On the importance of journalism

"It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error."

— United States Supreme Court, 1950
(American Communications Association v. Douds, 339 US 382)


"There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies."

— Walter Lippmann, (1889-1974), columnist


"If the country is to be governed with the consent of the governed, then the governed must arrive at opinions about what their governors want them to consent to. How do they do this?

"They do it by hearing on the radio and reading in the newspapers what the corps of correspondents tell them is going on in Washington, and in the country at large, and in the world. Here, we correspondents perform an essential service . . . . We make it our business to find out what is going on under the surface and beyond the horizon, to infer, to deduce, to imagine, and to guess what is going on inside, what this meant yesterday, and what it could mean tomorrow.

"In this we do what every sovereign citizen is supposed to do but has not the time or the interest to do for himself. This is our job. It is no mean calling. We have a right to be proud of it and to be glad that it is our work.

Walter Lippmann, columnist, 1960


"This is our function: Our Founding Fathers understood that government by its nature tends to oppress those it has power over. Our Founding Fathers decided that there must be, there had to be, there should be and there is, an institution that keeps an eye on government. That is what we do.

"There is nothing in the Constitution about the freedom to practice law. There is nothing in the Constitution about the freedom to practice medicine. There is nothing in the Constitution about the freedom to engage in commerce. There is nothing in the Constitution about teaching or learning. But there is something in the Constitution about the freedom of the press. Our Founding Fathers understood that it would be necessary to have a watchdog on government, and that is our role: to keep a watch out."

— Jack Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist


"Our Republic and its press rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."

— Joseph Pulitzer, newspaper editor and publisher, in an essay, “The College of Journalism,” on his underwriting the country’s first journalism school


On reporters and reporting

"I can tell you what it's like to work for a newspaper. Imagine a combine, one of those huge threshing machines that eat up a row of wheat like nothing, bearing right down on you. You're running in front of it, all day long, day in and day out, just inches in front of the maw, where steel blades are whirring and clacking and waiting for you to get tired or make one slip. The only way to keep the combine off you is to throw it something else to rip apart and digest. What you feed it is stories. Words and photos. Ten inches on this, fifteen inches on that, a vertical shot here and a horizontal there, scraps of news and film that go into the maw where they are processed and dumped onto some page to fill the spaces around the ads. Each story buys you a little time, barely enough to slap together the next story, and the next and the next. You never get far ahead, you never take a breather, all you do is live on the hustle. Always in a rush, always on deadline, you keep scrambling to feed the combine. That's what it's like. The only way to break free is with a big story, one you can ride for a while and tear off in pieces so big, the combine has to strain to choke them down. That buys you a little time. But sooner or later the combine will come chomping after you again, and you better be read to feed it all over again.

--Ray Ring, from the novel "Arizona Kiss"


"When I talk to non-journalists, they say, 'You must be cynical.' The fact is, to be a good journalist, you have to be optimistic.You have to believe that the problems of the world, the country, the state, the county, the city, the neighborhood – that they can be solved. We journalists are in the business of talking with the people who have solutions to problems, and we need to remind ourselves of that."

— Jim Lehrer, PBS newscaster


Truman Capote spent years training his memory. He asked friends to speak into a tape recorder while he listened; afterwards, he'd write down what they'd said and compare it to the tape, honing his skill until the differences were negligible. After interviews, Truman Capote would type conversations reconstructed from his memory.

"People who don't understand the literary process are put off by notebooks," he told Life magazine in 1966. "And tape recorders are worse — they completely ruin the quality of the thing being felt or talked about. If you write down or tape what people say, it makes them feel inhibited and self-conscious. It makes them say what you EXPECT them to say."

— from "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight" by Marc Weingarten

From an interview with Matt Taibbi, who covers politics for Rolling Stone:

You wrote a column in the New York Press a few years back referring to journalism as “shoveling coal for Satan.” I believe you also said that journalism as a career was worse than being a worker in a tampon factory. Should any sane young person consider a career in journalism?

If you have no real knowledge or skill set and you’re lazy and full of shit but you want to make a decent wage, then journalism’s not a bad career option. The great thing about it is that you don’t need to know anything. I mean this whole notion of journalism school—I can’t believe people actually go to journalism school. You can learn the entire thing in like three days. My advice is instead of going to journalism school, go to school for something concrete like medicine or some kind of science or something and then use the knowledge you get in that field as a wedge to get yourself into journalism.

What journalism really needs is more people who are reporting who actually know something. Instead of having a bunch of liberal arts grads who’ve read "Siddhartha" 50 times writing about health care, it would be really nice if some of the people who are writing about health care were doctors.


