The Mind of James Donahue

Theft Of Trust

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Lying News Reporters; Who Can We Trust?


By James Donahue


The disclosure of false reporting by writers for two of America's more important newspapers, the New York Times and USA Today shocks even this old newsman and cynic.


I knew the quality of our news was heading for shabbyville even before I left my last big newspaper job on the Gannett chain. As a veteran reporter I found myself in constant conflict with the younger, "not-so-bright" journalism graduates being groomed for editorial and publishing positions within the chain.


Anyone wanting to get to the top even in those days had to be first and foremost, physically attractive, taller than average, and holding at least a masters degree in either journalism or English. Those selected for corporate grooming weren't always white. The door was open for a few blacks, although not too many.


I saw qualified young writers and potential editors shoved aside, harassed and possibly driven out of the profession by these young starts that were taking over the old news desks and imposing their new concepts of journalism on the world.


Gone were the days of working up the chain and learning the ways of good journalism practices from the gnarly old professionals. While we learned the basics of our profession and tested writing abilities in college, it wasn't until we got on the job, working under these men and women, that we got our education.


Among the first things we learned: seek not only the story but find out how it impacts the reader. If there is controversy, always get both sides. And never fabricate. Opinions were left to the editorial page.


Most journalism involves hours and hours of boring work. We cover city council meetings, county commission meetings, sit in on court proceedings and school board meetings. We write about drunk drivers, speeding tickets, government budgets, tax issues and municipal water bills. It is all stuff that is boring to cover, a challenge sometimes to put in a story, but of vital interest to the people involved. We keep a daily log of happenings in our community.


At least that is the way it used to be. It still is on the weekly newspaper I work for today. But the daily papers around us seem to have lost it. And their readership per capita is on the decline.


It was happening even when I still worked for Gannett. I remember attending weekly and mandatory staff meetings, sitting around a boardroom table, talking with editors and other reporters about how to attract more readers and compete with television, cable television and the Internet. There was almost a panic among the young editors, who knew their jobs depended upon their ability to produce a product that sells.


That was always the interest. It was how much money the business could make. They didn't think much about reporting the real news. I recall how I was ordered to stop covering government meetings and spend more time in the field, digging up cutesy feature stories about people who collected things, made interesting trips or set sporting records. They wanted a story involving the twins that joined a certain high school football team over a report that a towns water rates were going to be raised.


The problem with reporting the way I learned it, there is no room for Pulitzer Prize-winning stories and the glorious "in depth" reporter that uncovers scandle in high places. There is little glory or fame for most writers. But there is a lot of satisfaction knowing that we are doing a good service for our community. And, yes, there were those few shining moments.


Over the years I met governors, outstanding performers, presidential candidates and even covered a visit by President Richard M. Nixon to our town during the final days of his disastrous Watergate scandal. I covered some murder trials that would make the stuff seen on Court TV look like a cakewalk. And I even had telephone threats in the night after uncovering corruption in relatively high places.


But those were exceptions.


When I see former reporters like Jayson Blair being interviewed on CNN's Larry King Live and gaining international fame for making up stories for the New York Times, I realize just how sick our profession has become. Blair deserves to be ostracized for his actions, not immortalized. He and his cohort Jack Kelley at USA Today are a disgrace to journalists everywhere.


Especially sickening is the knowledge that Kelley was nominated for a Pulitzer for one of his fabricated stories.


These men have betrayed the public trust. The question now is . . . how many others like them are still on the job and getting away with it? 


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