The Mind of James Donahue

Lost Focus

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Bad Journalism
Is Destroying America

Some years ago, as a fledgling young reporter, I became involved in numerous controversial stories that make the blood race and the heart pound.

I remember a family that nearly died from carbon monoxide seeping from an improperly connected chimney pipe. I reported that the family returned to the gas-filled home after the baby, that was the first to react to the fumes, was turned away from the local hospital emergency room. The family couldn't afford to pay. The hospital administrator publicly attacked my story and tried to get me fired. My editor stood behind me but I was under the gun. My story was under the microscope. A week later the hospital administrator was fired and I received a letter of apology from the president of the hospital board.

Then there was the time I found out about a secret meeting of the county board of commissioners. The district judge was trying to blackmail the board into giving him a fat pay raise. He belonged to a state board that funneled grant money into county coffers and threatened to withhold the money if he didn't get his raise. I got the story from a protected source and reported it. The judge issued a court order demanding that I reveal my source. I turned the demand over to my editor, it went to my newspaper's legal counsel, and we told the judge to go to hell. I think I came close that day to going to jail, but the judge backed down.

Those are just two of a long string of events that, for me, made newspaper reporting the best job that anybody could ever have. I remember jumping out of bed in the morning, anxious to discover what each day would bring.

Another veteran journalist, Henry Holcomb, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and president of the Philadelphia Newspaper Guild, recently gave a nifty description of those times during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. Holcomb said that the newspaper's mission then was to "report the truth and raise hell."

Indeed it was. And that is what we did.

But something has happened since those great days of pure American journalism. Whatever it was, it crept up on us like a slow and insidious cloud. We slipped away from those hot stories, stopped covering government, started writing "feel good" puffy stories about children, dogs and social problems, bored our readers to tears, and helped bring about the destruction of the American Republic.

At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I have to say that I saw it happening and made an effort to stop it, at least in my neck of the woods. I rebelled against orders by editors half my age to stop covering county and city government board meetings and to devote my time writing feature stories and looking at "trends" in local events. I knew that was wrong and I told them so.

I recall a "mandatory" staff meeting in which the news staff was assembled in a conference room with the editors and publisher to brainstorm ways to build circulation. The suits in the room said they could not understand why our readership was dropping even though the population in our area was growing. My suggestion that we go back to reporting real news was met with a deafening silence.

It was not long after that, when I turned 55, that I was forcefully nudged into early retirement.

Since then I have watched newspaper circulation continue to decline. Public distrust of news received from both the newspapers and television media has risen. The advent of talk radio and the Internet has changed the format for news reporting. Conspiracy theories abound in every corner. Everybody wants to know "the truth," but nobody knows exactly what that elusive thing is or where to find it.

One of the problems is that major world events are occurring now with such speed, and the stories are so spectacular, that only the television, radio and Internet newscasters can keep up with it via satellite transmission. By the time the newspapers hit the street at a certain hour every day, the news they contain is already old.

My concern is that the national media, and local television reporters, seem to be following the same old formula that brought down the newspapers in my time. They are taking government and corporate handouts, and spending the rest of their time chasing fire trucks and reporting fluff. Consequently, nobody really knows more than some Washington press secretary, or corporate executive allows us to know about any given subject. The news is always brief and lacking depth.

There should be small wonder that the people are suspicious. When things like the Enron scandal, the Florida vote scandal, and the 911 attack occur, we should be asking who knew what and when they knew it.

I maintain that America is no longer a Republic. That is largely the fault of an irresponsible media that stopped being the watchdog of government. Instead of the fearless reporting we saw for the last time in the Nixon Watergate mess, when the Washington Post was still a courageous mantel for journalism, everything is now spoon fed to us. The news is so controlled reporters can no longer go to the front lines to cover a war.

 We used to call the Communist Russia newspaper Pravda a propaganda machine for government. I can say today that Pravda, which can be found translated into English on line, may be a better representation of journalism today than most major newspapers in the United States. I have found relevant stories in that paper, and posted them on my web site. These same stories were ignored by the American press.

How can the Bush Administration declare a war on Iraq, for example, without someone in the media asking why? Why aren't reporters asking why we had to kill so many innocent people in Afghanistan in our effort to flush out Osama bin Laden's al-Quida network? Why have we abandoned our efforts to find Bin Laden, if he was really the mastermind behind the 9-11 attack? Why was our last president chosen by the U. S. Supreme Court? Why did Senator Paul Wellstone's plane, flown by two experienced pilots, miss its approach to Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport and plunge nose first into the ground with both engines running?

Isn't anybody in the world of journalism asking questions? Isn't anybody just a little bit suspicious?


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