It’s not as if all of us in this profession haven’t received a lot of free counsel:
On what we’ve done wrong. On what we need to do to set things right. On where we’ve purportedly violated our principles. On how supposedly things were so much better in the good old days, how in a previous time journalists were more principled or more rigorous in their craft.
These assessments have come not just from the right, as you might expect, but from the left, too. From those who used to be active members of the profession, and even from those who still are.
Polls clearly show that confidence in the media is low and falling – more among Republicans than among Democrats, but — really — falling across party lines.
We in the media even got some unvarnished advice straight from the White House in the very first week of the new administration.
And so I decided to choose that advice as a launching pad for a conversation about ethics.
The chief White House strategist, in an interview with the New York Times in late January, had some strong words for those of us in the press. His comments were so barbed that they lodged themselves immediately and firmly in our consciousness.
“The media,” he said, “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
“The media here is the opposition party.”
“They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
I want to deal here only with the message. Because, I believe, issues were raised that go straight to the ethical responsibilities of our profession.
Is this the time for the media to “keep its mouth shut”?
Should we “just listen for a while”? Or, to put it more broadly and perhaps more gently, do we as a profession need to do a better job of listening?
Have we become the “opposition party”?
Have we abdicated our moral and professional obligation to understand a world outside our own – to understand the people of this country and the reason they voted as they did?
These are serious questions. They should be taken seriously, regardless of the obvious venom that accompanied their delivery.
When we’re attacked, resentment and hurt feelings are a natural reaction. But they are not enough – and they are not constructive.
So I’ll tell you where I find common ground with this advice from the White House. And I’ll tell you where I cannot.
Let me start with the advice to keep our mouths shut. The answer to that has to be no. It is the only ethical answer.
Yes, we absolutely need to listen – and I’ll get to that next – but we should not keep our mouths shut. And certainly not on orders from the White House. And certainly not when a new administration is working feverishly to remake government, foreign policy, and domestic policy all in its first weeks.
For the press, this is a time that calls for commentary and analysis and – above all – calls for energetic reporting. On the effect of those new policies. On how those policies were devised in the first place. On the people who made the decisions. And on people whose lives are affected.
That is what journalism is for.
The founders of this country did not embrace a free press with the notion that it should shut up – or be shut down. They imagined just the opposite – a press that would speak up. And that, in speaking up, would contribute to the self-governance of our republic.
And speaking up, by the way, was not meant just for the press. The First Amendment provides free speech for all. And provides for the right to assemble. And the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In short, the First Amendment imagines that all of us – not the press alone, but the press absolutely included – will keep close watch on our government.
Shutting up would betray the principles that motivated the nation’s founders to draft the First Amendment in the first place.
It’s worth remembering what Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927:
“Those who won our independence … believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. . . . that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones . . . Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.”
In the landmark 1964 press-freedom case, New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice William Brennan wrote of “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
The writings of Justice Brennan and Justice Brandeis were rooted in language authored by James Madison in 1798. He extolled the “right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people.” And he called that right of free expression “the only effectual guardian of every other right.”
In short, ours is a country that makes a moral demand on its people, and its press, to speak up — not to shut up.
You know, there is a painting called “Freedom of Speech.” It’s by Norman Rockwell — one of this country’s most popular artists, an American icon.
Rockwell is best known for 47 years’ worth of cover illustrations for the old Saturday Evening Post magazine. They captured an idealized image of small-town American life. But this 1942 painting called “Freedom of Speech” is among his best works. Biographer Deborah Solomon has described it as “the defining image of American democracy in progress.”
How did Rockwell give visual definition to our First Amendment right?
He did not paint the masses making demands on government. What he painted was a lone dissenter, one ordinary man at a town meeting — standing to speak up.
The embodiment of the fundamental American right of free speech was, as Rockwell’s biographer put it, an individual “who isn’t afraid to think for himself or to stand alone.”
Now, how about the directive to “just listen for a while”?
That language implies that we have not been listening. And I don’t think that’s the case. But there is a larger point here. And I can’t disagree with it. We in the press do need to be better listeners.
