his photos, it’s easy to guess that Lewandowski, with his sidewall, Marine-style hair cut, dark suit and earpiece, took things a bit too seriously.
Or maybe just seriously enough.
The threats to Trump, a viable presidential candidate whether anyone likes him or not, are real. On a stage in Dayton, Ohio, he was rushed and almost physically assaulted by a protestor and rescued in the nick of time when Secret Service agents tackled the protestor. A #BlackLivesMatter protestor rushed Trump’s podium in Chicago (Trump was not on the stage), as part of a large, well-organized protest that successfully prevented the candidate from speaking.
Including aggressive comments from Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, the RNC, the DNC, and even Bernie Sanders, the escalating vocal and physical taunts and threats to Trump are very real.
Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella has announced he is resigning because of the website’s treatment of Fields, who filed a suit against Lewandowski Friday.
“When you reach a point where you can’t give 100 percent to people you represent it’s not tenable to continue representing them,” Bardella tweeted Friday.
Bardella has every right to resign after openly disagreeing with Breitbart management on this issue. But now Bardella and Fields have now become the story, not Trump, his entourage, his campaign, or the organized protests.
In the golden age of journalism, this was not acceptable. Today, it is. By any reasonable journalistic standard, members of the press should not be looking for their 15 minutes of fame. They should be reporting the actual news. Now, the news itself has fallen victim
Assuming Fields’ complaint and earlier news coverage are accurate, was Lewandowski correct in his manhandling of the reporter? No. Was Fields rushing the candidate, attempting to get the magic quote that goes viral, that no one else has? Probably.
Fields was right to try to gain access, and Lewandowski was right to try to stop her. But some think Lewandowski should have stopped Trump, allowing Fields the time she needed to ask her questions, even though Trump was on the move.
Fields was doing what reporters do, going for the quote, the story. But she also jumped into the lion’s den, and when you do that, you can get hurt, despite your press credentials.
We should not excuse Lewandowski’s apparent actions. He could have hurt Fields. But Ms. Fields needs to wear her big girl panties and recognize that sometimes being a part of the press means getting into the fray.
And no, its not always fair. And sometimes it hurts.
What true harm did Fields suffer? She is getting her 15 minutes of fame as well as having her attractive face splashed across the media—a media complicit in making her the story, not the candidate or the demonstrations.
No one mourns the lion tamer who loses his head to his lion. Fields’ bruised arm is hardly worth the spotlight time she has already enjoyed. Worse, this incident and the way she’s played it will ultimately transform her into yet another footsoldier in the MSM/Democratic establishment/Republican establishment effort to destroy the upstart candidacy of Donald Trump.
That’s not the job of a reporter. And she should not be given that chance by editors who have forgotten the role of an editor, or who are simply non-existent.
If Andrew Breitbart were alive today, he probably would have gotten an apology and a one-on-one interview with the candidate as a mea culpa. That’s because Breitbart knew a good story was not about the media but about getting the story.
He also knew how to turn lemons into lemonade and a blue dress into a media empire.