ESSAY | After 50 years in the news business, a look at the state of journalism today—and what really matters
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George Washington had such a low view of journalists that he once referred to us as “infamous scribblers.”
Though Washington and other Founders were often journalistic targets in Colonial times, they understood that a free press was connected to a strong democracy—or in their case, a constitutional republic. Maybe that’s why the press is the only profession mentioned in the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson observed: “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.”
Ah, truth. If only contemporary journalists believed truth existed and knew where to locate it.
Today, the press is seen by large numbers of Americans as only selectively truthful—slanted toward a particular point of view, usually one that is both secular and progressive. A 2022 Gallup poll found that just 7 percent of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media, and 27 percent have “a fair amount.” Meanwhile, 28 percent of U.S. adults say they do not have “very much confidence” and well over a third have none at all in newspapers, TV, and radio.
“Notably,” Gallup reported, “this is the first time that the percentage of Americans with no trust at all in the media is higher than the percentage with a great deal or a fair amount combined.”
And yet nothing changes.
Journalism is the only profession of which I am aware that seems not to care what the public thinks of it. Imagine a restaurant trying out a new menu only to learn its customers hate it and are patronizing other establishments. Only if the restaurant wanted to go out of business would it continue to serve the unpopular fare. The media—which encompasses more than just news—ignore or disparage what large numbers of people want. Increasingly they write and broadcast for themselves—money, ratings, fame—and the liberal or conservative demographics to which they cater. That is because the so-called Fourth Estate, once envisioned as a check on government power, now enjoys virtually unchecked power itself.
Benjamin Franklin foresaw this. Writing for the Heritage Foundation, Arthur Milikh examines Franklin’s view of journalism: “The press … unlike any other republican institution, has a power that does not fall under any constitutional check. It is motivated to act viciously by its very principle (created to attack dogma, false knowledge, and political corruption), though in practice it is neither limited nor moderated by either its own idealism or by any institution. While the press claims to rule like a court—passing all things before its judgment—it may rule tyrannically because it is liberated from considerations of justice or precedent. Thus unchecked, the press can subvert rational habits of mind among citizens and reverence for the law while flattering public resentments and antagonizing citizens’ pride.”
Even some 250 years ago, Franklin was consciously witnessing the birth of a new class, a kind of press corps, created by this new principle, and his assessment of the human content of this class is contrasted with the powers it wields. For Franklin, a free press must be checked by a vigilant and jealous public, which he hoped to energize against “abuses of liberty.”
WHEN I BEGAN MY CAREER as a copy boy with NBC News in Washington in 1961, I was surrounded by men, and later women, who came from newspapers or wire services. They knew how to write. As I read their scripts, they became my instructors. Many were probably Democrats, but they reported both sides of stories with accuracy and fairness.
Back then, and even when my column began in 1984, there was no Google or social media, no internet. If I wanted to do research, I visited a library and examined books, or newspapers recorded on what was then called microfiche. (Yes. I’m old.) It was laborious and time-consuming, but it helped with accuracy.
When I became a reporter, I had to attend congressional hearings, visit crime scenes, and chase hurricanes, conveying what I had heard and seen. Film was shot, brought back to a studio where it was processed and edited, and a script written. Then, the evening news lasted 15 minutes. When it expanded to 30 minutes, some feared there might not be enough news to fill the time. It turned out there was plenty enough happening to fill a half-hour. But now that news is 24/7/365, not so much. It’s one reason the airwaves are now filled with factoids that are mostly reconstituted to fit a narrative, then recycled endlessly to be opined upon by coiffed commentators who, though not necessarily knowledgeable, happen to be comfortable in front of a camera.
Not so with one of my own models, David Brinkley, who was among the most serious and famous journalists of his day. Brinkley once said, “It is impossible to be objective, so we must try to be fair.” What he meant was, we all have points of view. We all have biases. We’re human, after all. But Brinkley believed that though journalists cannot empty themselves of certain prejudices, we can set those aside to impartially report all sides. If only that were the goal of modern media.
Instead, many in the media today pander to a limited audience and reinforce what they already think. That isn’t reporting. In totalitarian societies it’s called propaganda.
While there have been many studies over several decades that have revealed the undeniable bias of the major media, perhaps none has been as strong an indictment as one from Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), the gold standard when it comes to holding the major media accountable.
In a New York Post column, Michael Goodwin examined the CJR investigation into how poorly the major media reported on the so-called Russian collusion scandal and other alleged misdeeds involving the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign.
Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, the genuinely “fake news” is laid bare for all to see. Goodwin wrote: “Nearly seven years after most media abandoned standards of fairness in a stampede to defeat Donald Trump, it is widely acknowledged that those outlets cannot be trusted to deliver accurate reports. Rather than perform the journalist’s duty of informing the public of news, many of today’s reporters and editors concoct narratives about events that consistently align with the agenda of the Democratic Party.”
But the affliction is not confined to Democrats. In Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation case against Fox News, Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch revealed in a deposition that his network’s prime time hosts delivered reports to viewers about the 2020 election results that were the opposite of views they held in private. It was all about ratings. The case was settled out of court with Fox agreeing to pay Dominion more than $700 million. Even at that, Fox’s ratings remain at record highs for now, though competing cable networks are recording an increase in viewers.
The author of the CJR article to which Michael Goodwin referred is veteran investigative reporter Jeff Gerth. His study gives the media the blackest of eyes. Gerth calls the reporting about Russian “collusion” in the 2016 campaign and related stories “shoddy journalism.” Shoddy is correct. Journalism it wasn’t. He says fierce assertions and fierce competition to be first with a “story” were unrestrained by facts.
Remember the weepy movie Love Story and its most famous line: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”? In today’s journalism, being wrong and biased requires no apology or admission of error. Reporters just move on to their next stories. Even Watergate reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post chastised his own newspaper, calling the Steele dossier a “garbage document.”
It didn’t matter to editors, who kept claiming the document was legitimate. Woodward told Gerth there was a “lack of curiosity” by the people at the Post and he thought readers were “cheated” by bad coverage of “Russiagate.”
INTO THIS MORASS I jumped in 1984 when my column began (chronicled in my latest book A Watchman in the Night: What I’ve Seen Over 50 Years Reporting on America). Even then, many of our editorial and op-ed pages suffered from a woeful lack of responsible conservative commentary—William F. Buckley Jr. and George F. Will excepted. I argued this fact with Tom Johnson, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times and a Democrat. He agreed and opened the door for me at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate (my column is now distributed by Tribune out of Chicago).
The column quickly became—and remains—one of the most widely syndicated columns in the country. Before the downturn in newspaper readership, it appeared in more than 500 papers. Letters to the editor poured in, saying things like, “I never thought I’d live long enough to read something I agreed with in this newspaper.” My critics were equally intense, but even they were being exposed to a point of view many were not used to reading, or who may have viewed Christians and conservatives in stereotype.
Unfortunately for the public, mainstream media is now bifurcated between right and left. Example: a New York Times columnist recently asked, “Are you still writing your column?” (Proof that mainstream media mostly ignore me.) I felt like saying, “Yes, are you still writing yours?” but didn’t. I’m not surprised they ignore me. To do otherwise might lend legitimacy to my point of view. When it comes to matters of faith in something other than government, much of the media has remained deliberately blind.
Shortly after my column launched, I attended the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. A reporter asked me what I thought the impact of the “Religious Right” would be in that year’s presidential election. At the end of the interview she asked, “By the way, are you born again?”
“What do you mean by that?” I said, keeping my face perfectly straight.
She hesitated and then said, “Well, you know …”
I said, “Yes, I know, but do you know?” She admitted she didn’t.
“Then why would you use a term you can’t define?”
“OK, then,” she said, a little miffed. “What does it mean?”
“The term was not invented by Jimmy Carter,” I said, smiling, “though His initials are the same.”
Not only does a soft answer turn away wrath, but to quote Mary Poppins, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Dissuading secularists of the stereotype that Christians are humorless, hall-monitor types has been a lifelong practice of mine. You would be surprised how many doors it opens, leading to many honest questions.
FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS I hosted a media dinner the night before the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Because of my position as a columnist and TV/radio commentator and the relationships I had built with many liberal and secular media people, the room was always filled. I invited accomplished media people who are believers to share their testimonies. Those speakers sowed many seeds. It is up to God to do the rest.
I worked at Fox News for 19 years. For two of those years, I had a Saturday night show called After Hours and also appeared on the media critique program, Fox News Watch. I was blessed to lead one of my colleagues to Christ and to be a witness to many more. It was a privilege to speak about the authentic Jesus of Nazareth to such powerful and influential people.
