Prophets Without Honor

It’s only natural that in times of social upheaval and political turmoil, we are tempted to look back, rather than forward, as we desperately seek to flee the stress and anxiety of an uncertain present for a lost Golden Age in the comforting embrace of a rapidly receding past.

Joel Bellman

Even journalists, those famously cynical ink-stained wretches who report the news without fear or favor, who speak truth to power, who comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—and all the other self-promoting clichés you’ve ever heard—even we are not exempt from the impulse to avert our eyes from the disruption of today’s industry and the chaos of our political moment, and instead peer into the distant mirror of the past to catch a fleeting glimpse of The Glory That Was Journalism.

A pair of recent books offer two sides of this same coin, and for those working in or just interested in the profession, however you flip it you’ll come up a winner.
Veteran Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Patt Morrison gives us “Don’t Stop the Presses! Truth, Justice, and the American Newspaper” (Angel City Press). For Morrison, who has a share in two Pulitzer Prizes and earned six Emmys and a dozen Golden Mikes for her public TV and radio work, it’s her second book for this L.A.-based publisher, after “Rio L.A.,” her ode to the Los Angeles River. Like that volume, it’s a handsome and beautifully produced package of evocative pictures and rich text, which bathes the history of American newspapers in a rosy glow of sentimental inspiration. New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet sets the triumphalist tone in his foreword: for the newsrooms that manage to survive financially, he writes, “the role has never been clearer than it is now[,] and it has never been more evident than in this year…when the newsrooms Patt Morrison’s timely book summons to mind woke up to find themselves once again vital to Democracy.”

I hope I live long enough to see the day when a critical mass of the American public comes to share Baquet’s optimistic view. After months of battering by Donald Trump as “enemies of the people,” “very bad,” “dishonest, “fake news” etc., a January Gallup Poll found that while 44 percent of the public said the media were “critical” to democracy, a nearly equal number, 43 percent, said the media supported democracy only “poorly” or “very poorly,” nearly twice the number who thought the media supported democracy “well” or “very well.” Yet there’s no disputing Morrison’s assertion that, “even if [i.e. WHEN] the day comes that the ‘paper’ part disappears, and the newspaper exists only online, it will still be as necessary in the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth.”

The other book of note is “Reporter,” a dense and detailed memoir by Seymour Hersh, arguably the foremost investigative reporter of our time. Before Woodward and Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, it was Hersh who singlehandedly broke one of the biggest stories of the ‘60s: the My Lai massacre, a scoop that, aside from a single seven-sentence AP item, had been ignored by every major outlet until Hersh, on a tip, quickly researched and fully reported it for a tiny independent anti-war syndicated news service. Six months later, at the age of 33, Hersh had won himself a Pulitzer. Thirty-five years later, Hersh dropped another bombshell about American atrocities in wartime when he exposed the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in a series of articles for The New Yorker.
Hersh’s account of numerous other scoops over the decades, many of them involving deep (and anonymous) sourcing within the intelligence community, are recounted with precision and candor, and make both compelling history and thrilling journalism. He is not without controversy, and readily admits that his reporting of inconvenient truths has often made him deeply unpopular with colleagues, news organizations, officialdom, and even many readers. But this is, after all, a guy who once hung up on Abe Rosenthal, legendary executive editor of the New York Times, not once but twice—and not long after called him for a job. Which, several years later, he eventually got.

In 1986, I interviewed Hersh about his book, “The Target Is Destroyed,” a riveting account of the series of mistakes, misjudgments and bad luck that led the Soviet Union to deliberately shoot down a Korean Airlines flight with a loss of 269 passengers and crew. It was one of the great and terrible mysteries of the Cold War era, and more than 30 years later, the meticulous reconstruction of those tragic events that Hersh spelled out for me still stands as the most plausible explanation.

Today, to an almost unprecedented degree, American democracy itself is under siege, from without and from within. Taken together, “Don’t Stop the Presses!” and “Reporter” offer bracing reminders of how much our nation’s survival depends on public accountability to a free and independent press.

The ending of this particular story, however, remains to be written.

Joel Bellman
Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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