Trump and other changes over 30 years in journalism, not all of them for the better – USA TODAY
Thirty years ago on the Fourth of July, I started my first full-time job at an Iowa newspaper.
It was fair warning about how many holidays I would work in the years to come. At the time, though, I appreciated the extra money in my first paycheck.
If memory serves, my first assignment as a reporter at the Quad-City Times in Davenport was covering a lighted boat parade on the Mississippi River. It was raining. I didn’t look up the story because I’m afraid I would see a rookie-cliché lead along the lines of “Rain didn’t dampen the spirits of …”
I don’t let rain dampen my spirits these days, but I also didn’t feel much like shooting off fireworks on Independence Day, given the trials of American journalism these days.
In the run-up to the holiday, three experienced, respected journalists resigned from CNN after the network retracted an anonymously sourced story about the Trump-Russia investigation. The network said the story failed to meet reporting standards.
President Donald Trump tweeted: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!”
A couple of days later, we learned that ABC News had reached a settlement in the $1.9 billion “pink slime” defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. The terms of the settlement are secret — an unsurprising but disappointing choice for a media company that is supposedly dedicated to transparency.
The next day Trump unleashed his own version of pink slime, a pair of tweets attacking the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Trump claimed Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a facelift” during a New Year’s trip to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Just this week, Trump called CNN “fake news” and said “NBC is equally as bad” — at a news conference with the president of Poland, no less.
Over the past three decades, I’ve experienced radical change in the media industry. The journalism students I teach at Iowa State University are usually befuddled when I tell them I used a manual typewriter and carbon paper to write stories in that very class, way before they were born. Hours of searching through paper documents for sources and information now takes a few keystrokes. Stories that used to reach only print subscribers now travel around the world on the internet.
There is enormous power in being able to tell stories instantly over social media or visually through photos and videos, all from my phone. Today my paper, the Des Moines Register, has a drone for aerial photography and we’re experimenting with virtual reality. Who knows what we’ll be able to do tomorrow.
Journalism has always been a pressure-packed career. There has always been stress involved in getting the story right and getting it first. Errors are inevitable and they have always been humiliating. I remember one day in Davenport when the afternoon edition broke a front-page, banner story with a glaring typo in the super-sized headline. Everyone in the newsroom was horrified and embarrassed. We knew that one journalist’s error affected the credibility of us all.
Today, the digital world has magnified those pressures exponentially. Reporters break stories on Twitter in 140 characters. Every minute of the day is a deadline. Stories are published before the reporting is finished and updated in real time.
I’ve always been blessed with excellent editors and I’m grateful for them, but today they are too scarce. Urgency too often takes priority over accuracy. Click-grabbing hype is rewarded over thoughtful context and nuance. “Gotcha” moments and gaffes get more attention than important but unsexy policy analysis and explanation.
In the 25 years that I’ve been focused on political news, I’ve seen the growth of ideologically branded media outlets. Cable news stations spend more time on opinion and commentary than actually reporting the news, which is much more expensive than a bunch of talking heads.
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Increasingly ideological news consumers today brand as “fake news” any report that contradicts their world view, while rabidly sharing completely fraudulent stories that bolster their opinions. Facts are negligible; a person’s word means nothing unless it can be used as a political trap. This is a bipartisan club, but Trump is more than just a member, he’s the president.
I have no regrets in my choice of a career, but it hasn’t always been pleasant. There was that time I covered a 24-hour police standoff of suspected escaped prisoners at a Missouri state park. The tear gas was uncomfortable, but the sunburn was excruciating. I lost my job in 1990 when the newspaper I was working for in St. Louis folded. Getting yelled at during political rallies isn’t my favorite way to spend an evening.
But for every rainy parade, there have been amazing experiences: Interviewing presidents, vice presidents and presidents-to-be; witnessing history in Iowa like the election of the first female U.S. senator and inauguration of the first female governor; interacting with engaged and appreciative readers; working with some of the most talented and dedicated journalists in the country; teaching and mentoring the journalists of the future.
I don’t know what the next 30 years of journalism will bring. I hope the Trump era will inspire a return to core standards of accuracy and ethics. I hope we in the legacy media can harness social media instead of being shackled by its skewed news judgment and driven by its algorithms. I hope we can fuel civic debate with facts rather than becoming just another torch in the blazing pyre of partisan conflict.
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