EDITORIALS

The messenger’s role is changing; what are the rules?

Posted Aug. 01, 2011, at 7:04 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 02, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

Imagine someone zapped from the past — let’s say from 1971 — into today’s world. Explaining new technology would take hours: personal computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, smart phones, cable and satellite TV, DVDs, DVRs and GPS. And then there’s Internet: websites, email, Facebook, Twitter.

Because of those changes, people get information in a profoundly different way than they did 40 years ago. Rather than waiting for the afternoon or morning newspapers to report on the latest debate in Congress, or for Walter Cronkite and his two competitors to explain it on the nightly TV news, we consume news minute by minute on the Web, TV and radio.

The environment in our business is highly competitive, where speed in reporting is a virtue. Being wrong, though, is still unforgivable.

Unlike the news world our friend left in 1971, many newspapers and TV networks today are perceived as partisan. While 40 years ago editorial pages had strong views, few accused newspapers of distorting their coverage of news. Coincidentally, in 1970 The New York Times launched its OpEd page, which it conceived as a place where views opposite of those on the editorial page could be printed.

Gov. Paul LePage recently scolded reporters — again — for, in his view, zealously reporting on his critics (in this case, the resigning Marine Resources commissioner) while ignoring his response. He was wrong in that assessment, but it raises the matter of journalists being seen as the enemy by some candidates and elected officials.

In The Maine Debate this week, let’s analyze this animus for the press, and see if there is a way for politicians and journalists to better understand each other. Are there new terms by which we can go forward?

On the one hand, this conflict is nothing new. During the Nixon administration, Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked journalists (and others) as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Even Angus King, who before becoming governor was host of Maine Public Broadcasting’s MaineWatch TV show, once quipped that if he walked across the waters of the Kennebec River, newspaper headlines would read, “Governor can’t swim.”

So our friend from 1971 might see Maine’s current governor as a natural successor to the pols of his day. But conservative Fox News and progressive-leaning programming of MSNBC probably would shock our visitor from the past.

Is there a way to resolve this? We journalists often proudly point to the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to do our jobs. With that comes the responsibility to be the public’s watchdogs of government.

News sources and consumers should call us out when we make legitimate mistakes (and, not writing an unflattering story doesn’t count as a mistake or lie). But, shouldn’t they avoid generalizations about our work just because they don’t agree with what is reported? And what about those in higher office, like the governor — should they have a more sophisticated view of the give and take between government and the media?

Join us at The Maine Debate from 10 a.m. to noon and beyond on Tuesday.

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