U.S. journalism: From world-class professionalism to media malpractice

Friday, January 14, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Uwe Siemon-Netto, FreePressers.com

The media hysteria occasioned by the rampage shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and many others in Tucson, Ariz., made me reflect nostalgically about the days when I started my career in journalism as a desk editor of The Associated Press in Frankfurt over half a century ago.

The American journalists who taught me my craft were different from today’s me-centered media stars, who just shamelessly pinned an evident madman’s handwork on Sarah Palin, the Tea Party and conservative talk show hosts whose stridency, alas, also compares unfavorably with the old-timers’ professional comportment; this shrillness, too, is a symptom of the narcissism that has afflicted contemporary society.

American journalists back then were shining examples to their colleagues in the rest of the western world. They taught us how to separate our opinion from proven facts. They informed aspiring young European reporters working in the aftermath of totalitarian rule of their obligation not to prejudge anybody, not to jump to any conclusions prematurely, to respect the ancient rule of the presumption of innocence, and keep their personal views to themselves unless they were hired as commentators. All of these seem alien concepts to some of the most prominent personalities in journalism today.

Most significantly, though, our American seniors in the 1950s coached us to stay vicariously curious, vicarious in the sense that we were to ask questions in our readers’ stead. This was the journalist’s vocation. The word, vocation, has a theological connotation. It suggests divine assignment. Martin Luther phrased it best when he said that all have a calling from God to serve their neighbors in all secular endeavors — as parents, doctors, teachers, politicians, voters and indeed as journalists. If we do this selflessly we render the highest possible service to God, which makes us priests in the secular realm, according to Luther, in other words, worldly counterparts of the minister in the pulpit and at the altar.

Not that the U.S. journalists I met back then were Bible thumpers. “Somehow, over the years, those engaged in journalism … have acquired a certain aura of irreverence,” I read in The Journalist’s Prayer Book (Alfred P. Klausler and John DeMott eds., The Journalist’s Prayer Book. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1972): “Perhaps it’s because they have seen too much of the unsavory side of human nature and have also seen some of the skeletons in organized religion’s closets. It becomes hard to hang on to religion of any kind. More often than not this irreverence is a prickly covering hiding a deep-seated commitment to a deity and to religious values.” This commitment to religious values translated in a sense of calling, as the first prayer in this remarkable little book said:

God, you called some to be teachers, and some to be preachers, and some to be deacons, and drawers of water, and hewers of wood; and some who were fit for none of these worthy occupations you called to be writers of words.

I am not claiming that the mindset these moving lines reflect has fully disappeared from the American press; the legwork of reporters who eventually got the Tucson story right was remarkable. But this prayer reveals an attitude contrary to the characteristics of today’s “self-important pundits,” as Rupert Murdoch called conceited American journalists in the 1990s, although he later employed a fair number of this species himself. Not surprisingly, their trademark is an “absence of a sense of humor,” according to Steven Cuozzo, the former executive editor of the New York Post. Indeed, you either vilify or make people smile occasionally; the two rarely go together.

Many Americans seem unaware of how much this state of affairs is tarnishing their country’s standing abroad. Immediately after the Tucson massacre I was personally affected by the consequence of this case of media malpractice. A major European newspaper had scheduled to publish that week an essay of mine about theological differences between American churches. This didn’t happen because I refused a request by an editor to change my manuscript in a manner that would amount to a conjecture about the alleged “spiritual environment” in which this crime occurred. The editor expected me to advise religious conservatives in the United States to atone for having “gone too far in their attacks against liberals.”

This editor was by no means a deranged liberal and the paper no left-wing rag. It turned out that the request merely reflected the scandalous fact that top European publications had bought into the American media canard linking the Tucson killings to the alleged “climate of hate” in this country. This is not a new phenomenon. When I covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 I found that this city was teeming with French and Italian reporters trying to portray this crime committed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a known Communist, as part of a right-wing conspiracy. But this nonsense was not their own invention; they had borrowed their theory from left-wing American writers who represented a tiny minority in those days.

American media mischief had an even more profound effect on world opinion in the year 2000 when the New York Times ran a full-page article detailing the alleged academic under-performance by George W. Bush as an undergraduate at Yale University. When I traveled around Europe two weeks after this piece appeared I discovered at dinner parties, in the media and during casual encounters on trains and planes a unanimous judgment that the Presidential candidate of the Republican Party was ein Dummkopf, un imbécile, a moron. This conclusion was based on the New York Times piece that was quoted and re-quoted in virtually every newspaper, magazine and newscast abroad.

Among the iron rules of democratic journalism my instructors taught me in the late 1950s was dictum: “Do no harm.” In The Journalist’s Prayer Book I found this heart-warming plea for those of us called to be writers of words:

Help them, God, to get their stories factual and straight. Guide their fumbling fingers on the typewriter keys, and for whatever good it may do, strengthen the connection between their fingers and their minds. And such hearts as they have, bid them use them freely that their printer’s ink might evoke the flowing not of blood but of fellowship. Give them a good story now and then, to keep their editors civil, their readers happy, and their minds off their own degradation. And when that day comes for their final thirty-dashes, mercifully grant them just a glimpse of their glory before they travel to that eternity to which they have been consigned so frequently by so many.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

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