Traditional news media outlets and journalists would rather cover the news than become the story. But critics across the political spectrum seem intent on making attacks on the news media part of the news narrative.
The biggest Republican punch in this left-right combination came during the third GOP presidential debate, when candidates caustically criticized the media in general and CNBC moderators in particular. “The questions that people have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Ted Cruz said, to raucous applause. Ben Carson continued the assault when he railed against perceived bias after reporters investigated inconsistencies in his biography.
From the left, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton also have griped about the media. And at the University of Missouri this week, the pushback was literal. As the campus convulsed in protest, Tim Tai, a photographer on assignment for ESPN, was verbally and physically harassed as he tried to take photos of a tent village set up on the campus quad. Some protesters locked arms to thwart reporters amid chants of “Hey hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go” and lawn signs reading “No Media — Safe Space.”
Perhaps some of those students weren’t schooled in the nexus of free speech and a free press. Melissa Click — an assistant professor with the opportunity, if not responsibility, to teach them — may not be the best choice, however. As captured on a viral video, Click tried to block the camera of another student, Mark Schierbecker, who was documenting Tai’s harassment, and shouted to supporters: “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.”
What were needed were brains, not brawn, which Tai and Schierbecker gracefully displayed as they explained that the First Amendment applied to them, too. That’s something Click, as an academic and an adult, should have immediately acknowledged. To her credit, she later apologized and resigned her courtesy appointment to Missouri’s outstanding School of Journalism. (She will continue to teach in the Department of Communications.)
That this could happen with college students — and especially faculty — at Missouri, which claims to be the home of the world’s first journalism school, is deeply disappointing. But it’s indicative of the misunderstanding and mistrust of the news media, as evidenced by Gallup’s annual analysis of Americans’ trust in the media, which showed this year’s results tying historic lows set in 2012 and 2014.
Amid this harsh glare comes “Spotlight,” a film that tells the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. Just like journalists now, those on the Spotlight investigative team weren’t too popular as they intrepidly investigated the intertwined institutions that allowed the abuse to continue. But with smarts, guts and integrity, they persevered despite pillars of the community erecting walls around vested interests.
The stories, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and the movie, which might win an Academy Award, show not just the power but the necessity of the news media at just the right time in our nation’s history.
“Spotlight” is the best representation of the press since “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 film that’s still suspenseful despite being well-known history. “Spotlight” succeeds, indeed supersedes, on many levels, including not lionizing nor disrespecting the press as some cinematic treatments do. Rather, the work of journalism is alternately shown as tedious and tense, shoe leather and gumshoe, exhausting and exalting. The reporters and editors are depicted as all-too-human and the paper as fallible, since “Spotlight” notes that the Globe was slow to grasp the magnitude of the abuse scandal.
The Washington Post, of course, faced similar institutional pushback when its reporters unraveled Watergate. Their work, chronicled in the “All the President’s Men” book and film, brought newfound respect for the press, and even led some to enroll in journalism school in the hopes of becoming the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.
It’s probably too much to expect the same for “Spotlight.” But it would be beneficial if Mizzou students (and apparently, faculty), as well as presidential candidates and the voters they’re courting, would watch the movie. It might remind them that although the news media isn’t perfect, its watchdog reporting is a perfectly necessary element of a vibrant democracy.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.