Polite company: Thoughts from a former statehouse reporter

Note: I want to make this blog a place where we can not only talk about politics in a nuanced way, but we can also hear from some different voices who might give us a new perspective on issues that are in the news. One of the ways I hope to do that is by having over some “polite company” from time to time to contribute a guest blog. My dear friend, Jeannie Hodes, a former statehouse television reporter, agreed to be the first guinea pig by sharing her experience as a journalist and her perspective on the current political media climate. I hope you enjoy her post–I know she does as well! 

I recently spent two days at the Missouri Statehouse for a freelance reporting job. It was a lot of fun being back in the hustle and bustle of a legislative session. It made me think back on my time as a statehouse reporter in New Jersey and how challenging, yet rewarding, it was. Statehouse was the last beat I wanted as a young reporter, but it became one of my favorites. Not the campaigns, not the staged press conferences, but the actual issues. The actual bills that affected people.

I worked in a run-down, dirty, musty press row office, like many others nationwide. (I hear even the White House press corps offices are horrible.) It probably had mold. But I didn’t care, because I knew this was important work. If we weren’t there to break down these complex pieces of legislation, no one else would.

Journalists, specifically political ones, currently face a climate that frankly, I’m glad I’m not up against. Labels like “the liberal media,” “the media elite,” “dishonest media” and, most recently, “the opposition party” are being applied in highly negative, broad brushstrokes to all outlets. It has only been encouraged from the campaign trail, and now even the highest office in the land.

It’s dangerous and it needs to stop.

Labeling Media as “liberal” or “conservative”

Let’s start with “the liberal media.” You want to know why I think many journalists seem “liberal?” Because we’ve actually walked in the shoes of the most vulnerable people, telling stories of hardship most of us have never even remotely endured. We’ve sat with them as they cried out of fear, anger and hopelessness and tried our best to help them get answers. Those stories shaped who I am and broadened my perspective beyond my sheltered upbringing in a way I am truly grateful for.

I have a deeper empathy than I ever thought possible. While that may seem “liberal,” at the same time, journalists are highly skeptical and critical. One might say almost “conservative” with their trust of the establishment. They work tirelessly to hold people in power accountable and make sure no one’s getting taken advantage of. Frankly, we don’t and shouldn’t need to assign labels to those qualities in journalists.

The term “media elite”

The most absurd term I hear may be the “media elite.” Find out how much money reporters make. You may be surprised that many can barely scrape by. Much like the rest of society, only the top small percent actually make a lot of money. I never had hair, makeup or wardrobe allowances despite so many people assuming otherwise. To me, journalists are not elitist at all. They’re just very deeply informed from doing more research than the average public has time to do. That’s their job.

However, for some people, that has been turned into a defensive stance where “more informed” gets skewed into “holier than thou.” For every issue I covered, I had to prioritize what to share with my viewers and cut it down to a certain amount of time I was given. It was truly one of the most difficult parts of my job because at a basic level I also considered myself a teacher.  Knowing a lot about a topic doesn’t make someone elitist, it makes them a valued resource.

The “dishonest media”

Now the most troubling term: the “dishonest media.” Here’s where the distinction comes between true journalism and the rest of media. Yes, there are plenty of biased sources (mainly on the internet) that twist stories on purpose. They are designed to be a place for people to turn when all they want is support of their already preconceived beliefs. I don’t consider those sources true journalism. The best example I can give is the difference between a news reporter and a pundit. Too many people have blurred the lines between those two positions. Reporters go out and research topics, interview experts, and ask for rebuttal from people they make claims against. Pundits interpret daily news and give their opinion, which can be very insightful, but also very inflammatory. Don’t confuse the two.

There are many cable news reporters who do an outstanding job on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC but get lumped into categories by what their pundits say. If the lines are too confusing, just stop watching cable news or listening to talk radio altogether. Honestly, it’s one of several serious concerns I have about cable news and why I rarely watch it myself.

Treating the press as “opposition”

Finally, the new buzz phrase is calling the media “the opposition party.” Former President Obama called Fox News the same thing during his presidency and it wasn’t okay then either. Part of your job as a leader is to understand journalists are going to ask hard questions and push back a lot. If you want to call that oppositional, fine. That’s what we expect of our press.

Journalists are tasked to ask the questions the public wants to ask but can’t. I’m sure it’s supremely frustrating at times for those who have to answer those questions, but it’s an important check on the system. This is also why it’s good to get your news from multiple sources. Attend a press conference and and you will notice that no one asks a question the same way. That’s important. It’s also another reason to keep that clear distinction between punditry and reporting. Punditry and opinion writing can be absolutely oppositional, but a lot of reporting is not.

I’m not saying the media is innocent in all this. Yes, there are some bad apples out there. Yes, journalists have a lot of lessons to learn from this past election. Yes, some will make mistakes and erroneously report things from time to time and have to make a correction. No one makes it through any career without errors. But please, do me a favor. Stop using these general, negative terms. If you have a problem, call out a specific story, reporter, show or whatever made you angry. Don’t apply it across the board. Don’t make other journalists doing good work pay the price of being labeled untrustworthy. It’s unfair to them and, frankly, dangerous for democracy.

One last important note: If you’re labeling journalists just because their work doesn’t align with your opinion, that’s another issue. As all reporters learn in Journalism 101, you can’t force a story to fit your own facts.

Just because you don’t like the information, doesn’t make it untrue.

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