“Tell the truth.” “Shame the devil.”
Leave it to one of America’s most respected and incisive journalists, Walter Lippman, to sum up in a few simple words the difficult charge of true journalism.
How well do contemporary journalists live up to Lippman’s expectations? Let’s just say Mr. Lippman might be more than a bit disappointed, even though by the time of his passing in 1974 he was already declaiming the decline of political coverage in the mass media. Lippman probably wouldn’t be that surprised to see how most of today’s broadcast journalists seem content to simply scratch the surface and fall back on simple-minded slogans.
How often these days do we get raw, unfiltered truth telling? Not often enough. In the name of phony, balanced coverage (and I’m not just referring to FOX here), the lines between messaging, spin, exaggeration, lying, and outright propaganda have nearly been obliterated. In the process, truth itself has been obliterated.
Truth telling takes courage. It’s risky. It’s hard work. It’s complicated. Dig deeper, and you don’t know what you’ll find or, more importantly, who you might offend. Those risks –the devil often bites back, after all—feed into a journalist’s temptation to self-censor. Add into the mix the influence and pressures of corporate ownership and advertising, and you see why truth, uncomfortable facts, and integrity so easily get lost in the shuffle.
When a contemporary journalist pushes back and chooses to answer Lippman’s call, we should take note. Integrity needs to be acknowledged. There are two mainstream broadcast journalists today that I’d nominate for passing the Lippman litmus test: Bill Moyers, the granddaddy of probing discussion and truth telling, and the newbie, Chris Hayes.
Hayes is the brainy kid squirming on the edge of his seat at the front of the class. It’s easy to imagine Hayes wildly waving his arms around in his enthusiasm to have the teacher call on him. He’s jumpy because he’s got something pithy to say that no one else has thought about. Or if they have, Chris has figured out a more erudite and inclusive way to sum it up.
Recently on his MSNBC weekend program, “Up w/Chris Hayes,” there was a stellar moment that Lippman would certainly have applauded.Hayes was interviewing Mitt Romney’s economic adviser, Emil Henry.
Henry took the usual Romney/Republican attack line about Obama’s role in the explosion in the number of individuals and families on SNAP (or food stamps). There was Hayes, armed with the facts and ready to refute the right-wing meme. What a joy to watch Hayes calmly explain the facts (I could hardly believe it!) to Mr. Henry. Watch Henry’s facial expression as Hayes explains that the expansion of SNAP was the result of two factors: increased numbers of people hit hard by the recession and unemployment but also revisions and easing of eligibility requirements that were put into place during (yes, believe it!) the Bush administration. If that’s not enough, Hayes goes on to point out that Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan had himself voted for the changes to eligibility.
Shaming the devil, indeed. During his preparation for the show, Hayes must have suspected Mr. Henry might jump in with the SNAP attack line. Hayes and his staff took the time to dig around a bit. By the time Henry was sitting in his East Hampton living room chatting with Hayes, there were the uncomfortable facts squirming around in Hayes’ back pocket, ready to jump out. Hayes could hardly suppress his delight. Contrast that moment with what happens most of the time on other news shows. How many times a day do other phony journalists let false claims float by them because they just don’t know the facts or haven’t bothered to look them up?
That brings me to Bill Moyers. If ever there was a survivor of the consequences of hard truth in broadcasting, it’s Moyers. Moyers’ battles with corporate broadcasting executives over content are legend. If Hayes is the brilliant geek in the class, then Moyers is the wizened teacher up there at the blackboard. With a communication style of stern, truth-telling and probing questions delivered in a soft, reassuring voice, Moyers is the Mister Rogers of the journalism world. Like Fred Rogers, Moyers is a humanitarian missionary in the cause of truth. In fact, the two sermonizing broadcasters shared training as ordained ministers—Moyers as a Baptist and Rogers as a Presbyterian. The two share not only a communication style but a steely core beneath a deceptively soft exterior that never fails to communicate their shared faith in the moral underpinnings of every human endeavor—whether it be in politics or child’s play.
On September 14, 2012, Moyers hosted a segment on his “Moyers & Company” show called “The One Percent Court,” based on an article by the same title in The Nation. Featured were Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, and legal scholar, and Maryland state senator Jamie Raskin. Watch Moyers, our master journalist, as he gently but firmly shapes an in-depth conversation about the state of our current and future Supreme Court.
Lippman would have approved.