Journalistic Principles COMMENTARY

Tracing the Insider's Roots

Ken Silverstein | May 26, 2011

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Another lifetime ago, I was a senior in high school. I took what would become a transformative class: Great Books, which started me on a course of becoming an avid pursuer of knowledge. 

 

Plato’s Republic was first up. And the one passage that has stood with me all these years was proffered by Socrates, who said, “I know only that I know not” -- good words to live by not just in my daily life but also in my professional, journalistic one. 

 

While the precept was planted in my teens, it had become rooted in my twenties. It was then I got my first journalism job working for the McNeil-Lehrer News Report in New York City. Each morning, I’d take the “A Train” four stops from Greenwich Village to Columbus Circle and go perform my duties as an intern. And while the responsibilities were mundane, the lessons were profound. 

 

Robin McNeil was not a recluse. The anchor involved himself with everyone in the newsroom, including the newbies who had no clout. Besides putting a show on the air each night, he felt an obligation to leave a lasting impression on the field of journalism as well as the people lucky enough to work for him. 

 

One summer day he took his interns to lunch, four of us in all. During the roughly two-hour time period, the youngsters all traded places multiple times so that we could each have a turn sitting next to Robin. And just as I recollected Socrates’ words of wisdom -- so forgive me if there is another variation of the quote -- I will try to do the same with the legendary newsman’s creed. 

 

His general message was that the news should inform and it should appeal to the intellectual side of humankind. It was not the show’s role to entertain. It was not his nature -- much less his job -- to condescend. Instead, it was the responsibility of the program to look carefully into meaningful issues and to try and ensure that viewers learn something new. 

 

Not too long after that, the show expanded from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. It also evolved, recognizing that pictures don’t minimize the news; rather, they help punctuate it. The program learned how to draw in more people without sacrificing its journalistic beliefs. 

 

Passing the Torch

 

The last time I saw Robin McNeil was in the press room in 1988 at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. He had invited me to watch how the then-MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour produced its coverage. The same sense of fairness prevailed then, as it does now, and will continue to do in the future. 

 

In the last decade or so, the show has been led by Robin’s business partner, Jim Lehrer, who is based in Washington, D.C. I, too, had the opportunity to meet Jim, who treated me as respectfully as he did his co-news anchor. Jim has now announced his gradual departure and that a newer generation of those whom both he and Robin have helped groom will assume the lead. 

 

It’s a philosophy of the news that teaches modesty -- that the story has higher value  than the people who deliver it. Recently, the National Press Club gave Jim its Fourth Estate Award. In accepting it, he laid out the tenets of what makes journalists and journalism respectable:

 

  1.  Do nothing I cannot defend;
  2.  Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me; 
  3.  Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story; 
  4.  Assume the viewer is at least as smart and caring and as good of a person as I am; 
  5.  Assume the same about all the people on whom I report;
  6.  Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise;
  7.  Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories ... and clearly label everything; 
  8.  Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions; 
  9.  No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously, and
  10.  We are not in the entertainment business. 

 

Journalists perform different functions. Some are straight news reporters. Some are analysts and feature writers while others investigate. In any case, it is their job to be fair and to ensure that their audience is fulfilled -- objectives that are more attainable if they follow Jim Lehrer’s principles, or are humble enough to heed the maxims of the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. 

 

 

EnergyBiz Insider has been named Honorable Mention for Best Online Column by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists. 

Follow Ken on www.twitter.com/freehand1200

 

energybizinsider@energycentral.com.


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Comments

my gratitude

Just a note to let you the letter writers know that I've read your very gracious comments, and appreciate all of them. 

Ken

Journalistic Principles COMMENTARY

Ken,

Thank you for having put this information forth for us to see.

I have seen in your reporting over the years that you do carry forward these principles you relate as having been imparted to you from your McNeil-Lehrer News experience.

This country needs more journalists who not only know these things, but who employ them in their respective industries -- not disregard them to cheer on their own opinions and agenda.

Keep up the excellent work!

 

Journalistic Principles COMMENTARY

 

Congratulations on your articulate, no-nonsense comments about journalism and reporting. You are a credit to your community.

 

I hope Bob is watching. He would be very proud of you.

 

“I know only that I know not”

Good comments here.  I would venture to say that we are no longer a country with journalists with the exception of weather forecasts, etc. most reporters include their political "bent" in the story they are reporting.

I have used a similar quote in my life - "The more you know, the more you don't know."

“I know only that I know not”

Good comments here.  I would venture to say that we are no longer a country with journalists with the exception of weather forecasts, etc. most reporters include their political "bent" in the story they are reporting.

I have used a similar quote in my life - "The more you know, the more you don't know."

Principles to practice

As a long time fan of the newshour, I was privileged to see the clip where Jim Lehrer delivered his 10 tenets.  I believe that these go beyond the profession of journalism and the principles are superb guidelines for how each of us are well advised to conduct ourselves in our relations with each and every person we interact with.

Thanks, Ken for sharing your internship experiences with the News Hour.  That background explains a lot about the why you emerged as such a compelling spokeperson / inquisitor for our industry!

.

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Journalistic Principles COMMENTARY

Bravo, Ken; bravo!!!

Michael A. Marullo

Editor, EET&D Magazine

Media Principles

Those media principles you cite sound so quaint in today's frenetic era of blogging, Tweeting, reTweeting and general bloviating. Your recollections of McNeil-Lehrer remind me of appreciations I've read of Walter Cronkite. It's like the Israelites exiled in Babylon remembering their Moses and Abraham. 

Your Great Books experience resonated with me as well, since my major was English Lit with a minor in Philosophy, and I went as far as getting a master's degree in English Lit. 

John Murawski

The News & Observer

Raleigh, NC

Thank you

 

Great piece. Thank you. Especially like this line:

 

"It’s a philosophy of the news that teaches modesty -- that the story has higher value  than the people who deliver it."

 

Imagine that. Thanks for not being in the entertainment business and for the service you provide to those of us in the energy biz.

 

Michael Powers

Stellar Solar

 

Journalism

This is great in an era where we are meeting with paid journalism. May there be more like you. I wish this story could have been translated into several languages.I receive a paper in Hindi who claims that it has max circulation in the world! But these fellows have to learn some thing from your story. Keep it up. My best wishes