I have talked about this often in the past year because I consider it so important; imperative, in fact.
I’ve been consumed lately by this idea of listening. That’s because I’ve become dismayed by how much of media today is all about talking. Shouting, actually, when it comes to television and to radio and to some ideologically-driven Internet sites.
And as we talk, we have raised the volume — to a level where we can scarcely hear each other. A lower volume would allow us to not just hear better but to genuinely listen.
First, I should say that anytime the White House’s chief strategist wants to talk, I am happy to listen – and to have a meaningful conversation.
But beyond listening to the people we routinely cover, we have an obligation to listen closely and generously to the people who make up this vast and diverse country.
We in the press have been accused of not taking Donald Trump seriously enough, early enough, during the primaries.
It’s always risky to generalize about the media. We are not a monolith – anything but.
But, on the whole, I don’t think much of that stands up to scrutiny, certainly not at The Washington Post, where we took Trump seriously from the beginning and early on were speaking in-depth with his supporters to understand what motivated them to offer not only their support but their devotion.
My sense is that there’s more merit to thinking about what happened – or, more accurately, what didn’t happen — before Donald Trump ever became a candidate.
We can all point to exceptions, but for the most part the press failed to detect and explore the depth of anxiety and grievance in America: The hurt felt by those who had seen opportunities vanish for themselves and their families. The resentment harbored against those perceived as gaining at their expense. The feeling that they were not heard, or listened to, by politicians and the press and others who seemed to exert influence over their destiny.
It is our job to hear all people. And to listen with interest and empathy. And to give the people of America insights into each other.
There is no question: We must work harder at that.
Not just for “a while,” by the way. But always.
To accomplish that, we have an obligation to assure that our reporters are spending a lot of time in regions of this country where people feel – with good reason – that they have been left behind.
That means regularly dispatching reporters to areas far from urban and coastal population centers. And making sure that we are not just dropping in – but rather immersing ourselves in communities so that we fully understand them.
It also means populating our newsrooms with people who have lived varied lives, who can provide distinct insights.
To reflect the lives of all Americans, our newsrooms need to draw from every corner of this country.
We know that many in our society do not see themselves represented adequately, or even honestly, in American media.
As the distinguished journalist Gwen Ifill, whose death this year was mourned by our profession, once said: “We have stories to tell, but many in our audience have stopped listening because they can tell that we’re not talking about them.”
Race and ethnicity are a big part of that. We need to do more to diversify our staff, including our leadership ranks.
But there is more to this issue. Diversity comes in different forms.
There is no room for political litmus tests in my view. And we at The Post never ask people their political views. Nor will we.
But our newsrooms can surely benefit from having people whose lives have taken markedly differently paths.
How many of our newsroom colleagues come from working-class families? How in touch are we with families that live on the financial edge – short on savings, heavy in debt, with jobs at risk of being exported out of existence or automated into obsolescence, looking with worry and even despair at the opportunities for themselves and their children?
How many in our newsrooms have served in the military or, beyond that, been in combat during this country’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
The question deserves to be asked: Are America’s newsrooms missing something essential to understanding the America they cover?
By the way, the issue of listening has to do with a lot more than politics.
Last year, I addressed this issue in a speech to a convention of survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The convention I spoke to in Chicago had 300 attendees.
Many were there for the first time. They were motivated by the movie “Spotlight” and the investigative work of The Boston Globe that inspired the film, to finally speak openly about their abuse to family, to friends, and to the public — and to push for accountability for the Catholic Church.
I thought I owed those individuals a discussion about why the journalism profession doesn’t always live up to its highest ideals, why we miss stories, why we did not look as deeply as we should have into this one for so long.
This, after all, turned out to be a scandal that was massive in scale and shocking in its depravity, a scandal that represented a betrayal of everything the Church aspires to represent. It was perpetrated against the most vulnerable to protect the most powerful.
There are any number of possible reasons. And I don’t want to go through them all here. But one of the lessons for me has been the need to be better listeners.
