Good journalism, even when practiced for profit, is a public service. Lately, however, top news organizations, frustrated by criticism from on high, have taken to describing their mission as more of a crusade.
The Washington Post, in the public eye more than usual this month with the opening of “The Post” - a film about the paper’s 1971 decision to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, which revealed a secret government analysis of the failing Vietnam War-adopted a new slogan last year. It reads: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
The Post went for 140 years without a slogan, but its owners and top editors decided that these extraordinary times, with media under attack, required a pointed, even ominous, declaration of its crusade to shed light.
The Chicago Tribune now tags its messages: “Your support speaks volumes. It allows us to tell the world the truth.”
In a letter to subscribers, the paper’s editor, Bruce Dold, emphasizes, “The Tribune newsroom devotes a lot of time, expense and energy to breaking news, protecting your interests, serving as a check on government power.”
Whereas “truth” in reporting was once taken for granted in the nation’s newsrooms, the era of Fake News seems to have compelled news organizations to remind us that truth isn’t always guaranteed.
When A.G. Sulzberger took over this month as publisher of The New York Times, he wrote: “Our founders understood that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to hold power to account were prerequisites for a successful democracy. But a dangerous confluence of forces is threatening the press’s central role in helping people understand and engage with the world around them.”
Noting that, “misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining,” Sulzberger pledged diligence, adding: “we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.”
It’s unfortunate that the nation’s largest news organizations along with many of their smaller regional counterparts see the need to crusade on behalf of journalism’s basic tenets. Moreover, an increasing number of papers are now appealing to potential subscribers much as charities do: asking that they contribute to allow important work to continue.
Not satisfied with simply “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” the Washington Post now uses the tag line: “Real journalism matters.” Is that the marketing antidote to “fake news”? Perhaps.
CNN urges “Facts First.” CBS promotes its “Real News.” The New York Times reminds us, “The Truth is More Important Than Ever.”
We have news organizations coining slogans to defend against relentless attacks by a president who says journalists “have so-called sources that, in my opinion, don’t exist.” He adds, “They just make it up. It is so dishonest. It is so fake.”
Ninety-five years before the Washington Post coined its slogan about “darkness,” the Scripps newspaper company began using as its motto: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
We need more than slogans to find our way in these challenging times. I don’t want media to appear so defensive that it gives ammunition to critics who would insist there is something to be defensive about.
Catch phrases are the stuff of Madison Avenue and, currently, Pennsylvania Avenue. All Main Street needs are facts.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.