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Guess what? Good mothers and blue-ribbon apple pie aren't news

January 22, 2006 12:50 am

AMONG THE LESSONS I've learned during my 30 news- -and opinion-saturated years is one that stands above the rest: Be skeptical.

That is how journalists think. They are skeptical of everything and everyone. Those who aren't should seek a new line of work. We question both the things people already hate, and the things they hold dear. So as far as most people are concerned, our work is justified no more than half the time.

Our proclivity for skepticism--and criticism--is why many people have no use for us. If we do see something worthy of praise, those who disagree must have some questionable ulterior motive.

Even if everyone agrees that grass is green, a good journalist will seek out a minority point of view, such as the opinion of someone who is colorblind. Assigned a story on motherhood and apple pie, we will instinctively seek information about neglectful mothers and tainted apple pie. That's just the way it is. Good mothers and blue-ribbon apple pie aren't news. It is the exceptions to the rule that are news.

Since there is nothing that can't be questioned, then there is nothing beyond reproach. If there is nothing beyond reproach, then there is nothing, certainly of an earthly nature, worthy of worship.

This does not apply to my wife, or to Bruce Springsteen.

But it does apply to most other humans, particularly those who become well-known. They are automatic targets of skepticism--and probably criticism--because they have chosen to take a stand in the public forum.

As I was growing up, my parents were Time magazine subscribers. I was 13 in 1966 when the cover carried three words in red on a stark black background: "Is God Dead?" It may have been 40 years ago, but it left an impression. I recall the controversy that ensued, and, as the future president of my church youth group, I wondered where a news magazine gets off posing such a question.

Today I look at it two ways: First, if it was a question people were pondering at the time, in an era of the Beatles, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the Great Society, then why not ask it?

Second, the magazine's editors had to know the cover would sell some extra copies and raise a ruckus that the daily press would cover, creating an early example of the media covering the media. Time magazine became part of the story. For that it would merit some criticism.

Once you've questioned God, is anything sacred? Perhaps it was less treacherous journalistically to scrutinize the president six years later during Watergate, considering that the media had already put God himself under the microscope.

Suffice it to say we are supposed to play the devil's advocate. I can hear the media detractors now, saying it's no surprise to hear we're aligned with the devil.

This evaluation is prompted more or less by the absurd e-mails I get filling me in on all the good news going on in Iraq that the press fails to report. Or how military brass and Cabinet members say media negativity is destroying the troops' morale.

People who suggest that members of the media don't love their country because they question the president or his policies simply don't get it. How are we anti-soldier, or un-American, when we question the decisions that have cost the lives of thousands of U.S. troops? How is that irresponsible?

On the contrary, it would be irresponsible and un-American to accept what comes out of the Pentagon or the White House as gospel. After all the backpedaling on weapons of mass destruction and the so-called intelligence that put us in Iraq in the first place, is anyone really foolish enough to believe George Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld without seeking some corroboration?

Of course there are good things happening in parts of Iraq--even Baghdad. How wonderful it is that there is reconstruction going on, that kids are happily going to school each day, that the training of Iraqi troops to fight their own war is ongoing.

Consider that with the destruction of two space shuttles and their crews, criticism rained down on NASA, and deservedly so. But no one is forgetting or ignoring that NASA put Americans on the moon, or has undertaken scores of successful missions.

Everyone knows that surgeons perform miracles every day, but they make news when they leave a scalpel inside a patient, or amputate the wrong leg.

If there were nothing at all positive going on in Iraq, George Bush would have been recalled by now, and we'd have faced a constitutional crisis. As it is he is simply being criticized for poor decision-making and strategizing in a war he initiated. He is still running the country, albeit into the ground.

Cheerleaders we are not. We are part of the system of checks and balances, and that's especially true and necessary when the executive, legislative and, increasingly, the judicial branches of government are all tilted in the same direction.

We even choose to criticize ourselves, though some would say we do a woefully inadequate job of that. Such criticism usually is left to second guessing: Those journalists and newspapers that reported the 12 remaining trapped West Virginia coal miners to be alive should have double-checked their facts first. Or they should have at least made it clear who the sources were for that information.

Such mistakes can be likened to those of a football linebacker, trained to be aggressive and unrelenting, who occasionally gets flagged for a late hit. There's no excuse for that, but hopefully he'll learn from that mistake and be more careful in the future.

We strive to get the facts straight and report stories objectively. Journalism professors like to remind their students that the media can't unring the bell, so we ought to be sure of our facts before we tell the world.

When readers think we've done an unsatisfactory job, which is their prerogative, they need to say so. Readers of The Free Lance-Star seem more aware of that, per capita, than those of the other newspapers I've worked for. That makes for a livelier editorial page and a more vital newspaper.

Thomas Jefferson once said, "Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe."

I don't have to point out that he also said, "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers." But I figure you'd want to know both sides of the story.

Even TJ saw the importance of playing the devil's advocate. There must have been a critical story in the paper that day.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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