No doubt my profession could have listened more generously to the individuals who sought our attention to the abuse they suffered. We might have exposed the breadth and depth of this horrible scandal far sooner.
To me, there is no point in assessing blame. But there is every reason to learn something. It should allow us to do better the next time we are told of grave wrongdoing.
So, yes, I do think we need to be better listeners. We should listen to the people of this country and around the world. We should listen to experts in their fields. We should listen to those who run our government.
We should listen closely and openly. Of course we should.
Now is a good time to do that. Because it is always a good time to do that.
But I want to make a point here: Listening is not the same as saluting.
When our democratically elected representatives and their appointed staff speak, we should listen. That is not to say we should accept what they say without question. Our job is not to shut up and salute.
This brings me to what is perhaps the most provocative statement that emanated from the White House, even from the president himself – that we in the media have become the “opposition party.”
First, I’ll repeat something I said before. It makes no sense to generalize about the so-called media. What is the media, after all?
It includes The Washington Post and The New York Times and CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC and magazines like The New Yorker, but it also includes Fox News and conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
It also includes Breitbart, the website run until recently by the very White House strategist who now calls the media the “opposition party.” And it includes other outfits like the Daller Caller, NewsMax, and the Christian Broadcast Network, whose reporters are now being regularly called upon at White House press conferences.
The media is many things.
And how can anyone speak of the “mainstream media” and not include the biggest cable news outlet and the nation’s most popular talk-radio host?
Second, the media doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to a party. We don’t coordinate with each other. We don’t even have a good mechanism for doing so, if we desired to.
Disappointingly, we don’t even do a good job of supporting each other when we should.
We do compete with each other. Intensely. That comes naturally. And professional infighting is a wearying, corrosive constant, often exploited by those who seek to weaken the press.
To the question of whether we’re “the opposition”:
We most definitely should not be. And the truth is that we are not.
Are news organizations like The Washington Post independent of this government? Yes, we are. As we should be. We should be independent of every government, regardless of party or politics or policies.
Journalistic independence is not a hostile act. It is a moral duty.
We have reached an unsettling point in this country when the independence of journalists is portrayed as political opposition – and when journalists are identified as “the enemy of the American People.”
When that happens, you know that we have traveled far from the inspiring words of James Madison and Louis Brandeis that I cited earlier:
James Madison’s embrace of the “right of freely examining public characters and measures.”
The reminder by Justice Louis Brandeis that public discussion is a “political duty” and – this should be emphasized – a “fundamental principle of the American government.”
A central purpose of journalism, of course, is to hold our politicians and our political institutions accountable – and other powerful individuals and institutions accountable as well.
Since the earliest years of our republic, the press was envisioned as a check on abuse of power. That is what we should be.
If we fail to perform that mission, we betray the very purpose of our profession. We betray our readers and viewers and listeners. We betray the public.
If we fail to perform that mission, I am convinced, citizens will not forgive us. Nor, in my view, should they.
So why are we called the opposition? Clearly, it is because that label serves a useful purpose for politicians, their operatives, and their surrogates who seek to pin it on us.
Several commentators have already begun to astutely diagnose the ends served by such a strategy.
Journalist John Cassidy had it right when he wrote in the New Yorker that Donald Trump “has made demonizing the press a central part of his political strategy. During the campaign, Trump’s attacks on the ‘dishonest media’ fired up his base and kept him in the news. Now . . . the aim is to portray the media as a political adversary rather than an independent monitor, so that when damaging stories appear the Administration can dismiss them.”
Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and the author of a book about presidential deception, has argued that the president’s own false statements have been deliberate: The media’s journalistic response is seen as a belligerent act by an opponent. “Fact-checking,” he said, “becomes an act of war by the media.”
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, an economist born and raised in Venezuela and now living in Madrid identified demonization as essential to populism – the sort that the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez represented in his country and the sort that we see in our own country today.
“Populism,” wrote Andrés Miguel Rondón, “can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy . . . It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.”