Since Jesus dined with “publicans and sinners,” I tried to follow His example when I could, though not their behavior. One of my favorite stories about what maintaining integrity and “guarding your heart” in the Christian life can mean came, surprisingly enough, from the pornographer Larry Flynt. In 2007, Flynt was offering $1 million to anyone who could “out” a member of Congress or other public figure who was a “family values conservative” in rhetoric, but something quite different in private life. One day, Flynt rolled into Fox’s green room in New York in his wheelchair (he had been shot and paralyzed by a gunman in Georgia in 1978). After exchanging perfunctory greetings, he said to me, “I thought you’d be interested in something.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“We did an investigation of you.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah,” Flynt said. “We didn’t find anything.”
I laughed. “Praise the Lord, a personal endorsement from Larry Flynt! You were just looking in the wrong place for my sins.”
I developed a relationship with another fellow sinner: Al Goldstein, a pornographer of the worst variety. I debated him on the CBS Morning News about the effects pornography has on those who produce and consume it, including the women who engage in it. In the middle of the fray, I resorted again to humor to make a point.
Me: “Al, if nudity is as great as you say, then why don’t you take your clothes off and see what the director does?”
Anchors Diane Sawyer and Bill Kurtis laughed (maybe a bit nervously). Thankfully, Al didn’t follow through.
Sometime later, Al had fallen on hard times, and a New York pastor and I helped him with financial and other assistance. Later, he appeared on Howard Stern’s radio show, complaining that his friends didn’t help but that two Christian guys, whom he named, did. I invited Al to the pastor’s church in New York. When we walked in, heads snapped throughout the congregation. Another time, I ran into Al at a New York entertainment spot. Seeing me, he jumped up from his table, bounded over, and hugged me.
I said, “Al, whose reputation do you think will be hurt more if this picture makes the newspapers?” He laughed.
Whether Al or anyone else received Christ is not my responsibility. My responsibility and privilege is to share the gospel with others God has put in my life.
AS A COLUMNIST, it’s been a privilege to be in a position to comment for a national audience on various policy decisions made by government officials over a span of nearly 40 years. One of the points I have sought to make repeatedly concerns positive and negative outcomes. I have always liked Ronald Reagan’s line: “We have a deficit not because the American people are taxed too little, but because their government spends too much.” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher conveyed a similar truth when she said that the problem with socialist governments is they soon run out of other people’s money.
An earlier book of mine is called What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America. The book, and my column, were and are efforts to remind people of standards that worked in the past and can work again if applied.
Things that worked yesterday and today, and will work tomorrow if tried, usually fall into the general category of “wisdom.” Now that I’m 80, a lot of other writers just accuse me of being “old.” What they really mean is, I need to adapt to their modern system of values. I think not. Those “values,” which seem to be in constant flux, don’t work, as we see today in every sphere of life.
The late columnist Joseph Sobran said: “I’d rather belong to a church that is 500 years behind the times and sublimely indifferent to change, than I would to a church that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing to catch up.” His comment resonates with me.
Ronald Reagan’s favorite president was Calvin Coolidge, who said something modern politicians and commentators would do well to heed: “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.” Speaking in 1926 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Coolidge said that at its root, the Declaration was a great “spiritual document” and that “we can’t continue to enjoy the results if we neglect and abandon the cause.”
Coolidge has been a favorite source in some of my columns to remind people that it appears we can find more wisdom in the past than in the present if we will only pay attention.
That human nature and Biblical morality never change has guided my personal and professional life. That there is a standard by which truth can be measured is the foundation and guiding light of my columns. I do not presume that all my opinions are Biblically based, but I hope none have been antithetical to Scripture. On the back of my watch is a verse that reflects a deeply held belief of mine: “He who honors Me, I will honor” (1 Samuel 2:30). I believe God gave me this wonderful opportunity because I have sought to honor Him by being a witness to my talented media colleagues.
IN WHAT WORKS, I included an entire chapter on some of my printable hate mail. While serving as NPR’s lone conservative commentator (which didn’t last long), a letter writer asked me, “Is there some kind of inbreeding program at NPR that produces a guy like Cal Thomas?” That made me laugh.
A Miami woman wrote to say, “I’ll never read you again.” I responded, “Yes you will. You won’t be able to help yourself.” A few months later she wrote again, and I responded, “You see, I was right!”
Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:11, “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” But that doesn’t matter, and only two things do: The first is not whether one’s name is written in a newspaper column or on a TV screen, but whether our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The other is whether one will hear a verdict on one’s life that exceeds whatever honor or award is given in this life. That is the verdict of Jesus: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
That’s my goal, to hear those words. Well, that and maybe to play Henry Higgins opposite Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. But at least I had her as a guest on my Fox show, and you can see my satisfaction by googling my name and hers. After 40 years of trying to talk Andrews into an interview, I could have danced all night.
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