I was invited to speak to Herald staffers Wednesday at the paper’s annual meeting. Here’s what I plan to say:
Greetings, my fellow sleazy, dishonest and disgusting reporters, it’s good to be with you. Good to be one of you.
First, a few words of advice, encouragement and consolation: We will survive President Trump and the slings and arrows he hurls at us. He’s not the first president to disparage and belittle the press and will not be the last. He has, however, raised the level of contempt for the media to new and outlandish heights. It serves his purposes and, believe it or not, ours as well. The New York Times and Washington Post, his chief print adversaries, have both seen spikes in circulation and, one hopes, ad revenues. Before the 2016 campaign began, the cable news networks, with the exception of Fox, were limping along financially. Now that they’re fat and pretending to be unhappy. They’re lovin’ Trump.
And no matter how many angry tweets he sends out, he’s lovin’ them back. President Trump is undoubtedly the greatest consumer of news — mainly cable TV news — to ever occupy the White House. News is his crack; he just cannot get enough, no matter how incensed it makes him. We all know the cycle: He watches, he erupts, he tweets, we report. Repeat.
The president’s chief adviser on dealing with the media is Steve Bannon, who ran the alt-right Breitbart News. Bannon recently told the Times that the media “should sit down and shut up.” We will not. What, Leonard Pitts shut up? Carl Hiaasen? Andres Oppenheimer? The Herald editorial page? Fat chance!
Bannon also says the media, not the Democratic Party, is now the “opposition.” Trump took it a step further by calling us “the enemy of the people.” That’s poppycock. You in this newsroom and the others across the country are not the “enemy of the people” or even of the president. We are his adversary. Our primary job is to keep an eye on him and everyone in elected office or positions of public trust. If there’s a raison d’etre for the existence of the press, that’s it: to be a government watchdog.
I worry about The Herald’s ability to continue its watchdog role because of budget constraints. Back in the Paleozoic era when I worked in this newsroom, the Neighbors sections were staffed with legions of bright young reporters fresh out of school who couldn’t wait to cover the meetings of their local city commission or take a close look at city contracts. That crucial hyper-local government reporting role is too often falling by the wayside, although the Herald has done outstanding work exposing corruption in Opa-locka. Keep up the good work, Jay Weaver.
During the campaign Trump derided and ridiculed the “dishonest” media an easy (and cheap) applause line that fired up his base. We surely have our faults, but calling us “dishonest” and “lying” is ludicrous. The vast majority of people in elected office or top administrative positions understand our role and accept it as part of the democratic process. If we weren’t there the worst of them would surely belly up to the public trough and chow down ’til they burst. Our most important job is to keep a wary eye on those with the power to tax and spend.
It’s an indispensable role in American democracy. The founders clearly thought so when they wrote the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” It applies equally to all Americans, but we work under its protection every day. Remember, it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “Were it left to me whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
It’s hard to remember what Jefferson said when you’re down in the trenches of daily journalism. That’s a place where you need sharp elbows and a strong stomach. A good dictionary, too.
In my first job at the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, the manager editor liked to stand in the middle of the newsroom and shout out various grammatical or factual errors he found in our copy. “We have one reporter,” he said one day waving my copy in the air, “who thinks ‘eminent’ domain is actually something that will happen soon, as in ‘imminent.’” Oh, the shame of it. But a valuable lesson. I still open my dictionary to check spelling before I hit “send.” The Daily Tribune, FYI, was a newspaper where we typed our stories on clattery old upright typewriters, copy was edited by hand, stories were set on Linotype machines and hot type was cast in wooden frames that you read upside down. And, yes, the managing editor kept a bottle of whiskey in his bottom desk drawer. It wasn’t exactly Ben Hecht’s “The Front Page,” but close enough. I found my life’s calling.
Journalism is a calling and an honorable one. It’s also a business. One with a hazy future for newspapers. There will always be a Miami Herald, but it may one day be a tabloid (to save money on newsprint) with most readers on-line Figuring out the economics of such an arrangement remains a challenge.
Back when I worked at 1 Herald Plaza the paper made a lot of money for Knight Newspapers, later Knight-Ridder. Today profits are down along with staff. But the Herald is still must reading. At least once in every issue I find myself saying, “Great story!” That’s why I will always subscribe to and read the Herald. It is the glue that holds us together. Stay strong.