The way things used to be . . .

Who says this new “objectivity” is better?

By Bill O’Connell

Bill O’Connell covers politics and government for the Peoria Journal Star.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 3 (March 1991), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Things have changed in the state capitol pressrooms, and in most other pressrooms too, I suspect. Reporters practice their craft differently now than they did when I first entered the Statehouse in Springfield, IL, 36 years ago.

Today, the relationship between the press and the politicians is less relaxed and more adversarial. And I’m kind of sorry about that.

I’ve always been comfortable around politicians. They’re a pretty outgoing breed. And they’re obviously interested in the things that shape our lives and our institutions or they wouldn’t be in politics.

Most of them, I’m convinced, are not really much different from the rest of us, reporters included. So why does the new generation of journalists treat them with such disdain? Why the detachment to the point of indifference? Why the preoccupation with questioning motives and searching for minor misdeeds?

Perhaps it’s the legacy of Watergate. Perhaps the air has been poisoned forever. I hope not.

When I first began covering politics and government at the state level, most reporters at the capitol lived just like the lawmakers in a hotel, out of a suitcase. We spent our evenings drinking with politicians, sometimes dining with them, maybe even engaging in a friendly game of cards. But mostly just talking or arguing issues, politics or strategy, and building mutual contacts and trust.

Most of the Statehouse press corps in those days were lifers. They had stayed around long enough to build the expertise that permits a reporter to go below the surface and to offer readers not just what occurs, but why and how.

You really don’t see as much of that anymore. The guys in the Statehouse pressroom tend these days to stick around for a few years and then move on to Washington or into better-paying positions, including governmental public relations.

I think that this constant shuffling of folks into and out of the Statehouse pressrooms is unfortunate. It can result in a lack of perspective and it makes it easier for the governmental flacks and campaign spin doctors to orchestrate what the public gets in the way of political news and analysis.

But I guess it’s the detachment that bothers me the most. Journalists who spend a career covering government have a very special body of knowledge and experience — and ought to use it for the benefit of the community.

I’d like to think that readers are our constituents just as they are the constituents of the lawmakers. It’s a shame to divorce ourselves so totally from the proceedings of government that we waste that unique body of knowledge and experience we’ve acquired. An old hand in the Statehouse pressroom shouldn’t have to apologize for occasionally dipping his oar into the legislative process.

I recall talking a few years ago with the chairman of the Peoria County Board who was complaining about the time and expense to the county caused by a state law requirement that any local liquor license suspension be subject to an appeal to the state and a second hearing.

He felt it wasn’t fair that county prosecutors had to make their case at the local level and expose all their evidence and testimony and then go through a second hearing at the state level where the defense had an opportunity to reshape its case or present new testimony.

I agreed. When I returned to the Statehouse, I asked a friendly legislator who had a bill pending on a separate provision of the Liquor Code to amend the measure to take care of this inequity.

That’s the kind of “legislating” a newsman can do without jeopardizing reputation or integrity.

Another time, I worked with legislators to steer to passage a bill calling for a multi-million dollar bond issue for construction of civic centers downstate — smaller versions of the massive convention center the state had built for Chicago.

Tourism is as important to Peoria, Rockford or Springfield as it is to Chicago and I’m proud to have played a role in getting the civic centers.

I also don’t think it’s improper to suggest to a legislator that a bill doesn’t really do what it purports to do. These are busy people and they often rely on staff to prepare the measures they introduce.

Some years ago, a state lawmaker introduced a bill he said would provide a state subsidy for mass transit districts throughout the state. But because of a drafting error, the bill would have provided funds only for the transit systems in Chicago and in his own area near St. Louis.

I pointed out to him the error in the drafting and suggested that failure to correct it might cause him some political embarrassment in those communities slighted — and likely some votes, too. When the bill became law later that year, it was fair to every segment of the state.

Can a reporter get too close to sources or people he covers? Sure. That’s always a danger. But it has been my experience that a guy you’ve shared a drink or swapped a story with can take a hit when he’s got it coming just as long as the critical story deals with fact.

The new breed of journalists may be squeaky clean, but I think they shortchange their readers and themselves if they treat the folks they cover with detachment that borders on disdain and also fail to use their special knowledge and experience to its best advantage.