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Tom Durkin: My mother made me do it

Tom Durkin | Columnist

Novelist Quentin Reynolds was a combat correspondent in North Africa during World War II. My grandfather, Barry Faris, was editor-in-chief of William Randall Hearst’s International News Service.

During the height of fighting in North Africa, Reynolds telegraphed Faris: “You are not paying me enough!”

Faris wired back, “Screw the money! I’m making you famous!”

About all I know of Faris was that he was a colorful and powerful “yellow journalist.” My mother was both proud of and embarrassed by her father.

As far as I can tell, International News Services was the Fox News of its time, and my grandfather was to William Randolph Hearst what Roger Ailes was to Rupert Murdoch of Fox News.

All I ever saw was a has-been alcoholic who advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not exactly a role model.

An honorable profession

Who, what, where, when, why and how. Quite literally, I learned that at my mother’s knee. It’s one of my earliest memories. Her father taught her that. Maybe he invented the “How” addition to the “Five W’s,” but I don’t know that.

Mom was not a journalist, but she raised me to believe that journalism, done with integrity, is an honorable profession. Although I never went to journalism school, I hold that belief close to my heart.

When I became a reporter, it was a cold shock to learn most people hold us below used car salespeople in terms of credibility.

Yeah, well, most folks judge the credibility of reporters based on how much the news fits into their belief system. It’s almost axiomatic in any honest newsroom that the right-wing readers are convinced the paper is too left-wing and liberal readers think the paper is too conservative.

That’s more of a reflection of their politics than ours.

Politics are mostly irrelevant to us as professionals. Our job is to tell you what you need to know, to tell you the truth. Whether you, or we, like it or not.

The truth about bias

Okay, now that I’ve insulted everyone’s intelligence, of course, there’s bias. We’re people. We have personal feelings, but we’re professionals. We leave our bias at home.

Or we get fired. I had a colleague once who was an excellent investigative reporter, but he couldn’t keep his religious prejudice out of his reporting.

People conflate the editorial page with the front page. Don’t do that.

I’ve been in newsrooms where the official editorial was embarrassing to us in the newsroom. No way did we agree with the newspaper’s editorial position – or let it influence us.

Unbiased reporters

As any person on the political right will tell you, most reporters are liberal.

That’s true. That’s just a fact. As a breed, we tend to be liberal, but there are plenty of conservative reporters out there too.

Regardless of our politics, we have a saying: It’s impossible to be objective, but it is possible to be fair. The more I detest you personally, the more I give you your best shot professionally.

According to an April 2020 in-depth study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “… the media exhibits no bias against conservatives (or liberals for that matter) …” and “… journalists’ individual ideological leanings have unexpectedly little effect on … political news generation.”

Like sports umpires, cops, doctors and judges, reporters are professionally obligated to suspend personal feelings and political beliefs when it comes to their work.

Of course, there are the outliers, the sell-outs – like my grandfather – who defame the reputation of ethical journalists. Some do it for a strong moral belief. Others do it for the money. Still others just do it for the attention.

Close to the news

Recently, I was told I was “too close” to a story I’d found. (Actually, the story found me.)

Too close. Excuse me?

I have been working my beat for four years. What kind of reporter would I be if I’m not close to my sources? That doesn’t mean I’m involved with them.

If I were involved with them, I’d declare a conflict of interest, as I have throughout my career.

If I weren’t close to my sources, I wouldn’t even have this story. If my source is lying to me, I’ll throw them under the bus. If what my source is telling me is true, I must tell another close source some bad news.

Do I have an interest in the outcome? Hell, yes. Do I have an investment? No. Not my circus, not my monkeys.

My only investment is reporting what happens as this story plays out, even if I hate the way it plays out.

Who cares?

I care. I get close to my stories. Sometimes too close for comfort. It’s not fun. It’s hot in the kitchen. You can get burned.

I’ve had a tire slashed. An M-80 thrown at me. I’ve been lied to and lied about. Been called a “goon.” Editors have cut me from the bottom. One person even wrote to suggest I commit suicide (probably only because a death threat would have resulted in arrest).

Oh well. As Super Chicken says, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.”

I carry the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics around with me. I take it seriously.

My grandfather was elected president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 1945. (sigh)

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor, and photo/videographer in Nevada County and a member of The Union Editorial Board. He may be contacted at tjdurkin3@gmail.com or http://www.tomdurkin-media.net.


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