Washington, D.C., June 3, 2020. Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash
Q&S’s eighth principle is the cure for the nihilism and cynicism that are fracturing our country.
By Jeff Browne, Q&S Executive Director
“The architecture of journalism is changing. There is journalism as a product…and journalism as a function of civil society.” — Farai Chideya, author, intellectual, reporter.
As a high school journalist in the late 1970s, and then again as a college journalist in the early ’80s, I must have missed the lessons about how journalists are supposed to practice friendship.
I clearly heard the calls to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” but that was supposed to be accomplished through the verity of my reporting and the clarity of my measured prose. Compassion and empathy weren’t a part of my privileged perspective.
I certainly wasn’t about to be friends with the sources I developed while trying to uncover wrongdoing (there was A LOT of it) in the University of Florida’s athletic department in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
And I have to admit that the idea of “friendship” as a journalistic principle hasn’t been at the forefront of my curricula as a journalism educator over the past 30 years.
This week has underscored for me the eighth — but not least important — founding principle of the Quill and Scroll Honor Society.
But it’s not a specific friendship, in the way that most of us interpret it. Rather, this concept of friendship should be based on the Quaker tradition, without the requisite religiosity, in that we all share a common belief. In this case, as residents of democracies around the world, that belief is in the power of the people to determine their own fates, to demand justice, and to call to account those whom we have elected to represent us in our governments.
Yet we’ve just witnessed 10 days during which police and those whom they purportedly protect have been at odds, fueled by the callous killing of a black man — for alleged fraud and forgery — at the hands of an officer in Minneapolis now in custody and charged with murder. Three other police have also been charged with crimes.
The resultant protests in dozens of cities, large and small, have been both inspirational and dismaying, peaceful and violent. In some cases, the police have joined with those they protect in demonstrations of solidarity. In other cases, the police have — depending on your perspective — violently retaliated against peaceful protestors and/or done their best to quell lawlessness in our streets.
Frankly, it’s been a lot of both, and it must be exhausting to be a law enforcement officer of any stripe these days. My brother-in-law is a firefighter in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the downtown area saw more damage by arson this week than at any time in its history. He, too, must be exhausted.
For his part, the president of the United States — who, by one count, has violated Quill and Scroll’s first principle, truth, at least 19,000 times during his term — in the wake of a teargas cloud and mounted officers clearing the way for him to proceed, strolled from the White House to a historic church for a photo op. Today, the White House has been further shrouded in mystery by a series of fences built around it.
Also, amid the protesters and police officers trying to make sense of the chaos in our streets, journalists have been under attack by both. Some of that animosity is genuine, and our profession can’t be immune from criticism if we do a poor job of telling the truth.
But much of it is driven from a single misperception about why journalists choose to do journalism.
Let me be clear: ethical, thoughtful and professional journalists — the vast majority of my friends, colleagues and former students — go into the business not to prove a point or take a side. If you choose to believe differently, that’s your right. But that way is nihilism and cynicism. That way denies the basic goodness of the American people and the nature of our democratic republic.
I subscribe to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, ProPublica and the Omaha World-Herald because the journalists on the news sides practice the discipline of verification before they publish, and when they make a mistake, the quickly and transparently correct that mistake. I don’t watch much television news. To take the cynical position that all journalism is just a partisan exercise is to go down the rabbit hole of relativism and “we just may never know what’s real and what isn’t” gaslighting.
That’s a place I don’t want to be. I’d rather be friends.