This is journalism, not that

By Caitlin Kelly

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I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.

This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.

Guess which got the most attention?

To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.

Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.

I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.

What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.

All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.

If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!

Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.

In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”

In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.

In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.

Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 50 stories for them

It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”

David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his meticulous accounting of every dollar President Trump’s foundation made to charity. Very few, it turned out.

Here’s a story with an image of his notebooks. Pretty old-school stuff. But it did the job.

As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.

That’s real journalism.

28 thoughts on “This is journalism, not that

  1. I still remember David Fahrenthold’s series. While the realist in me realizes that extremism and voyeurism sells, the optimist in me believes that carefully crafted and researched writing lasts.

    1. He did a great job — and lucky for the WashPost Jeff Bezos, who now owns it, is willing to support great work.

      Decades from now, no one will be reading “the collected tweets of”. I’m betting on that. 🙂

  2. I agree – the reduction of news to celebrity gossip isn’t journalism – and it’s demeaned the perception of the profession. What worries me is that it may well be where things are going for the next little while – heralding a future of media trivia mixed with the village gossip hearsay of Facebook ‘news’, all driven by the advertising dollar that can be wrapped around such stories. Ugh. But as you say, ‘old school’ investigative journalism is still producing stories – and optimistically, I think will resume its headline place in due course.

    1. What disturbs me most now is the lack of media literacy — and how this leads to people’s notion of “news” being only whatever is in their friends’ Facebook feeds. I do not believe in the Holy Trinity of the NYT/WSJ/add a third….but trained journalists have to push their stories past many demanding editors pre-pub. I doubt many people even know that, and maybe don’t even care.

      I recently did a 1,000 word story and spent a day fact-checking it with sources. No one pays for that, but without it, that’s not journalism.

  3. Don’t forget The Guardian!

    The Guardian partnered with The New York Times to give the US paper access to some of the sensitive cache of documents leaked by (National Security Agency) whistleblower Edward Snowden.

  4. Lesley

    I agree with everything you say but was there any need to use “skinny white” when describing someone? There was no need, it let down the gist of your argument, what did it add? Most of all it was just so disparaging and not what I expect from someone who I always enjoy reading, just because you never stoop to that level.

    1. Thanks.

      It was a harsh thing to say, I admit.

      But it’s also a comment less on one woman than the media’s ongoing obsession with primarily showcasing/fawning over white women and those who confirm to an ideal (i.e. thin) body type. I’m tired of it and I know many women are as well.
      I also weary of the media’s slavish attention to women who marry very wealthy men (hello, Cinderella?!) as well. All of it. How exactly is anyone meant to find this stuff compelling or helpful? Do you?

      Sorry to disappoint you. 🙂

      1. Lesley

        I’m tired of fawning over women of any colour, having just read an article about Beyonce’s bare pregnancy bump at a baby shower. As for finding any of it compelling or helpful I don’t, but is it any different to the fawning that happened to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – white, thin and married twice to two extremely wealthy men.

        The disappointment is momentary – I always look forward to reading your posts when they hit my mailbox and often forward them on to friends.

      2. Agreed. 🙂 It’s the obsession with our BODIES (and who owns them at what price) that I also find so annoying. As long as you marry $$$$$$, you’re deemed interesting. I’m generally more intrigued by women who make it on their own and in non-corporate ways.

        Thanks much…

    2. How about this, Lesley … skinny, white, privileged, entitled and indulged woman!! I’ll bet you’re really pissed off now. Don’t come near my blog, girl, I’ll eat you up for breakfast and spit you out.

      1. Lesley

        Lol – not at all. I will say that your comments on Brexit are some of the most balanced, insightful and thoughtful comments I’ve read in the past year and for that I thank you. I’ve read your blog for quite some time and enjoy it.

  5. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I liked whhgat you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.


  6. wow, that’s quite a sensational first line!
    there has been a lot of media coverage of the recent wedding, more than I chose to follow, but I’ve seen more about the bride and her endeavours than about her husband – I didn’t know he was rich!!!
    it seemed more like the Disney tales, where two sisters each have their fairytale weddings – a few years ago all the little schoolgirls could talk about was Disney’s film “Frozen” – why be surprised that “Twitter” or any social media should behave in a different way than a grown-up playground? Maybe they should be tweeting about death, destruction and corruption and journalists should concentrate on bringing people down.

    1. I’m not much of a fan of fairytales, clearly. The endless fascination with the wealthy, and the women who marry them, seems bizarre to me.

      And journalists do tweet about death,. destruction and corruption. The NYT and WashPost have spent a greal deal of resources this year to investigate Trump and his staff.

  7. Heck, if you can’t engage in free speech on your own blog, where can you do it?!? Skinny white woman? In what way is this offensive? Some of your readers sound a tad too precious for my liking.

  8. Ricardo29

    I haven’t come across your writing before but being a retired white long time journalist From the antipodes I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. I have watched US politics for a long time, indeed can go back to Watergate, and have been interested to observe what I have felt was the failure of much of the mainstream media to accurately report just why Trump is so unsuited to the role. I think many journalists in that mainstream media have either never learned, or have forgotten, the basics of good journalism which are those you refer to. I will find a way to join your blogosphere.

    1. Thanks!

      I’m always happy to have a fellow journalist aboard — I know many readers here care less about these issues than I, but I feel passionately about the quality of the news report, especially now.

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