I’ve been out of TV news for about three years now and I’ve gotten soft.
Remember in the Shawshank Redemption how all the prisoners have such a hard time adjusting to life on the outside after they’ve been released from prison? (RIP Brooks.) I’m the complete opposite of that. I’m the Tim Robbins. I’ve escaped to the beach and I’m doing just fine.
I take lunch breaks. I go home at 4:30. I let three weeks or more go between haircuts.
I’m a free man.
But the biggest change? I have an opinion again.
As a reporter, my role was to be an independent, impartial observer of the news. Get both sides of the story. Share them equally and fairly. Let the audience decide.
In order for real journalism to work, it’s the way it has to be.
Or is it?
It’s the kind of question I would have scoffed at as a reporter. I was the local president of the Society of Professional Journalists for crying out loud. I had the organization’s “Code of Ethics” pinned to my cubicle wall. (Just left of my photo of Tom Brokaw.)
“Act Independently” was listed third from the top in bold print. During (and mostly after) my news career, I believed it was a creed every journalist should follow.
Then Indiana Governor Mike Pence came along and made me question everything.
In the wake of his new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, this country is seeing some of the strongest support ever in our history for the LGBT community in the form of complete outrage over Pence’s decision to sign the RFRA into law.
Other states are issuing travel bans and boycotts. Indiana companies are halting expansions. Conventions are considering alternate plans. And whether it was the legislation’s original intention – Indiana has become synonymous with discrimination.
The Indianapolis Star newspaper considers it such a pressing crisis, it made a practically unprecedented move and dedicated its entire front page to a scathing editorial blasting Pence over the law.
Pence is certainly a fair target. He’s spent days making the situation worse, including going on national television and refusing to answer simple yes-or-no questions.
(PR Tip: When someone asks you, “Yes or no, should it be legal to discriminate?” You immediately and emphatically answer: NO. Maybe even throw in a little folksy “hell no” for effect. You don’t hesitate, stumble over yourself, repeat talking points or avoid the question.)
The Indy Star’s editorial was written by its editorial board. It’s common practice for newspapers across the country to publish opinions in clearly marked sections of the paper on a regular basis. What’s far from commonplace is to move those pieces from deep inside the paper to the front and cover the entire page with it.
The front-page article is still labeled “editorial.” Which means it is supposed to stand alone and exist without affecting the paper’s ability to continue independently covering the news. However, the Indy Star’s decision to give the editorial its most valuable real estate is a bold move – done with the kind of weight meant to send a message.
Does this mean the paper has a bias? Do others at the paper, beyond the editorial board, believe Pence is wrong?
And if they do, is that such a bad thing?
At what point is it OK for a reporter to have an opinion? It’s a dangerous line. One we see crossed and annihilated on cable news day in and day out.
But when it comes to issues of grave importance – turning points in our nation’s history – can reporters and news organizations be humans first, and journalists second?
As support for same-sex rights grows to all-time highs, so does the desperate effort to oppress them.
How long will a reporter not be able to smile when reporting that a same-sex marriage ban has been struck down? How long will he or she have to interview bigots and air messages of hate in the name of getting both sides of the story?
How long do journalists have to keep pretending – when it comes to justice, equality and basic human rights – that there’s any side other than the right side?
When Walter Cronkite decided enough was enough in Vietnam – he quite famously said so.
Maybe it’s time the journalism world says so again.