Let me be clear: I am not a journalist. I have a column that appears in a newspaper once a week. As I’ve told people, it’s like a movie “based on a true story” — and it’s somewhere between 1 and 99 percent true every time.
However, I did spend more than 20 years as a real journalist. I didn’t expose Iran-Contra. I didn’t bring down Nixon, and I didn’t uncover Clinton’s mess with Monica Lewinsky — although I had to read way too many stories about it and had to read the whole Starr Report when we printed it at the Ledger-Enquirer.
But, still, I was still a real journalist. I laid out thousands of pages and edited many thousands of stories at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and Americus Times-Recorder about murders, rezonings, business developments, new laws, council meetings, new plays, you name it. I laid out upcoming events, sports schedules, TV lineups, food inspections, church calendars and listings for civic and self-help groups. I tweaked the kerning on three lines of the NFL standings so it didn’t throw off your entire Standings & Scoreboard agate on page 2. I covered high school and college athletic contests, snapped thousands of photos and interviewed famous coaches like Vince Dooley and Dan Reeves, along with celebrities like Charlie Daniels and the legendary Bo Duke — er, I mean John Schneider.
I made plenty of mistakes. In 1991, while working in Valdosta, I once missed a blocked punt because of an obscured view in the press box and printed that the punter dropped the ball. It turned out to be the key play of the game and I nearly lost my job. I once printed the wrong solution to the previous day’s bridge column in Americus, and three elderly bridge-playing ladies wanted to tan my hide. There’s a difference between the words mistake and fake.
Real journalists don’t always get it right, but they try to. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows that. They’re not “fake news.” Sometimes, they can’t publish the whole truth because they lack reliable sources even though they know in their heart somebody is getting away with a misdeed. A high school football coach once threw me out of a locker room because he didn’t like another reporter’s story, and I wanted to tell everyone how he’d been pushed out of at least two schools for sleeping with students, but I didn’t have the sources. He would go on to win a state championship and be celebrated. It drove me crazy because I knew he was a moron in a lucky spot. Two people had information on a sheriff I knew, but couldn’t prove, was crooked — one died mysteriously a few days later, the other dropped his story a few days later. Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos can run with unsourced rumors. Real journalists can’t.
Real journalists aim to uncover the truth while pursuing facts. Real journalists keep your mayor honest and let you know how much your insurance rates are going up next year. Real journalists let you know that Billy’s home run was key to that Little League victory and how Bitcoin works. Real journalists present stories that help you understand life, and they wish you would read beyond the headlines on social media so that you would have a far better understanding before you start commenting and tweeting.
Unfortunately, we have a president who stands in a crowd of chanting sycophants, points at a few hard-working journalists in the back of the room and calls them “the enemy” and “fake news” to a chorus of boos and jeers. Meanwhile, the journalist working behind the camera is just thinking, “I’m missing my kid’s baseball game for this, and I don’t know if I’ve got enough money to pay the rent next month.”
There are a few superstar journalists, but the Woodwards and Bernsteins and Joe Galloways are rare. Most are just ordinary, hard-working folks who are not paid nearly enough. An awful lot of hard-working, important folks like journalists, teachers, cops, soldiers, janitors and more are usually not paid enough — and they likely put up with a lot more crap than the millionaire hedge fund manager who pays a lower tax rate. They do it because they know that journalism matters, even if millions are falling victim to — and, in fact, preferring — propaganda.
Today, not only are people regurgitating Trumpisms like “fake news,” but they lump everyone who appears on TV or in the newspaper into one category — “the media.” The perpetual punditry on CNN, Fox and MSNBC only hurts real journalists — and Don Lemon, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow may be fine folks, but they are commentators, pundits and personalities … not real journalists. They and their networks have every right to their punditry, and it doesn’t make them “fake news.” But don’t confuse punditry and journalism the way your president does.
I’m no journalist. I don’t pretend to be. I’m a writer who happens to have a spot in the newspaper. So do Dilbert and Dear Abby, but they’re not journalists, either. Don’t confuse us with the journalists whose lives are threatened by dangerous rhetoric from pandering politicians or very real threats from deranged individuals. Or both.
In November, I had a fellow named James E B Miller suggest on the Ledger-Enquirer’s Facebook page that I didn’t need to be breathing after I wrote a column pondering other options for a national anthem — and if he’d have actually read the column, he might have understood how I stand for our anthem and believe in everything America should be. I’m sure his veiled threat was hyperbole, but you can’t be certain. I’ve gotten hate mail and threats from the time I was a sportswriter and real journalist at age 20 to, well, today. It’s one of the reasons I have a gun in my house — copperheads being another reason, but I don’t see as many copperheads as I hear from lunatics. You just never know which lunatic is the one who’ll actually do what they allude to — something that’s more worrisome in today’s social media world where deranged people have more opportunities to spread their hatred.
You never know when a sycophant who has repeatedly heard the terms “fake news” and “the enemy” from a person he respects as a leader will snap and take matters into his own hands. You never know when a guy who listens to Alex Jones might burst into a pizza joint with a gun to break up an imaginary child sex ring in its basement. And you never know when a deranged fellow whose misdeeds have been exposed by real journalists might kill five real journalists in your newsroom.
Last night, Capital Gazette journalist Chase Cook tweeted: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” The Capital Gazette followed that tweet with “Yes, we’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” And, today, they put out a damn paper — because that’s what real journalists do.