Enemy of the people

I'd been thinking about this as a blog post lately, and it turns out that a bunch of news organizations writing op/eds today so I figured I'd get on my horse laptop and get the thing written to coincide with others' pieces.

President Donald Trump, while he's famously yelled about "fake news," went so far early in his administration as to call media an enemy of the people.

Enemy.

As if it were my goal, as a journalist for a major media outlet, to see other Americans die. Because that's what enemies want, right?

I think the news media do a lot of things incorrectly. We give mass murderers notoriety by naming them and profiling their lives, when so often they do evil purely for the sake of that notoriety. We over-report on small, scary problems (like Ebola, which kills about 2 people in the U.S. a year, usually after they return from abroad) and under-report on major ones (like the flu, which kills upward of 20,000 Americans a year). We've eliminated layers of editing and fact-checking in the name of publishing quickly, so we publish many more corrections than should be necessary.

But we still do an awful lot of good.

The ha-ha version of how journalists describe their job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. While most journalists report leaning left politically (somewhere around three-quarters of writers in the newspaper world), if they're doing their job well, they (we) come off as anti-establishment more than anything else.

My journalistic training sent me out with the basics. Find the truth. If there's a disagreement, talk to all sides, but don't pick a side — just report them all (but verify if someone's not telling the truth, and report accurately).

I'll give you an example from early in my career.

The housekeeping staff at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., voted to unionize by a narrow margin. I was invited to the press conference/union rally. Afterward, some of the housekeepers who had voted against unionizing waved me over to give me their story.

I went through the facts, and was careful to give roughly equal print space to both groups.

The day after the paper came out, while I was out on assignment, my editor told me a group of people in favor of the union vote stopped by to voice their disappointment in my story. He asked if I'd reported anything incorrectly, and they said no, they were just angry about the balance.

That's a small-scale, nutshell look at what we're supposed to do.

Comfort the afflicted: I gave voice to the minority, who were feeling downtrodden. Afflict the comfortable: Giving voice to the minority — even though I gave equal play to the majority — so upset the majority that they gathered a few people and drove 20 minutes out to the office to complain.

If you're feeling generally angry about news media right now, take a look at the rest of your life. You're probably fairly comfortable and happy. If we're doing our job, we're a thorn in your side.

If you find yourself generally happy about the direction news takes, you're probably feeling uncomfortable in the rest of your life.

But if you're honest with yourself, even if you disagree with much of what you read in the media, do you honestly believe that journalists are your enemy?

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