Being a pediatric echocardiographer for over twenty years I have had hundreds, if not thousands of college bound teens on my examination table. As you’d imagine, their thoughts on potential fields of study / possible professions have been a frequent topic of conversation. Although it is not a popular contemporary career path, I do see perhaps a dozen or so kids a year who express interest in journalism. Half of them are high school athletes that want to end up working for ESPN, and so are not really part of this particular discussion. Not that I think that there’s anything wrong with that dream. At fifty-five, with all the attendant aches and pains, my athletic fantasies are much more likely to involve calling the big game than actually playing in it. It’s just that when I hear the word “journalist” I think of someone informing me about war, famine or global upheaval; you know, the good stuff. It was only last Friday (March 1st) that I saw my most recent patient with those sort of aspirations. I told him, as I always do, that keeping people informed was a noble calling, and that I hoped he would remember what so many of its current chosen seem to have forgotten, if not willfully cast aside. Reporters report the news. Period. They don’t opine, fawn, or worst of all, omit facts on the basis of emotion. He seemed to get it, and not coincidentally, I think, so did his mother. As we were finishing up the procedure I left him, as I do all of the young people I meet that share his direction, with a brief story about David Brinkley.
For those of you too young to remember, David Brinkley was a Mount Rushmore-like figure in twentieth century television news reporting. From 1956 through 1970 he co-anchored The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. Throughout the decade of the seventies he was a co-anchor or commentator on NBC nightly news. In the eighties and nineties he hosted This Week with David Brinkley as well as providing election night coverage for ABC news. In all, his career lasted over fifty years, the vast majority of which were spent as a national figure. And when he retired, one of the most conversed about subjects was that in all his years of work he had never tipped his hand as to his political persuasion. If you’re reading this and questioning my scholarship, integrity or mental well-being I can’t really hold you at fault. At this point in the history of the medium it must be nigh unto impossible for someone that didn’t actually live through it to believe that there was a time when stone cold impartiality was considered the standard for anyone that wanted the honor of being trusted by the public to bring them the news of the day. But it was the way things were. The reason I refer to him whenever I talk to some kid with that set of stars in their eyes is that he is the last person I can remember retiring from the business that hadn’t projected a clear sense of which way they leaned politically. I mention it to my patients in the hopes that they will approach their job in a way that might bring that kind of behavior back into vogue.
Lest the reader come to the opinion that this has just been another crabby old man moment, there has been, within the last decade or so, some sporadic confirmation on the notion of media bias from within the ranks of the profession. On February 27th, former 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan posted a piece in then New York Post concerning the ascendency of propagandizing by the media, and the resulting loss of faith by the American public. Human nature being what it is, it would be surprising if the industry didn’t lean, on the whole, markedly left. As best as I can figure by sifting through a variety of polls (Pew, Washington Post) media members identify as liberal as opposed to conservative at ratio of between three and five to one. That’s a significant difference, and likely is in part reflective of the disparity in worldview of the people who educated those journalists. Not that this ugly tendency isn’t a bi-partisan affair. It’s just that a right wing outfit like Fox News is outnumbered by an order of magnitude by it’s brethren on the other side of the aisle. Logan is not a lone voice. Liz Spayd, former public editor of The New York Times, has weighed in on irresponsible reportage herself. She was so attuned to it in her position as the paper’s ombudsperson that it not only got her fired but probably contributed to the elimination of the job altogether. She felt that by abandoning a measured tone in its coverage, the Times was in danger of losing the trust of its readership. She wrote “…Whether journalists realize it or not, with impartiality comes authority – and right now it’s in short supply.” Spayd had endured a lot of criticism during her tenure with a significant portion of it centered on her being too concerned with “false balance”, and failing too distinguish between the wishes and the real interests of the readership. That last bit of vomit is pretty close to a quote from Slate’s Will Oremus, a man who apparently skipped “irony day” in college. I could go on but things move into the tautological rapidly. Suffice it to say that no small amount of the invective hurled in her direction reinforced so much of what she ended up warning against. If you’re thinking that she was possessed of an inherently conservative nature that would probably have come as quite a surprise to her previous employer of over a quarter century, The Washington Post. The Post is not exactly an outlet for alt-right sentiment.
If you’re still making your way through this piece then I can only assume that you too have had your confidence in the ability or desire of the people who broadcast the news to do just that. No spontaneous op-eds, and more important, no cherry-picking through the data to stealthily turn a perspective into an accounting. If you’re reading this and are heading off to an institution of higher learning next fall, in pursuit of a career in journalism I hope that you’ll take a little time between now and then and learn a bit about David Brinkley. If you’re going to chase a dream, aim high.