From my point of view, it’s all this adapting to new technology that’s got us in the mess we’re in, First Amendment-wise.” The mess is propelled by the fact that the press has lost its professional — and essentially exclusive — standing. The new technology has made all the means of communication available to everyone. The only restraint is self-restraint and it doesn’t exist out there. Inside the profession it exists in ever lessening degree. if professional journalists in all media just used the new technology, but didn’t adapt their principles and honor to it, we’d all be better off.
This begins with a story about two reporters, one from the 1800s, the other a century later. What makes them important, to me, is that I worked with them before the new technologies came along, and with them a new journalism. The first was a columnist whom I think worked by the word. The other worked with me for many years. Or rather, both worked for a higher power in journalism: the principles and honor of their craft. They may have been the best reporters I ever knew.
You won’t find Will Robinson in Google. He didn’t live long enough to know about it, and vice versa. You can read about Leonard Zeidenberg, because there’s an RTDNA First Amendment award named for him. There should be one for Will, too.
Both come to mind because of a mistake I almost made in reporting a press dinner in Washington last week. I thought I heard the speaker say: “The best thing reporters can do is not (italics supplied) adapt to the new technology.” I wanted to send up a cheer, having waited so long for someone to make that distinction. But when I went up to check the quote she denied it, insisting she had said that was the worst thing they could do. I was deflated because I no longer had a story. The man hadn’t bitten the dog.
Undeterred, I wrote an email that evening to Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.), who had shared our table, saying: “From my point of view, it’s all this adapting to new technology that’s got us in the mess we’re in, First Amendment-wise.” The mess is propelled by the fact that the press has lost its professional — and essentially exclusive — standing. The new technology has made all the means of communication available to everyone, not just Will and Len. The only restraint is self-restraint and it doesn’t exist out there. Inside the profession it exists in ever lessening degree.
You used to need a press card to get in the game; now everyone can play. Freedom of speech has become so intertwined with freedom of the press that both are in danger of being diminished. As Janis Joplin famously put it, freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Will, then well into his 70s, was writing for the Roswell (N.M.) Dispatch, when we still had two daily newspapers in town. He sat at an old desk in the corner with a typewriter older even than my Underwood 5, smoking a curved pipe and two-fingering his columns. I was 17, in my first real newspaper job. One day he took on the Santa Fe railroad about curtailing its schedule (in a column that was a lot longer than 140 characters) and by the next week two public relations men came in from Topeka to convince him the cutback was a good thing. Our advertising salesman from the front office came back to placate them and disavow Will (still standard newspaper practice), but he just sat there, smoked his pipe and didn’t budge. After they’d left he walked by my desk, touched my shoulder and said: “Kid, every now and then you have to give them a kick in the butt.” If I had a Rule One for the old journalism that might have been it.
Len was far more sophisticated, but not much more modern (sadly, he died far too young). His stories always ran more than 60 inches when you wanted 30. His changes always held up the press, but they made Broadcasting the best, most accurate and respected in the business (it was sold to Times Mirror in 1986 for $75 million). He was the last on the staff to give in to using a computer and a favorite newsroom picture shows him pounding unforgivingly on his manual typewriter.
I was the managing editor by then and spent most of my time managing Len. I remember going to a White House photo opportunity with him and our publisher, Larry Taishoff, when President Reagan’s staff told us no questions would be allowed. Len, of course, starting asking them, and we found out the president thought he had vetoed an Equal Time bill instead of the Fairness Doctrine, an action we had advocated. In the comity of the day, we protected his lapse.
Most broadcasters do praise getting rid of the Fairness Doctrine, and its disappearance along with the advent of talk radio, Fox News, cable, blogging and social media, which changed all the rules. They didn’t have to. We would not have had this inundation of gossip as news and opinion as information and defamation as vernacular — that the First Amendment rightly protects — if professional journalists in all media just used the new technology, but didn’t adapt their principles and honor to it. Someone has to start the backlash. Why not here?
Don West, a broadcast and media journalist since 1953, is president and CEO of the Washington-based Library of American Broadcasting Foundation. He welcomes comments at [email protected]