Opinion Columns & Blogs

Cal Thomas: Rules, definitions of journalists have changed


My first job in journalism was as a copyboy at the NBC News bureau in Washington, D.C. In my early 20s, I asked Bill Corrigan, the newsroom manager, “What must I do to get on the air?” He replied, “Get a college degree and a minimum of five years’ writing experience with a newspaper or wire service.”

In those days every reporter at NBC News and the other two networks came from print because television was relatively new and, as network news president Reuven Frank noted in his book, “Out of Thin Air,” we were making it up as we went along.

I got the college degree, but avoided the wire service and newspapers (until later) and have managed to enjoy a decent career in broadcast and print journalism.

The rules of the road to journalistic success have changed dramatically, as has the definition of journalist. Today one can self-identify as a journalist without any background or experience.

Which brings me to George Stephanopoulos, the ABC News anchor and co-host of “Good Morning America.” Stephanopoulos donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation, but he neglected to disclose that information while interviewing Peter Schweizer, author of “Clinton Cash,” a book critical of the foundation and the Clintons.

Stephanopoulos apologized and his bosses at ABC News said no disciplinary action is planned, except that he has removed himself from moderating or appearing on any debate panel during the 2016 election cycle.

After this revelation, Politico reported that dozens of media organizations donated money to the Clinton Foundation. With so many established charities that have done good work for years overseas, why would these media groups give money to the Clintons? Could it have something to do with buying favor or access should Hillary Clinton become president?

A 2014 Gallup poll found that Americans’ confidence in the media’s ability to report the “news fully, accurately and fairly” had returned to a previous low of 40 percent. “Americans’ trust in mass media has generally been edging downward from higher levels in the late 1990s and the early 2000s,” Gallup reported.

Many of today’s “journalists” do not have to run the gantlet that I and others of my generation had to run. Many don’t have to pull all-nighters on a stakeout, cover local school board and city council meetings, or rush to the emergency room to report on the aftermath of a gun or knife fight, all while earning low pay.

These assignments honed our talent and judgment; they forced us to grow up. These qualities were once considered vital for creating good journalists, but today it appears that if you are blonde, have great legs or worked in the White House and can read a teleprompter, bammo, you are a journalist.

Stephanopoulos had no journalism background when he joined ABC News. If he had come up through the ranks, he might have been more attuned to the ethical problem of donating money to a foundation headed by people for whom he used to work and whose policies he promoted as a top White House aide, and then not disclosing the donation while engaged in an interview with someone critical of that foundation.

Most media outlets have printed codes of ethics. It would be a good idea for journalists and journalistic pretenders to reread and practice them.

Cal Thomas, a columnist with Tribune Content Agency, appears in Opinion on Wednesdays.