Over the course of the campaign, Donald Trump went beyond criticizing the press, or even seeking to discredit us. He sought to delegitimize us — even to dehumanize us, calling us “disgusting,” “scum,” the “lowest form of humanity,” even “the lowest form of life.”
After his election, at his New Year’s party, he called us “garbage.” He was only four weeks into his administration when he labeled us “the enemy of the American People.”
It is worth asking: Who, really, is opposing whom?
At The Washington Post, our hope is to have a solid, professional relationship with the president and his administration. And, in fact, every day our reporters have regular, respectful interactions with key figures in this administration. That is the proper way, for us and for them.
Our goal as a news organization is to be honest, honorable, accurate, fair, forthright – and, as I said before, independent.
The Washington Post Company’s certificate of incorporation explicitly defines our purpose as publishing “an independent newspaper dedicated to the welfare of the community and the nation in keeping with the principles of a free press.” We have never thought of ourselves as the “opposition” to this president or any other.
On the other hand, what has this president said?
When the president appeared in late January at the CIA, he declared, “I have a running war with the media.”
The president may be at war. But The Washington Post is not. We’re at work. We’re just trying to do our jobs.
This country has seen presidents wage war on an independent press in the past, of course. Notorious for its hostile and aggressive posture toward the press was the administration of Richard Nixon.
In his book on the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Sanford Ungar calculated that between January 1969 and July 1971 CBS and NBC received a total of 122 subpoenas for film or reporters’ testimony in grand jury or court proceedings. A report prepared at the time for the American Civil Liberties Union said the press had gone from what it called “a position of extreme security” to “one of extreme vulnerability.”
In language that may resonate today, the report said: “There are some who say freedom of the press is now in the greatest degree of danger of being lost in America; there are others who say it is all but lost already.”
Ungar, who later became president of Goucher University, recounted that “there was a clearly observable ‘chilling effect’ as the news media began to neglect stories . . . cut back on coverage of controversial subjects . . . and scrape for the ‘good news’ favored by the administration.”
I was in high school at the time. So I wouldn’t know. But I do know that it’s vital we not see a “chilling effect” today.
Ultimately, in the early 1970s, it was publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate investigation that confirmed again the centrality of a free and independent press in a democracy.
Numerous investigations since — by journalists in cities and towns throughout this country — have also validated the singular and essential role of the press in holding powerful individuals and powerful institutions to account.
Among those powerful individuals and institutions are politicians and policymakers at every level – local, state, and national. Obviously the individual who holds the top position in the most powerful country on earth must be included.
The press may be flawed – and indeed we are, just like any profession. Mistakes arise from haste or inadequate reporting or asking too few questions or any number of other reasons. Errors are regularly observed, and regularly critiqued. If you publish or broadcast, missteps are on display for all to see, unlike those in many other fields.
Yet, despite our flaws, the press is also necessary. There is no true democracy without free expression, no genuine democracy without a free press.
So what do we in the press look to — and what do we value — as we pursue that mission of holding our government accountable?
First, we look at evidence:
What are the facts? Are there witnesses? Are there documents? Have assertions been verified? What standards are we using for verification?
Not: What do you believe to be true? Not: What do you feel is true? Not your hunches or the conspiracy theories you’ve heard or the suspicions you and your friends have harbored.
When the White House press secretary was pressed for evidence on the president’s claim that millions of people cast illegal votes in the presidential election, giving Hillary Clinton a popular vote margin of nearly 3 million votes, the response was that the president “has believed that for a while based on studies and information he has.”
The studies cited don’t, in fact, show what was claimed. And believing something to be true does not make it so.
And declaring that “a lot of people are saying” or “a lot of people are talking about it” certainly doesn’t get you any closer to the truth.
People who make assertions of fact – especially a president, if he is alleging wrongdoing – are obligated to provide evidence. And we in the press are obligated to accept nothing less.
So when this president claims that his predecessor ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower, we in the press are duty-bound to ask for evidence. And when no evidence is provided, we should ask again. And again.
So far, no evidence has been provided. And central to the response from the White House has been sharp criticism of the press for continuing to demand evidence.
