Tom Tells It Like It Is

Respect the public's intelligence, let the facts be your "firewall," and check your hubris at the door
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Earlier this month, Tom Brokaw received an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In a speech that night, he neatly laid out the precepts that have guided his long career in television news.

Here is some of what I have learned in 42 years as a journalist.

Viewers and readers take us seriously and they deserve to be taken seriously in turn. Yes, they'll always stop to watch the car wreck, low behavior by people in high places, volcanoes erupting or hurricanes coming ashore. But they'll also stop to watch the complicated story about governance, foreign policy, science and the economy if you explain that it's important, why it's important and present it in a way that engages the viewer.

Too often the big, complicated issues are covered as if you have to be part of a secret society to truly understand them.

Public policy is the oxygen of journalism. It is the foundation of journalism, reporting on what the public has a right to know what is being done in its name. Consultants may tell you the public doesn't care and neither should you. Consultants are mercenaries. They're in business for themselves. You're in business for the public.

Follow the money. Money, as a powerful California politician once said, is the mother's milk of politics. Private money spent to buy access to public money is a front-page, lead-of-the-show story without end. Spend more time going through the books than you do worrying about the sweeps book, and one will take care of the other.

The best stories come from the bottom up, not the top down, especially stories about what's going on at the top. Get to know the clerks, the staffers, the cops on the beat, the EMTs. The foot soldiers.

Remember, however, they too can carry grudges, distort what they see and expect you to do their dirty work, so treat what they tell you with care and skepticism. And when they meet your test, protect them with your life and they will take care of you. Exploit, abuse or violate their confidence and you, not they, should resign.

The best stories are also about the people from the ground up, not the top down. Who hasn't been bedazzled by a Ronald Reagan, Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Sally Ride, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela—to name just a few big-name, historic figures I've had the privilege to report on and interview over the years. Those were memorable, rich moments in my life and career.

Equally rich and in many ways more meaningful were the anonymous people who gave meaning to their ideas and presence in the public arena. The white doctor from a prominent Johannesburg family who was the only physician in a large squatter camp on the outskirts of Cape Town; the young woman who pursued with greater passion her interest in physics and space flight because of a chance meeting with Sally Ride; the young conservative who went into politics instead of Wall Street because of Gov. Reagan.

Bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Facts are your firewall against bias: facts fairly presented in a coherent arrangement that represents the whole story, not just the parts that titillate.

It's OK to have personal interests, even passions, about newsworthy topics. Those interests make you a better journalist. Advancing those interests or passions for personal gain or satisfaction makes you an unworthy journalist. Know when to say "No" to yourself.

Mistakes will happen. When they do, correct them, quickly and apologetically. Factual mistakes are obvious. However, there are also mistakes of perception and exaggeration, myopia and hubris. They're more difficult to acknowledge but no less important to your personal credibility and that of your organization. When you say, "We stand by our story," make damn sure your viewers have a clear, unambivalent idea of why you're standing by your story.

At whatever level you work in this craft or whatever role you may play in your organization, be brave. The 19th-century mantras of journalism still apply: "
Report the news and raise hell,"
and "Without fear or favor."

Each of you and all of you are stewards of free speech and robust debate. In times of cultural and political emotion, have the courage to give voice to the contrary point of view, the dissident expression.

Edward R. Murrow, one of the founding fathers of this craft, characteristically said it best, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

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