A Very Bad Year For American Journalism

A Very Bad Year For American Journalism

This has probably not in fact been the worst year in the history of American journalism.

But you’ll forgive me if it feels that way just the same.

It was, after all, a year in which the country firmly entered the post-factual era, led by an incoming president who has no time for intelligence reports, yet is a devotee of a conspiracy website that claims symbols on a pizza menu are used by pedophiles to send messages. This same guy spent much of the year castigating journalists as “dummies,” “slime,” “disgusting,” “lame,” “sad,” and “the lowest form of life,” all of it eaten up by mobs that snarled and snapped at the traveling press corps, who stood penned up at his rallies like that goat lowered into the Tyrannosaur paddock in “Jurassic Park.”

So yes, a grueling year. And it seems to me, in this season of thanksgiving, that the best way to end that year is to thank my reporter colleagues for all they do to inform a nation that, increasingly, chooses not to be informed.

Lest you think I sprain my arm to pat my own back, I hasten to say that the above does not refer to me. Though I do occasional reporting, I am not a reporter, but a columnist. A political cartoonist I once met described people like us as “professional reactors.” That is, a thing happens, real reporters gather the facts of that thing, and then we opine upon those facts.

Everybody opines, of course. But sometimes, we forget that the information upon which we do so does not simply produce itself. The facts upon which both the barstool philosopher and the columnist rely, the facts Sean Hannity mangles and Donald Trump simply ignores, come to us through the efforts of men and women who dig for them, who work phones, finesse sources, burrow into transcripts, ask powerful people impolite questions.

And sometimes, die.

Worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that over 1200 journalists have been killed since 1992. According to Reporters Without Borders, 81 were killed last year alone.

The United States has been largely spared those outrages. Yet they provide a chilling context for the anti-media frenzy so gleefully generated by the incoming president.

Not that news media were universally beloved before he came to town. In a nation of stark political polarization, claims of bias — a word too often defined as, “that which is mean (though not unfactual) toward my preferred candidate or ideology” — have made media-bashing the fastest growing sport in America.

Some of it is certainly deserved. Sometimes, news media are too timid. Too obsessed with ephemera. And, yes, biased.

But then, there is this:

On Sept. 11, an army of police and firefighters famously rushed toward the danger. Less well-remembered is the army of reporters who did the same. My former colleague, Elinor J. Brecher, was one of them. Ellie might be five feet tall if she jumped. She might weigh 110 pounds if she tied cinder blocks to her feet.

Yet, there she was, this small woman, down there in the wreckage of the World Trade Center with the rescue workers and survivors, gathering the news. From time to time, I re-read the powerful and evocative essay she wrote about it as a reminder of what my colleagues do.

That is, they go where the story is, even if that’s dangerous, even if it defies self-preservation. And they produce the facts that help those of us who still want to, to comprehend our world.

As journalism’s hard year draws to a close, I think that deserves my gratitude. Frankly, it deserves yours, too.

NOTE: A recent column on the effort to recount ballots in the 2016 election misstated the date of a Donald Trump tweet, which was Sunday, Nov. 27. The reference to the Inuit people living in Bethel, Alaska was also incorrect. The Inuit make their home much closer to the Arctic Circle.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist forThe Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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