The Real News Business

While channel surfing the other day, I stumbled across two titans of the mainstream media -- Jim Lehrer and Ben Bradlee -- chatting on public television about such weighty topics as "free speech" and "the state of journalism today."

Of course Lehrer, whose antediluvian and now demi-eponymous program "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, has long been on record as decrying the state of journalism today. More specifically, Lehrer has been a leader of the dinosaurs who specialize in self-preservation by attacking emergent information media such as the blogosphere and other digital-era innovations such as citizen journalism.

Witness Lehrer's acceptance speech at Harvard, upon receipt from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, of the 2006 Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, wherein he denounced "the blogger, the screamer, the comedian, the search engine, the whatever" while lauding instead those he perceives as being "in the real news business -- one of us straight reporters, one of us journalists," and claiming that "little if any original reporting is done by bloggers or anybody else except the established news organizations."

Given Lehrer's position as an "anchor" and Bradlee's status as an "icon," I thought it might prove interesting to examine one small interchange in their televised tte--tte. It greatly illuminates how "original reporting" is practiced by "established news organizations" such as the Washington Post and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS's only nightly news program.

The dialogue focused on lying. Although the conversation centered on corporate and governmental untruths, it said far more about mendacity in "the real news business."

Jim Lehrer: You said that lying has taken the joy out of Washington. What do you mean?
Ben Bradlee: Well, I mean, I think a lot of people lie, and I don't think that they pay any price for lying the way, it seems to me, that we did when we were young. Certainly, I did when I was a teenager. One of the interesting things about reading all the stories currently about bigshot businessmen who are going to jail, Enron types, one common denominator is that, they didn't tell the truth.
Jim Lehrer: And it's just accepted that they lied? I mean, it's just assumed that they lied.
Ben Bradlee: Well, it isn't by me--
Jim Lehrer: I know, but I mean …
Ben Bradlee: … but society doesn't seem to be as outraged by it as, as they should. And it's one of the great, the worst of the sins, it seems to me, because you, you, you deceive people, and you deceive people originally on purpose, and then if you don't correct it, you deceive them, you've deceived them by, by nonfeasance.
Jim Lehrer: You've said also that all presidents lie. Do you really mean that literally?
Ben Bradlee: Yeah, I think they do. I think they do. And they lie because they don't search out the truth. They get involved in incidents that do not have a clear answer and in the process of explaining those or trying to avoid those, they say things that aren't true. Now, we don't like to call those lies, maybe because it isn't quite bold enough. It isn't quite obvious enough.
Jim Lehrer: People ask people who interview people on television all the time why they don't ask them -- when they ask a question, they hear an answer back that they know is wrong, they don't lean over and say, liar. It's not what we do.
Ben Bradlee: You'd get a lot of listeners if you do.
Jim Lehrer: Yeah, yeah, right. A lot of people don't want journalism anymore

Let's quickly recap, shall we? Let's see by their own admission, "the worst of the sins" for real journalists like Lehrer and Bradlee is to "deceive people." And "if you don't correct it, you've deceived them by nonfeasance." Further, "all presidents lie," but "we don't like to call those lies."

Finally, "people who interview people on television all the time" (like, say, Jim Lehrer?) "when they ask a question, they hear an answer back that they know is wrong, they don't lean over and say, liar."

Of course not -- because that wouldn't be "real journalism," although, sadly, "a lot of people don't want journalism anymore."

Were that the case, (that Lehrer believes it says far more about him than his audience) would it be at all surprising, given what these experienced, credentialed and celebrated media executives have just revealed to us?

Silly me. Like millions of other viewers, I had long labored under the mistaken impression that "real" journalism involved something called "speaking truth to power." It's only now, after 30 years in the business, that I discover that when powerful people -- the president of the United States, for example -- blatantly lie, it's not professional to "lean over and say, 'liar.'"

After all, "it's not what we do."

We being "one of us straight reporters, one of us journalists."

Thank God I'm a blogger, a screamer, a comedian, a whatever. Because if agreeing NOT to call a lying president a liar is the price of admission to the club of real journalism, just count me out.

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