Skip the broad brush when painting journalism 

August 28, 2023 3:00 am

First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (Getty Images)

In an unintended sequel to the 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” part of the Sunflower State’s justice system has run afoul of the First Amendment. Armed with a warrant signed by a local judge and probably in violation of shield laws, police officers and county sheriffs raided a small-town weekly newspaper and the home of its 98-year co-owner. She died the next day. 

Then in our neighborhood, when journalists from the Flatwater Free Press requested copies of some emails sent by Gov. Jim Pillen, public servants in his office said no, citing a heretofore unknown information access principle called “executive privilege,” a seemingly whole cloth response to a legitimate request.

What the Kansas potboiler and Nebraska’s lack of sunshine share are symptoms of a growing distemper: the disregard for and dismissal of journalists and the profession of journalism.

Like voting rights, science, bodily autonomy, academia and American history, journalism finds itself in the crosshairs of culture warriors who mistrust the republic’s institutions. Demeaning and denigrating a profession, whose work sheds light where shadows dare to capture American hearts and minds, and the professionals who practice it has become a national pastime. The shorthand is “I blame the media.”

Details of the raid on the Marion County Record, serving 2,000 subscribers near Wichita, are well-reported. Officers said they were looking for materials that could corroborate an accusation a local restaurateur leveled against the Record after it investigated her arrest for DUI. The paper had not published any of those facts.

Law enforcement defended the search but has returned everything. The county attorney said the warrant was issued with “insufficient evidence.” The wickets, however, remain sticky: The judge who signed the warrant has had two DUI arrests herself, one resulting in diversion and a license suspension, the other somehow lost in paperwork. 

As of this writing, no one in Pillen’s office has released the requested emails, so the Nebraska story continues.

For we ink-stained wretches, who have watched the newspaper industry lose subscribers and advertisers while the cost of newsprint went up and the “news hole” — those column inches devoted to copy — went down, what happened to the Record was shocking and the snub of a public information request disturbing. 

We’ve also witnessed political rallies pockmarked with attendees in T-shirts or carrying signs with messages that threaten injury or worse to journalists and candidates who encourage them. What happened in Kansas, the stonewall from the governor’s office and the general disdain for journalism in this country should give Americans pause.

Here’s why: Scorn, contempt and menacing may appear to “own the journalists,” but when they work and information is muted or blocked, it’s also muted and blocked for the public, whether that’s 2,000 rural Kansans, many more Nebraskans and millions of other readers of news produced by reputable — yes, mainstream — news sources.

Like other institutions, trust in the “media” has taken a hit, according to numbers reported by Gallup in 2022. Only 34% of Americans trust the media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” That’s only a couple points better than the all-time low reported in 2016. Americans under 30 now get as much information from social media as they do from mainstream media including newspapers.

Those newspapers especially have taken a hit, in particular small local operations such as the Record. What you’re reading at this moment is an online, nonprofit newspaper — a new business and delivery model for newspapers and a response to the demise of many print publications that no longer arrive on doorsteps in the morning. 

Still, the tenets of good journalism remain — akin to Gallup’s full, accurate and fair survey question above. That’s also my experience with the pros with whom I work at the Nebraska Examiner each week, and nearly all the hundreds of journalists I’ve worked with in nearly 30 years of turning out copy.

To which many among the legion of media detractors would say: So what? They point to egregious examples of poor journalism, using such instances to brand an entire profession. Yes, those examples exist. But, as Tom Nichols argues in “The Death of Expertise,” we’ve become a broad-brush nation, quick to dismiss an entire profession from a small sample size, whether it’s doctors urging vaccinations and masks in response to a pandemic; teachers searching for best practices in the face of withering criticisms and accusations; or climatologists accused of practicing “junk science.”More to the point, it’s newspaper reporters telling stories they and their editors believe the public needs to know.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.