Here’s what I would like to know: Since when did it become a journalistic crime for reporters to insist on evidence?
Evidence, by the way, doesn’t lean Republican or Democrat, right or left.
I was editor of The Miami Herald during the 2000 presidential election, when it was not clear who had won Florida. Whoever won the state – George Bush or Al Gore — would become president.
The U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount in the state, assuring a victory for George Bush.
The Miami Herald decided to do a recount of its own, taking advantage of Florida’s expansive public records law. Ballots there were deemed to be public records and, under the state’s law, we were entitled to inspect them. We successfully demanded to see every ballot cast in every one of Florida’s 67 counties. We hired a major accounting firm to do its own independent recount as well.
Republicans at the time accused us of seeking to delegitimize the Bush presidency. That was not our intent at all. Our intent was to get hold of the evidence and fairly examine it. In that instance, the evidence was available. We just needed to look at it.
History, we felt, required it. And American voters, we felt, were entitled to it.
So, our parent company spent $850,000 on that effort. And the conclusion was that Bush had almost certainly won Florida and, therefore, the presidency. A separate, subsequent recount by a large media consortium arrived at the same result.
Still today, many Democrats assert that an official recount would have given Al Gore the presidency. But the evidence says otherwise.
We as journalists demand evidence, whatever it shows. Everyone should.
We also value experience.
It could be professional experience. Do the people we consult and interview have meaningful, substantial experience that informs their conclusions, assertions or point of view?
And it can be personal experience: Did the individuals we interviewed personally experience an event. Were they witnesses? Were they directly involved? Did they have first-hand knowledge?
Can there be any more real, more wrenching personal experience than losing a child to murder? In 2012, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, 20 children and 7 adults were slaughtered in a mass shooting.
And yet the operator of a popular radio show and conspiracy-oriented Internet site said the mass shooting — massively covered by the press, of course — was a fabricated event, with the purpose being to boost public support for gun control. He called images from the scene of that mass killing “synthetic,” “manufactured,” “completely fake, with actors.”
The parents of a six-year-old boy murdered at that school ultimately spoke out about the harassment they had received from people who, believing these conspiracy theories, accused them of participating in a hoax.
Here is what they wrote: “The heartache of burying a child is a sorrow we would not wish upon anyone. Yet to our horror, we have found that there are some in this society who lack empathy for the suffering of others.
“Among them are the conspiracy theorists that deny our tragedy was real. They seek us out and accuse us of being government agents who are faking our grief and lying about our loss.”
That conspiracy-oriented radio and Internet host, by the way, was praised during the presidential campaign by Donald Trump. While giving him an interview, candidate Trump said his reputation was “amazing.” In a bit of head-spinning contrast, a President Trump now calls CNN “fake news.”
Finally, we as journalists look for expertise.
Do the people we’re talking to have the requisite background to know what they’re talking about. Have they been educated in the subject? Do they have a track record? Have they practiced in the field? Do they have the experience that gives them expertise?
That is why we rely on the overwhelming consensus of health professionals when they dispute any link between vaccines and autism. It is why we respect the overwhelming conclusion of climate scientists that human behavior contributes to global warming. It is why we turn to public-health experts on how to properly respond to outbreaks of disease.
When we rely on evidence, experience, and expertise to hold our government accountable, that is not acting as an opposition party. It is performing our duty to be an independent check on power.
It is doing it responsibly. And it is the only ethical thing for a journalist to do.
Today, one of our greatest challenges as journalists is to ensure that we do not slide into a world that some worry is already upon us.
When a Trump campaign surrogate declared, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” our job is to insist that, yes, there is such a thing — still today — as facts . . . And, by the way, we’re going to tell you what they are.
We owe it to the public to make clear that the alternative to facts is not “alternative facts.” The alternative to facts is fiction.
We owe it to the public to steer society clear of the world that George Orwell imagined when he wrote that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”
This is a test for those of us who work as journalists.
It is a test of enormous proportions. It is a moral test. It is a defining test. It may be the ultimate test.