As a rule, journalism should be outward-facing, recording human problems and achievements, ferreting out what is happening inside the halls of power. But there are times – now is one – when journalism itself is news.
In our cover story (click here), Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, examines the daggers-drawn relationship between President Trump and the Washington press corps. Politicians and publications have always had an adversarial relationship. But, Tom argues, when reporters are branded as “enemies of the American people,” when news that is critical of an administration is summarily dismissed as “fake,” and when objective facts are countered by unspecified “alternative facts,” a line has been crossed.
“Citizens of a democracy need solid information and credible journalism,” he noted in a recent phone conversation. “Journalism matters. Facts matter.”
Tom’s essay mentions the award-winning movie “Spotlight,” in particular the scene in which The Boston Globe’s presses rolled, printing the painstakingly assembled investigative report of systemic sex abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. As it happens, I was the Globe’s Sunday editor that night. I still remember reading that story and marveling at how bulletproof it was. Every startling assertion was backed up and verified. Whatever a reader’s background – conservative or liberal, Catholic or non-Catholic – the facts that the Spotlight Team established were irrefutable. Spotlight’s reporters shined a bright light on long-covered-up criminality. That changed laws and prompted reform in the Church and beyond.
Not every news report can be a Spotlight investigation. Some reporting has to be quick and dirty, sketchily describing events as they unfold. Imperfect as that is, without independent journalism that strives to make sense of the world, that gives voice to many sides of a story, that points out problems and discrepancies in what a political leader says or does, how can we know anything outside our own experience?
A bulletproof story like the Spotlight exposé is the gold standard. But any form of journalism that strives for truth and sheds light on wrongdoing benefits the public and promotes intelligent decisionmaking for the citizens of a democracy. Journalism can upset and disappoint. It can miss the mark. But there’s no alternative to people who dedicate themselves to seeking truth and establishing facts, who act as your eyes and ears at civic meetings, in war zones, after natural disasters. Is that really the enemy?
Tom was inspired to enter his field by the work of a relative you might remember: legendary Monitor reporter Richard L. Strout. “He was a towering figure in our family,” Tom says. Mr. Strout covered 12 presidents in 60 years. Some were confident with the press (Franklin Roosevelt), some were shy and out of their depth (Warren Harding). Some charmed (John Kennedy), some fought (Richard Nixon). But as Strout noted in an interview with Bill Moyers, all Americans – the public, the press, the president – have a fundamental link: “We believe in democracy, and we believe in live and let live.” That is a fact.