President Barack Obama made a number of excellent points in his remarks at a Monday journalism award dinner honoring the late, great New York Times reporter Robin Toner , who died from complications of colon cancer at age 54 right after Obama’s 2008 election.
But his lecture on how we ought to be conducting ourselves might have gone down better if he had done more as president to support the kind of work that he rightly said “undergirds our democracy.”
(Instead, as The Associated Press recently reported , this administration set a record for the number of times it failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act; one out of six times, those seeking information from the federal government were told that not a single relevant page could be located.)
Oh, and we might have been more willing to be schooled if his administration had done less to crack down on government employees suspected of leaking to the press. Or hadn’t seized those phone records from AP reporters, or put a tail on James Rosen of Fox News.
Or even if it were easier to imagine him as president actually sitting down with Robin, who did not play basketball with her interviewees, or crack jokes between two ferns , or make a name for herself by eating Fruit Loops in the bathtub . After all, he hasn’t given an interview to a reporter from the Washington Post in 7 ½ years.
Again, much of what the president said at the Toner dinner is inarguably true. Like the part about how “I’m not the only one who is maybe more than a little dismayed about what’s happening on the campaign trail.” Or about the “misguided attempt” of protesters to shut down the speech of the candidate he did not name – the one frequently referred to as a carnival barker: “I was going to call it a carnival atmosphere,’’ Obama said, “but that implies fun.”
Which reporters who feel the need to take private security with them to Donald Trump rallies are definitely not having, Mr. President.
According to the president, journalists have as one accepted every word Trump said uncritically – a view as at odds with reality as anything the president was referring to when he complained about the growing “sense that facts don’t matter.”
Facts are our business, and yes, democracy is undercut when news is “Balkanized” – with right, left and center picking a preferred narrative and denying any events that contradict the smooth flow of their favorite storyline.
But does he really think we who gathered to salute Robin’s important legacy need to be told that “Just because something is substantive doesn’t mean it is not interesting?”
Or that we need to be urged to bestir ourselves to sort out fact from fiction, “because while fairness is the hallmark of good journalism, false equivalency all too often these days can be a fatal flaw. If I say that the world is round and someone else says it’s flat, that’s worth reporting, but you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round. And that shouldn’t be buried in paragraph five or six of the article.”
“Lord knows I’ve made mistakes in this job,’’ the president said, “but if you see what I said in ’07 and what I did, they match up.” Except for being the most transparent administration in history?
In the old days, he complained, “There was a price if you said one thing and did something different.” And even now, “Americans are still hungry for the truth.”
Many are, of course, but the part of the equation that’s always left out of the press-bashing so popular on the left and right is that as consumers, readers have something to say about the news, too; If you, like the president, care as much as you say you do about substance, then stop clicking on the schlock and support the good stuff.
“You are supposed to push those in power,’’ the president told us, and amen to that. Near the end of his remarks, he said that we should never doubt “how much I value great journalism.” Or that “you help me do my job better.”
In his last year in office, it’s not too late for him to stop making it harder for us to do ours.
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