I remember well those lessons about the absolute necessity to be 100 per cent right in every instance and in every story written or told in journalism. It was a harsh lesson in university. One spelling mistake in any assignment and it was notched up as a failure, regardless of how good the rest of the story was.
In the real world, long before the advent of all-news networks, cell phones and the Internet, being right all the time was the backbone of journalism in democracies. Of course, being right all the time was, and remains, humanly impossible. But it was, nonetheless, a clear objective and very much our golden rule.
Years ago, when a journalist made a mistake, there was actually shame around it. For two or three days, you were embarrassed in your office among your colleagues, and you were devastated when you saw peers from competing news organization outside the office. If only you could dig a hole and disappear underground. Professional humiliation was real. It hurt and somehow helped keep everyone on the right path.
Facts were double-checked and, if a source told you something juicy, you needed to double-source the content. Documentation for many stories was also required. Not only did a journalist have to be right, he or she had to be able to prove he or she was right when challenged.
Rumours and gossip were dismissed outright. A half-truth, we used to tell each other, was like being half pregnant.
The big change to the gospel of truth-telling was the beginning of all-news channels in the 1980s. A new era of journalists, commentators and experts being on live TV 24 hours a day, talking off the tops of their heads was ushered in. Spontaneous talk leaves no room for sober second thought, let alone fact-checking and double-sourcing.
Journalists saw themselves in a different role. The business of all-news all the time was about keeping the machine moving. “Feeding the goat,” as the expression went, was about incessant talking. So much had changed. Suddenly journalists could say all kinds of things about all kinds of subjects on live TV with no editors and no filters.
In the summer of 2001, I was filling in for the CBC’s London correspondent who was on holiday. The war in Bosnia was grinding to an end and because of Canada’s participation I had to talk about it every day on the all-news network from the London bureau. I read the wire service copy and I scanned other media to provide me with just enough information to talk about a country I had never been to and a war I had no first-hand knowledge of.
As an old school traditionalist, it was so hard to do that. I couldn’t convince myself that I had the knowledge or the credibility to do what I was being asked to do. But this was not about telling my superiors I couldn’t do it. This was about the conditions of my employment having been changed under my feet. Filling airtime was what I was being asked to do. I did it, but I sure didn’t like it.
The establishment of satellite technology and all-news channels pales in comparison to the advent of the Internet and social media. Today, anyone can be a reporter. Anyone can say anything about anybody and they can even furnish their reporting with photos and video. It is a no-holds-barred era for information and journalism, and there is nothing that can or will stop it. Traditional media try to survive knowing full well the old rules and economics are history.
While none of this is startling news, there is a strange new twist. Presumptive Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s genius, or the devil in him, is squeezing the last bit of fair play out of American journalism. It is a two-step dance as the bewildered media cope with a candidate who is rewriting the rule book.
Walter Cronkite is a legend. And so, now, is journalism itself.