A message to those who threaten journalism: Bring it on

By Lee Coppola

Hmmm, I wonder what’s in my past that might provide fodder for the journalism police.  Better yet, the journalists’ police. 

After all, that’s what they are, the band of right-wing sleuths who reportedly have been digging up dirt on reporters who report what they don’t like.  It’s the latest assault on a free press that’s been under siege since you know whom took office.

To them, I say bring it on. 

I’ve got nothing to hide, except maybe my first puff on a marijuana joint…when  I was 72.  And I did inhale, in Colorado, where pot was legal.  Other journalists might be concerned about more serious transgressions, but then again they don’t hold public office or get a paycheck from taxpayers.

Doesn’t this all seem rather ridiculous, the latest version of killing the messenger if you don’t like the message.  Too bad it’s another indication of the state of anti-media atmosphere that spews almost daily from right-wing radio pundits and a certain twitter account. 

Too bad the assailants don’t recognize the role of journalism and the importance of a free press to a democratic republic. 

If they did, they’d realize journalists labor to report the facts, to follow them to wherever they lead.  Sometimes, like Watergate, they lead to nefarious acts that prompt the resignation of a president.  Sometimes they lead to tawdry actions with an intern that lead to the impeachment of a president.  It’s not the journalists’ role to take sides, no matter the impact.

I remember a time when I was an investigative reporter following a tip that the Buffalo Bills hired a detective to tail their high-priced rookie Bruce Smith to ensure he didn’t get involved with the wrong crowd. 

The detective was the tipster.  He was angry because the Bills refused to compensate him for the blown-out engine his car suffered when trying to keep up with Smith at 100 miles-plus an hour.  Smith knew nothing about his tail and reacted angrily when approached. 

Of course, the Bills hierarchy denied it, even when confronted with the facts days before a playoff game.  “You can’t go with this story,” general manager Bill Polian implored. “It’ll affect the outcome of the game.”  Then he appealed to my fatherly instinct, reminding me our sons played on opposing high school football teams with the line, “You know how much winning means to them.”

I went with the story … and the Bills won.

Was it the journalist’s job to worry about a Bills win?  Of course not. It was the journalist’s job to report the facts of a story of interest to his audience. 

The outcome of a football game pales in comparison to today’s tensions between reporters and some of their subjects, but they are tensions just the same.  Thus, the term “fake news,” hailed by supporters of the bash-media sector who sometimes go so far as to excoriate journalists covering presidential rallies.

In 25 years as a journalist I never considered myself an enemy of the people. And I prefer to define “fake news” as “news you don’t like.”  Still, all this friction has me and others in the profession worried about the future.  Will journalistic entities kowtow to their reporting subjects to improve ratings or sell more publications?  Will reporters resist such tactics, even in the face of losing their jobs?

 I prefer to believe that responsible media outlets and their reporters will stay true to the fundamental principles of their profession — fairness, accuracy and dedication to a high standard of ethics — no matter what dirt the journalism police might sling. 

Lee Coppola, a former dean of the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University, also worked as a newspaper reporter, a TV investigative reporter ansd an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

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