In the summer of 1980 I was an idealistic journalist, a bit of a firebrand, a rebel pondering causes big and small.
I was writing and dreaming, excited about my future and pretty sure I could handle whatever the world threw at me. I was a student at the University of Nebraska majoring in journalism and political science.
There were a lot of us around back then, brash and bold, inspired by Woodward and Bernstein, ready to take on corrupt officials, fight injustice, unmask fraud and malfeasance — all that and more. We were taught an enduring democracy required an informed citizenry. In the wake of Watergate, journalistic idealism flourished. We believed in the power of the press and the vital role the Fourth Estate plays in our society. We had witnessed it.
With the Trump presidency’s alarming Watergate-style tendencies emerging daily alongside a dangerous display of White House dysfunction, the importance of independent media outlets to keep officials in check has never been more acute. Sometimes that includes information leaks from insiders who take risks because dishonest, misleading, unethical and criminal behavior by elected officials must be exposed.
When it comes to holding our leadership accountable, it is not enough to trust what we are told. We must verify. Always.
While working a second summer at The Lincoln Star during my college years, I found myself one afternoon with little to do. My editor was reading a story I had just filed and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to see it again until it was in print. At the next desk, the Star’s political reporter — Don Walton — was talking about the upcoming political conventions with the Star’s editorial writer, Bob Schrepf.
“You should go,” one of them said to me. At first I dismissed the idea. Then I started to scheme. If I could raise the money, I thought, maybe I could do it. I wrote to the DNC and the RNC for credentials. I got them.
Back then, the Star’s computer system had to be taken down each afternoon for 20 to 40 minutes. One day I used that time to dash over to the Journalism School, a five-minute walk from the newsroom. I told the receptionist I was looking for money to cover the conventions. Soon I was seated across from former J-School Dean Neale Copple. He summoned his assistant, Emily Trickey, telling her to “bring the book.”
Copple explained my mission to Ms. Trickey and asked if there was any money for the upcoming year still available. She leafed through “the book,” puzzling over notations. Her fingers riffled pages forward and back, then forward again, and back. She bit her lower lip and mumbled words I couldn’t decipher. I watched, quite bemused. I really hadn’t expected to get anywhere with my request. But there were Copple and the keeper of “the book” exchanging ideas on how to make the reporting trips possible. I left with a promise of money. I think they pledged something like $1,500 for my recently conjured educational cause. Part of the deal was that I would return any leftover funds. With conviction, I nodded. Yes, of course, I would return any unused money. Honest. I promise. Then I got busy spending it.
What an adventure. I reported on the Republicans from Detroit and the Democrats from New York. I learned important lessons, like where the lobbyist reception areas were for journalists. I ate and drank for free. I could count on the railroad lobby for cold beer and decent sandwiches. I ate my first crab cake at a Maryland Democratic Party bash. I liked it — a lot. I soaked up much more than the freebies, listening to sardonic scribes and inquiring analysts muse on each day’s events. The leading newspapers gave out free copies of their papers at the conventions. I pored over them, scrutinizing coverage approaches and writing styles. My biggest takeaway: I can do this.
Midway through the Democratic Party’s coronation, I ran into President Carter’s press spokesman at 3 a.m. outside the convention center. I introduced myself, my mind scrambling for a question to ask, any question. I came up with a question all right. It just wasn’t a coherent one.
When the spokesman spoke, I scribbled and nodded. It was not a career-making quote scrawled in my notebook, but it reflects a stage of my journalistic development that still amuses me: “Do you expect me to answer a bullshit question like that at 3 a.m.?” Jody Powell said. He was friendly and sincere. He shook my hand. We both smiled. I cannot remember if that quote made it into the full-page feature story of my experiences at the conventions that the Daily Nebraskan ran on Election Day in 1980. But I had gotten a quote from Powell. And I had gotten put in my place. Big time. But there was no acrimony. No insults. Fair is fair.
Never again did I ask a presidential spokesperson about maneuvering on platform planks and whether that could be taken as waffling from party leaders. (I learned to convey my own observations in print rather than naively thinking a party insider would detail ongoing finagling.) Another lesson learned. I’d like to think I sharpened my game after that. I mean, fair is indeed fair – always.
I’m at a very different stage of my life as I watch today’s front-line reporters demonized when they reject lies and aim to reveal deeper truths. I’m seeing so many similarities between what’s happening here and what occurred in authoritarian or violence-plagued nations where I reported on political tensions and upheaval as a foreign correspondent writing for newspapers, magazines and The Associated Press. Reporting took me from my family’s farm in Nebraska around the world, to countries including China, Mongolia, Cambodia, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda. It was all about getting answers to questions to not just learn, but to become wiser and help readers do the same.
