He was a number of other things as well: son of a preacher, high-school boxer, WWII volunteer, medic during the war, concentration camp liberator. Journalism student at U of Missouri. Reporter, columnist, editor.
But above all, he was a journalist — a “newspaperman,” as he liked to be called. An old-fashioned, get-it-right newspaperman.
And on this Memorial Day, as I watch the Liz Trotta clip, I’m thinking of him and what he would say.
I remember watching my dad pace the floor of our home one night. He had written a story that day about a local politician, and he was worried that he didn’t have enough sources. He already had three, but wanted another. Finally, he went to the phone and called still another source, checking his facts for twenty minutes or so. Satisfied he had lived up to the standards he held for himself, he went to bed.
Another time he told me a story about a young-buck reporter he worked with. The new reporter was assigned the church news — that page full of sermon titles and service times that used to run in many newspapers. Printed in agate type, it was read by almost no one, a point the reporter made long and loudly. Why worry about getting something right that no one would read? Never mind the readership, he was told. We’re the paper of record, so just get it done and get it right.
The young reporter, intent on making his point, began changing some of the sermon titles and service times, a few each week. No one ever complained. He did this for some months, then went into the editor’s office and showed him what he, the reporter, had done. The editor looked at the clippings for a moment, then exclaimed “You know what? You’re right!” As the reporter smiled triumphantly, the editor continued “And you know what else? You’re fired!”
My dad always told that story with a chuckle and a shake of his head, as if it was just beyond words that someone would do something like that, even on something so trivial as the church news. He commented to me more than once, “Reporting the news is a public trust. Without the free press, we will wind up like Nazi Germany.”
So what would my dad think of Liz Trotta and her ilk? I think it’s easy to surmise:
If he had ever said anything like what she said on the air, he would have been fired, and he would have expected to be. And when he was an editor, if any of his reporters had said or written anything that was so non-objective, so far below the standard of the “public trust,” they would have been fired as well.
Fired. On the spot. No excuses, no questions, and no second chance. Period.
My father spent the last eleven years of his career covering local government and the courts. When he retired, the local judges and trial lawyers held a reception for him. Along with the expected congratulations and best wishes, they presented him with a plaque.
The leading judge looked at my father and said, “We didn’t always like having you around — you asked a lot of questions and you sometimes made life uncomfortable.” My father asked him why, then, give him a plaque? The judge concluded, “Because we learned something about you, something we came to respect and appreciate. You were always fair, and you always got it right.“
On this Memorial Day, I think of my dad: veteran, reporter, journalist, newspaperman. I think of the ideals he stood for, the pride he took in his work, the seriousness with which he approached the responsibility of being the Fourth Estate. And I look at someone like Liz Trotta, and I think,
Liz, you have no right to call yourself any of those names. The only name you deserve, now, is “former.”
Thanks, Dad, for showing me what it means to be a true journalist, and that it’s possible for the free press to work like it’s supposed to. May you rest in peace.