On bias in the media

“A very bad (and all too common) way to misread a newspaper: To see whatever supports your point of view as fact, and anything that contradicts your point of view as bias.”

— Daniel Okrent, first ombudsman of The New York Times


"Journalism is about transmitting information that doesn't care what you think. Reporting challenges, countermands or destabilizes established beliefs. Reporting, which is time-consuming and often expensive, begins from the premise that there are things we need to know and understand, even if these things make us uncomfortable. If we lose this ethic we are left with pandering, packaging and partisanship."

— Chris Hedges, foreign correspondent for The New York Times


"A vote is an overt political act that I can not perform. Heck, I'm the kind of guy who balked at joining Sam's Warehouse because reporters should avoid private clubs. I frown when I hear working media clap during ballgames or grin too broadly at political results.

"Voting, pure and simple, means taking a rooting interest. It's not that I don't have opinions. All reporters do, and the good ones strive to keep them in their heads and out of their work. A vote would put such thoughts into real-world action. It would make me part of the partisan political storm that, frankly, can lead only to distrust."

— John Archibald, The Birmingham News


"I think that they — and other journalists who don't vote — are nuts. OK, maybe that's a little harsh. But people were beaten and attacked by dogs and murdered in cold blood so that I could have the right to vote. I voted early in this election and try to vote at every opportunity. I'd vote in a local race for dogcatcher. Being a journalist can't mean giving up your fundamental rights as an American. At least, not for me."

— Eugene Robinson, political columnist

"We want the facts to fit the preconceptions. When they don't, it is easier to ignore the facts than to change the preconceptions."

-- Jessamyn West, writer (1902-1984)

"Balanced" and "objective" news reporting has devolved into collecting quotes from the right and quotes from the left, leaving readers to decide who's telling the truth.

The desires for fairness, balance and objectivity are worthy goals in newswriting. But not when they lead to news reports where truth is "balanced" with lies, facts "balanced" with spin The old rule: You must present all sides of a story, being fair to each.

The new rule: Report the truth and debunk the lies.

— Robert Niles, digital journalist and Web designer

When a government official or candidate makes a factually false statement, the role of the reporter is not merely to pass it on, nor is it simply to note that "some" dispute the false statement. The role of the reporter is to state the actual facts, which means stating clearly when someone lies or otherwise makes a false statement.

— Glenn Greenwald, Salon.com


On the future of journalism

"If newspapers become mostly infotainment websites -- if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further -- and if we're soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable 'news' and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned the Bush administration's flimsy case for war in Iraq -- and the price for that failure will be paid for generations."

— Rosa Brooks, former columnist, Los Angeles Times 


Q. "I feel like I'm teaching [my students] something that will be as useful as Sanskrit when they graduate. . . . [E]very morning I read stories about how huge, venerable newspapers will likely be shuttered by the end of the year, and it absolutely freaks me out. . . . I feel horribly guilty, wondering what will become of them."

A. "It is not your job to guarantee them stable employment. I'm not even sure that stable employment is good for young journalists. Journalists exercise power. Ideally, they exercise that power on behalf of the powerless. If they know nothing about what it is like to be powerless themselves, they may come to exercise their considerable power on behalf of the already powerful. . . . So I do not think it is such a terrible thing that your journalism students are entering an uncertain world. It's the kind of world that is ripe for enterprising journalists. It is the kind of world that needs to be reported on and explained."

— Cary Tennis, advice columnist, Slate.com


I always thought it was odd to hear flat out declarations that there can be no life on other planets in the absence of water. How egocentric! So you're saying that life can only exist if it's precisely like us?


That's the feeling I'm getting right now in the woe-is-us, hand-wringing sob-fest about whether life and our democracy can survive the death of some newspapers.

With all due respect to some great newspapers where I've worked, I don't give a damn about the paper they're printed on. What I care about is journalism.

-- Charlotte-Anne Lucas, former newspaperwoman and current online journalist


It's hard to dispute that the newspaper is doomed in the long run, as an inefficient and wasteful medium that technology can easily improve upon. I've never argued that point, in spite of my personal feelings — certainly not on Sunday mornings as I peel off the two dozen junk sections crammed into my local paper, fill a garbage bag with them and wonder which shady grove of whispering pines was sacrificed to make the wretched things possible. Compared with audio-visual advertising, they're also a primitive, low-yield way to deliver a commercial message.

But the key point of understanding is that while the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace old ones there's no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly.

As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill — a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the workforce and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic.

"So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion ... it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth."

That statement was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Marguerite Higgins more than a half-century ago during the Korean War.

— Hal Crowther, in the Independent Weekly







Notable journalism quotes
timharrower.com logo
design doctor
other stuff
the edge
contact us
back to home page