I left daily news reporting long ago. My writing felt sterile and disconnected from me, especially when I witnessed human rights atrocities but thought my role as a journalist required me to be as devoid of feeling as possible.
For years, I listened to lies and distortions from officials adept at manipulating the media and felt unfairly constrained by well-intentioned journalism principles undermined by ideological zealots and unscrupulous autocrats with no regard for the truth.
The longtime news-reporting approach I had followed grew from this premise: Each side gets to have its say. The reporter then puts these viewpoints side by side and lets the reader decide what it all means. Over and over, young reporters were told to report “just the facts, ma’am.” Unfortunately, we have learned how fact-benders can use this to obscure the truth in the most unbelievable ways. This is the case in the United States today just as it was during my reporting on the Communist Party’s iron rule in China or Robert Mugabe’s despotic pseudo-kingdom of Zimbabwe.
I still strive for fairness, accuracy and insight to put facts into perspective to help readers get to the truth. But now, with Trump reps telling journalists to shut up or promoting the absurdity of “alternative facts,” it’s just as important for some of us to tell you what we think about the things we see and how developments make us feel as the people we are – as parents, as independent thinkers, as community members, as taxpayers, as voters, and as witnesses to tragedy, hardship and triumph. I think of this as a “Newer Journalism,” a values-based social imperative that not only respects the truth but demands it. The need to right wrongs and expose lies is painfully – and frightfully – obvious following Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, a rise to power built on distortions, lies, preposterous claims, bullying tactics to squash dissent and a warped, continuing campaign to rewrite reality.
Despite Trump’s repeated references to the dishonest press, I find a shred of solace now remembering disgraced former Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew’s branding of media critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” (Yeah, Spiro. Whatever you say. You got yours.) Remember: Agnew and the equally disgraced former Republican President Richard Nixon made reporters their enemies as they grew more embattled day by day. In the end, the strategy failed; truth triumphed.
I spoke recently to a business associate from Nebraska who voted for Donald Trump. She told me how much she worries about the future her children and grandchildren will face. “I thought he would settle down,” she said. It was after reports of a Trump order being drafted to implement torture. It came amid court filings regarding the immigration ban targeting Muslims.
I like this woman. She is pleasant and efficient. She cares about people. But I am angry at her as well. What made her think this megalomaniac would settle down? “America elected this man and will just have to make the best of it,” she concluded during our most recent phone conversation.
No. You elected him, I thought. And you and your family deserve everything you get out of this guy. I hope those who oppose Trump hang the albatross that he will become around the GOP’s neck for generations. So-called Republican leaders failed their country when they refused to denounce his bigotry and hatred, choosing instead to voraciously gather any crumbs of support that fell their way. I hope I can find a way to be more magnanimous toward Trump supporters, especially those who were misled or guilty only of sins of omission for refusing to be critical thinkers or rational skeptics. For now, though, my feelings are raw and ragged. And so intense.
The woman I’ve quoted here also told me: “I wish the media would just stop giving so much attention to all of this.”
I didn’t want a debate but I had to register my thoughts. “No. You don’t want that,” I said. “You don’t want a government that operates in the dark.”
Then she told me she had heard of “someone in the media” who posted on Twitter that “someone” should blow up Trump, or “something” like that.
Again, I had to register my viewpoint. “That’s terrible,” I agreed. “But that’s social media. Don’t confuse the working media with social media.”
“Oh,” she said.
Since then I have tried to monitor news but not be consumed by it. My first reaction after the election was to avoid television coverage and read presidential biographies. I slowly ventured back to the world of current events, reading the New York Times Sunday paper each week and occasionally watching TV news shows. It’s a battle, though. One night, after watching replays of Trump comparing Vladimir Putin to what he called “a lot of killers” in the United States, I could think of nothing else.
My disgust with Trump’s demagoguery sometimes settles into a deep sadness. My disgust with uninformed voters who share Trump’s denial of reality continues to grow. My feelings quickly can turn to fear. It is real, it is deepening and it cannot be denied. It’s not unusual for me to toss and turn in bed for hours, sometimes even all night.
One night, I sought comfort in words that inspired me way back when I was that journalism and political science student at the University of Nebraska.
I was on the convention floor at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York when Massachusetts Sen. Teddy Kennedy chose graciousness, passion and dedication to democracy to inspire people like me who wanted to pursue ideals, who wanted to work, who dared to dream, who believed in values.
Thank God for YouTube. In the suspended moments of my pre-dawn unease, I pulled up the video clip of that monumental speech by Kennedy. It reminds me how political defeat stung back then but didn’t derail hopes. May you, too, gain inspiration for warm thoughts of a better day from Teddy Kennedy’s speech quoting Tennyson:
“The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”