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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Media Then and Now - Part 1

It’s my hope that none of you believes everything you read and hear in the national news media is the truth. As a journalist of nearly 50 years, it pains me to say that. At one time, hearing it would have made me mad. But today, having been a participant and close observer in the changing profession, I know it is so.

Certainly, the concept is nothing new to many of you. But I thought you might be interested in the perspective of someone in the business who’s watched it deteriorate.

The base for considering all that’s changed goes back to the mid-1950’s when I started writing while still in high school. I was asked by my hometown newspaper publisher if I would be interested in covering some high school basketball games.

That was my first glimpse of heaven! I loved basketball! I stayed awake at night when I was 9 or 10, while most tender hearts were sound asleep, listening to Hilliard Gates do the play-by-play for the then-Fort Wayne Pistons of the NBA. Giants of the game like George Mikan, Clyde Lovellette, Dolph Schayes, George “Bird” Yardley and many more seemed as familiar to me as my childhood pals.

Having the chance to tell the story of games, in print, was almost beyond my imagination. Lacking the ability to type, my early reports were hand-written. But a commerce instructor at our high school graciously gave me a crash course in typing and that soon made it easier for a newspaper employee to convert my game reports to type.

When that basketball season was over, the newspaper offered me a “gofer” job with the paper, evenings and Saturday mornings. And before the end of my senior year, the paper asked me to become a full-time employee as sports editor, general news reporter and photographer/engraver. That was great preparation for a couple of newspaper jobs I later filled, one in various capacities including newsroom management at a major daily in northeastern Indiana.

As green as I was fresh out of high school, the matter of integrity and accuracy in reporting was never preached to me. It was just understood. It was much like the experience for many of us as we grew up in that era … do something foolish and the “neighborhood watch” was going to report it to your parents. You WOULD face the consequences.

And so it was in the newspaper business.

Screw up, misreport the facts and your editor/publisher WOULD hear about it and so WOULD you!!! Most importantly, as a newspaper reporter you might be the most brilliant wordsmith your area had ever seen. But if you couldn’t be trusted to tell a story straight, pretty soon you wouldn’t be trusted at all. And then you had nothing to offer your paper, any other paper or the public.

I’m proud to say nearly every journalist I ever worked with (and I once worked with a team of journalists that shared a Pulitzer Prize) was self-motivated to get the story and to tell it accurately. We had an uncompromising sense of urgency about reporting things as they happened.

If we wanted to put our personal take on a story there was always an opportunity to do that … but it was clearly identified as “Commentary” or “Editorial.” It wasn’t passed off as news!

The largest paper I worked for was well-known for its conservative Republican editorial position. Yet, something that pleased me more than any recognition that ever came my way was a comment from our state’s Democrat United States Senator, who once told me he was glad to see me covering his events because he knew my stories always accurately reflected what he said. I didn’t much like several of his policies, but I knew my job was telling the story fairly. And he recognized that result!

I’m happy to say that didn’t make me special back then. Most of my peers received similar comments from the people they dealt with on their beats.