Jim Stasiowski, writing
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The TV commercial, which has run so often that I hit mute and recite all the lines in lip-sync with the actors, uses a fake bank robbery to allow the uniformed character to explain why he isn’t drawing a weapon to thwart the bad guys: “I’m not a security guard; I’m a security monitor.”
He calmly tells two incredulous patrons who dropped to the floor in terror that his job with the bank is simply to alert people when there is a robbery. In a tone as flat as the two patrons, he says, “There’s a robbery.”
The message is that while some identity-theft services merely “monitor” such thefts, the company paying for the commercial is far superior because it takes steps to protect its customers.
The little drama touched a nerve with me because the public’s disdain for newspapers and journalists often includes the criticism that we are little more than monitors of activity in our communities, passive observers who pass along what we witness, and that’s the extent of our action.
In fact, we sometimes sustain our image as mere “monitors.” If you’re a reporter or an editor, and you recently got a call accusing you of bias, you may have fallen back on the argument that “We just report the news; we don’t make it.”
Any time we dig into misdeeds, from mere mistakes to felonies, we are turning such actions into news, for if the misdeeds are never made public, can we really define them as “news”?
If you wish to get all semantic on me, OK, I’ll accept the argument that everything could qualify as “news,” just as placing your garbage cans out for pickup technically qualifies as “history.” But when we do write about misdeeds, our goal isn’t merely to inform; our goal is to bring about change, improvement.
Right before New Year’s Day, The Wall Street Journal had a story about victims, people whose financial reputations were damaged by the unscrupulous acts of Wells Fargo. The story includes this paragraph: “Bank spokeswoman Mary Eshet said in a written statement Wells Fargo is contacting customers identified by the Journal ‘to ensure we resolve their situations to their satisfaction.’”
That goes far beyond mere monitoring; when newspapers act, others often follow.
When I was a reporter in the 1980s, my editor assigned me to see whether merchants sold cigarettes without checking IDs, thus tacitly ushering youngsters into the smoking habit. I thought the idea ridiculous and told my editor so. He prevailed. (Editors seem to do that a lot.)
We recruited a sweet-looking 14-year-old girl, a nonsmoker. I drove her from store to store, 10 in all, and rehearsed her on portraying a scared, unsure novice perhaps buying her first-ever pack from clerks who, by law, were not allowed to sell to anyone younger than 18.
After 10 stops, she had 10 packs of cigarettes. No sales clerk even blinked, and one, the 14-year-old told me, even gave her advice on which brand to buy.
Our hastily hatched sting may have had not the slightest effect on the subsequent nationwide tightening of the sales-to-teens laws, but whenever I see one of those signs promising that stores check IDs for tobacco purchases, I smile.
In our news sections, as opposed to editorial pages, we don’t tell readers or civic leaders what actions to take, but we do more than merely monitor, more than observe. If I spent all those years as a monitor, explain to me why so many people felt aggrieved by what I wrote or edited and called to accuse me of bias.
I blame Teddy Roosevelt and his famous 1910 “Man in the Arena” speech. TR, an enlightened public servant but also no slouch at both ego and self-promotion, was painting a glowing portrait of himself and an insulting one of those who opposed him when he said, in part: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … . (W)ho at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
“(T)he critic” he excoriated probably was a reporter. As Louis Filler wrote in his book “Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism”: “Roosevelt was generally held responsible for the appearance of the muckrakers and identified with them, despite the fact that he himself in anger gave them their opprobrious name.”
Most journalists have dared greatly, and many have fallen short. But very few are either cold or timid, and all have known both victory and defeat.
(Personal to Teddy: You needed an editor. “(N)either” in the last sentence should be between “know” and “victory.”)
THE FINAL WORD: “Opprobrious” means “abusive” or “disrespectful.”