Dalton Delan: Media myth-making and the pursuit of truth
WESTPORT, CONN. — In John Ford's classic film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," grizzled newspaper editor Maxwell Scott tells his reporter: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Sure enough, my first writing gig out of school took me to the Old West volumes churned out by Time-Life Books.
Ensconced there in the Time Machine, my spurs safely under the desk, Scott's killer line kept ringing in my head as one by one we kept printing the myths. Of course, such was the house that Luce built, and this Henry VIII wielded a heavy sword; his coverage of the then-Orient had been skewed from the start by his personal convictions as an old "China hand."
For myself, I like to say: "Never convicted but not lacking convictions." I just try to keep them to myself.
Spicing the slice
My on-the-job education into the permeable membrane of editorial integrity accelerated when I rode back out of the West into the shining Oz of long-form network TV news. I soon discovered that "factoids" were ordered up by the news honchos more frequently than late-night edit-room pizzas. They were like the pepperoni that spiced up the slice — hey, if it tastes good, how bad can it be?
I also learned that our "news" tended to base itself on or rely upon pre-validation from having been spotted in print in a "newspaper of record." I look back in anger still at a story I shepherded against friendly fire from my own network, once execs there saw that The New York Times' coverage appeared to disagree with mine — how could they be wrong? — until I obtained irrefutable science that backed my reporting, at which point the Times stood down and we stood up.
In another instance, the family history of a network news veep overrode months of research and reporting. Don't even get me started on the network lawyer who reasoned that I couldn't accept a ride I'd been offered on the lead plane of a planned invasion of an island nation; rather, he told me to go ahead and ride in the second plane — then I would be breaking news rather than making it, since the first plane would have touched down before me. I declined, and luckily the whole operation folded faster than the Bay of Pigs.
Every TV network and every print outlet had its own heroes and villains. The fiscally necessary truth of "it bleeds: it leads" is, thankfully, often followed below the fold or later in the broadcast by the less sexy stuff that makes a journalist's day.
I prize the answer Watergate sleuth Bob Woodward gave to a small gathering I was in when asked, after all the reporting he'd done, what kept him going at this point in his career. In his Midwest manner, Woodward made a breathtakingly blunt admission: "I wake every morning wondering what the bastards are hiding today." Words for a journalist to live by.
I used to advise — and still do — "Beware the higher truth." There were those in the upper echelons of network news who caught a bit of that altitude sickness and thought it was their job to massage the news on behalf of a greater good only they could see. It was always a mistake. The job of a journalist is to report the news without imposing upon it one's own values or vision.
Theater, not news
Jolly Roger Ailes' "We Only Hire Foxes" network, as Maureen Dowd so caustically put it, had a prolonged field day ratcheting up the ratings with its stroll down Howard Beale Street — thank the prescient pen of Paddy Chayefsky — before it was the media itself that awakened from its Rip Van Winkle slumbers and put the bite back in sound bite. The most worrisome ailment in the house that Ailes built is that it called itself news when it was reality theater.
Donald Trump was right in his belief that the media were a tool he could shape to his will. The mistake the presidential comb-over contender made was to forget that the sword of media is double-edged. If it is true that the press corps runs in a pack, at the end of the day a wolf does what a wolf does.
So caveat emptor, but as anthemic rockers Journey sang: "Don't stop believin'." As a young TV journalist, I recall standing in the January chill on Falls Road in Belfast at the height of the Troubles when an armored Saracen of the British military tried to stop our filming — until, that is, they learned we were with an American network rather than the BBC, whose reporting they were endeavoring to shut down.
In the free world, not all news media are free. At that moment, staring at the Saracen commander's Sandhurst-correct chagrin while his troops with their Armalites stood on, I realized what a special thing it is to be a journalist in the USA. We may be slow, but we're still in motion.
What are they hiding today?
Dalton Delan is an executive producer of PBS series such as this week's "Defying the Nazis: Sharp's War." He has received Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia Awards.
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