Gene Lyons takes on New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s controversial question — should journalists “challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about” — in his column, “Yes, Newspapers Should Hold Politicians Accountable:”
Time was when newspaper journalists prided themselves on being working stiffs: skeptical, cynical and worldly-wise. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I’ve always preferred the unofficial motto of my native New Jersey: “Oh yeah, who says?”
Fact-check politicians? Here’s how H.L. Mencken saw things in 1924: “If any genuinely honest and altruistic politician had come to the surface in my time I’d have heard of him, for I have always frequented newspaper offices, and in a newspaper office the news of such a marvel would cause a dreadful tumult.”
Mencken could recall no such excitement. “The unanimous opinion of all the journalists that I know, excluding a few Liberals who are obviously somewhat balmy,” he added “…is that since the days of the national Thors and Wotans, no politician who was not out for himself, and himself alone, has ever drawn the breath of life in the United States.”
Alas, such attitudes went out of fashion with snap-brim fedoras, smoke-filled rooms, and bottles of rye in desk drawers. Today’s national political reporters have attended fancy colleges, regard their professional affiliations as valuable status symbols, hence give every sign of identifying more with Washington courtiers and political professionals than the great unwashed.
To the extent they may share Mencken’s exuberant disdain for hoodwinker and hoodwinked alike, ambitious reporters are well-advised to keep it to them-selves. As a career strategy, thoughtful circumspection is advised. The uphill path to a sinecure on “Meet the Press” must be trodden carefully.