Press, Friend or Foe? My thoughts on the Press and Our Relationships with Them

O'Toole

 

In high school, I took a Journalism class taught by Ms. Wells.  While she was not my Sheila Spicer (see my previous article), she made a lasting impression on me in her presentation of a topic that would play an instrumental role in my career as a public servant.   From the inception of her class, Ms. Wells would repeatedly emphasize the bedrock principle of this profession – reporters should report the news NOT make it.  This simple, yet profound, statement provided the contextual lens through which we examined the subject of journalism.  It is a lens that we should utilize to assess the real-world practices employed by journalists.  The concept informing Ms. Wells’ refrain remains a relevant and vital lodestar in assessing this issue before us today.          

Developing an early interest in politics, I began watching news reporters at a young age.  I began to actively engage with reporters upon the inception of my political career in 1989 when, at 24 years old, I became Deputy Mayor of Cedar Grove. I would describe most of my early interaction with local reporters as ordinary yet extraordinary. Let me clarify: I believe that reporting and back and forth during Q and A with reporters in that setting was ordinary as it focused just on the facts.  It was extraordinary because the coverage of local government was such a critical and instrumental part of keeping our citizenry informed. 

Once I moved on to play in larger political fields (both County and State) I soon realized, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or for that matter Cedar Grove. During these formative political years, I was surrounded by reporters who were now hunting and, more to the point, reporting on, bigger game.  If reporters could indeed be likened to hunters, then the institutions of County and State government served as the fertile grounds upon which they sought out their prizes. Learning to deal with this level of journalism comes with the territory of serving in higher levels of government.  

In the early years, given this reality, I was terrified to respond to the questions of an imposing reporter. I wasn’t at all sure that I would have the facts of an issue satisfactorily mastered.   I also had doubts in my ability to respond using anything resembling the King’s English.  It took some time, and much give and take with reporters, to find my way and my voice.  Once I did, however, I began making peace with this important aspect of the job.  I began to understand the reporters I dealt with and to handle the interviews much more effectively.  I eventually became quite comfortable relating to reporters and to appreciate the art of their profession.     

In the 1980’s and 90’s Trenton reporters were omnipresent covering the political events of the day.  In those days, I would watch as scores of reporters would tackle serious issues like state budgets, politics, borrowing, selective legislation, the death penalty, important court rulings, and everything else under the Gold Dome. You literally couldn’t walk into any committee room or voting chamber and not run into busloads of reporters looking for the story. It was cool to watch the state-level version of Woodward and Bernstein reporting with immense pride and professionalism. Even though the old-school reporter would take short hand and have bulky recording devices, it worked. The news reporting in print and on TV was constant and kept the viewing public informed.  

Then something changed.  I don’t hold myself out as a subject matter expert, but it appeared to me that the news reporting fell victim to motivations related primarily to profit and loss as opposed to reporting the news (I can hear Ms. Wells’ voice).   The corporate ownership of newspapers and television stations appeared to care more about their bottom line than the service they were providing the public.  As a result, the number of reporters covering Trenton and the quality of that coverage suffered.     

Indeed, the reporters, like Blue Fin Tuna of today, started to disappear and look like an endangered species. That in turn created a wild and weird Hunger Games mentality with the few remaining reporters on the Trenton and political beats. A new journalistic phenomenon was born characterized by an aggressive, in your face reporter who spent less and less time and resources actually developing and following a story. It could be suggested that in some corners of our state reporters were violating Journalism 101 (again, see Ms. Wells) – report the news, don’t make it.   Some (certainly not all) reporters of this new era, in order to be competitive and have the EDGE, would ask leading and loaded questions and try to bait someone to give a juicy reply.   These reporters would attempt to pit one party against another hoping the blood splatter made for good copy.  To the extent that this has occurred, it has contributed to lowering the quality of public discourse on issues of the day and has been a disservice to the very public that journalism is supposed to serve. 

Most reporters are cynical and distrusting of politicians, as they should be. I find most reporters are smart, engaged and providing an important service to our community. Like in any profession, there are some partisans, uninformed or otherwise ignorant so-called reporters who occasionally cast a large shadow on the noble profession.  We all have a job to do, respect it.  

Speaking of jobs, there are some outstanding reporters that are the Gold standard in their industry – Ted Sherman, Steve Adubato Jr. and David Chen to name a few. There are others who don’t quite make it to the medal round – Maryann Spoto and Brian Thompson are two that come to mind.  

Disclaimer: Maryann once wrote a front-page article about me based upon phony ethics issues alleged by rival Democratic Senators. She never sought out comment from my side before she went to print; reading about it for the first time as I got my early morning newspaper was a joy. This political hit job was summarily dismissed by Chief Justice Rabner and his committee but somehow that never found its way onto the front page. Ironically enough, the same very same Maryann Spoto now works for Chief Justice Rabner and the Courts.  

Brain Thompson covered the Bridgegate trial with almost an obsessive recklessness.  If memory serves me correctly, he reported (should say predicated) that his sources had 8 people being indicted.  While this proved to be entirely erroneous, it served to gin up the media feeding frenzy to an even higher and more absurd pitch. He was better off rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot and predicating the over/under line for the upcoming Super Bowl.   

Here’s a random and subjective assessments of great reporters I’ve observed: 

  • Ted Sherman: Like a great white shark circling for a kill – one of the best investigative reporters of our time.  
  • Steve Adubato Jr.: A tough inquisitor who has street cred and does his homework  
  • Ward Miele: A former local reporter for the Verona-Cedar Grove Times and was a spot-on fact reporter – they don’t make them like him anymore  
  • Monica Yant Kinney: Smart and snarky but could write with the best  
  • Alison Freeman: A former local Star Ledger reporter who took time to know the subject matter, was on the money and succinct  
  • David Chen: Erudite and craftsman come to mind of this old school investigative beast 
  • Joe Donohue: A pure number cruncher who distilled bond and budget numbers like no one else 
  • Michael Aron: Some say prehistoric in his approach but it works – Michael keeps his liberal tendencies closeted and is a joy to watch report and unfold all things Trenton, a state treasure    

Reporters and reporting have been showcased in a great many movies over time, here are some my most entertaining movies dealing with reporters or journalists: 

  • Kill the Messenger: Gary Webb and the CIA 
  • Truth: Dan Rather and reporting on the Bush military records 
  • Shattered Glass: A talented but very flawed journalist, Stephen Glass  
  • All the President’s Men: Does it get any better? 
  • Spotlight: Horrifying truth uncovered by a courageous few 
  • Frost/Nixon: What a cool interpretation of one of the greatest cat and mouse games ever played on an international stage   

As a retired politician, it is enlightening (and sometimes hysterical) to listen to the Q and A of a reporter and then watch exactly what is reported. Here are some lessons I have learned (sometimes the hard way): 

  • Answer the question as you want to answer it 
  • Don’t be bullied into answering a weighted or trick question. 
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge the underpinnings of the question or politics of the issue  
  • Pay attention –until trust is fully developed there is no off the record    
  • Stick to your response and don’t run on–the more you say the less you control it 
  • If you uncomfortable with the content or reporter, walk away and say nothing   
  • If you see something that is misquoted, demand a retraction 
  • Say something colorful or memorable – if a reporter is taking their time to call you, make it worth it for them  
  • Reporters have a job to do and you need to respect that – they aren’t your friends, drinking buddies, or fantasy football partners – they are in this do a job as well  
  • When talking to a reporter – know your audience 
  • ALWAYS stay on message 

Given that we are in the midst of Christmas break at school, my college kids are home and we will be watching THE best reporter movie of all time: Anchorman–The Legend of Ron Burgundy 

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