An Ira Glass pep talk to new journalists

This will come as bad news to about half the country (according to polls), but the movement to save a free press just got reinforcements.

There are still a lot of young people who want to be journalists and they’re out to uncertain future. Jobs may be tough to find at traditional news organizations, but this is a generation that has been raised with new traditions of news.

So it was fitting last week that the Columbia Journalism School honored its graduating students by featuring Ira Glass, who shook up a tired radio industry years ago with a new way of doing things.

“There’s a war for facts and truth in this country,” he said. “You’re going to the front lines.”

He offered hope that people won’t always hate the other side of the story.

I did a fundraiser for a public radio station last night in someone’s very nice home in the suburbs, and the woman who hosted it told me she heard the episode we did a couple months ago on Republican Senator Jeff Flake. Producer Zoe Chace followed him for four months as he tried to get DACA legislation passed.

This woman told me she had that this feeling listening, which was she described like; “No. Don’t make me LIKE him!” She was like, “I didn’t want it to happen but you humanized him.”

And I was like “we didn’t humanize him! He is a human!”

You know? We were simply documenting who he is like we document anyone else. Zoe presented his stubborn idealism and also his flaws – argued with his premises – challenged him point by point throughout the hour. The same way we do with anyone who comes on the show.

This listener seemed cautiously okay with the fact that she was seeing him as a human being. Seeing a Republican senator as a person. To be sure, a person she did not agree with. But a person with principles and decency … and not a monster.

The fact that journalism can do that … I think that’s one of the things journalism can accomplish in this present moment. Like, I don’t think anyone is going to change their minds about DACA. Or about any other issue facing the country because of some story they hear on the radio. That’s just not how people work. Like you would never change your minds about abortion or guns or who to vote for based on a story you heard on the radio. Nobody would.

But I do think it’s possible – in this utterly divided moment in our country – to get listeners to understand the reality and complexity of people who are not in their particular group — whatever that group might be.

Here’s the transcript.

  • Guest

    To be sure, a person she did not agree with. But a person with principles and decency … and not a monster. = = = BINGO

  • Sonny T

    I am wondering if they still teach journalism the same way. When I took a class we scrutinized the “general” or “front page” news for bias. We didn’t find much, as I recall. But there was a lot of talk about ethics. A lot.

    Do they still do this? This seems to be a big issue today, much bigger than it was then. Mainstream journalists are saying they’re clean as a hound’s tooth. What do the journalism professors say?

  • LifebloodMN

    The fact that they have to explain objectivity in reporting is a major problem in my book

    • Objectivity and Objective do not appear anywhere in the ethical guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists. Nor should it.

      • Sonny T

        But shouldn’t the journalist be objective?

        • RBHolb


          • Sonny T

            Are you asking me why the journalist should be objective?

          • RBHolb

            Yes, I am. There is accuracy and truthfulness, two good attributes of journalists (of everyone, but let’s focus here). On the other hand, a fetish for “objectivity” leads to the “opinions differ on the shape of the earth” school of reporting.

            Partisan journalism is the norm in much of the world, and was common in the US until relatively recently. I’ve mentioned this before, but newspapers listed in old Minnesota Legislative Manuals with their political party noted as matter-of-factly as the city of publication. I have no problem with journalists being biased. My preferred source for local TV news is KSTP, which is definitely tilted right, although they do managed to be fair and are usually accurate (I’m less than enamored with the Grand Guignol aspects of their coverage, but that’s a detail). What I cannot abide are the painful-to-watch stretches many journalists feel they must go through in order to show they aren’t biased. It is obvious pandering and I, for one, feel insulted at the thought that I would be taken in by it.

          • Sonny T

            I am not following you. If you think “truthfulness” is the journalist passing judgement on what he/she sees, then I couldn’t disagree more.

          • RBHolb

            Ironically, “Pravda” means “truth” in Russian.

            It is possible to be biased and truthful at the same time. Coverage of the protests at the 4th Precinct could focus solely on the protesters’ arguments, and report them accurately. The rejoinder wold be that objectivity would require an exposition of the contrary point of view. Perhaps it would, but that is not the same as saying leaving those arguments out would be untruthful.

          • Sonny T

            I pulled the Pravda reference because I didn’t want to muddy the issue. The fact it means Truth is spooky.

            You say, “It is possible to be biased and truthful at the same time.” Yes, and this is called the opinion page. I’m talking about front page news.

          • RBHolb

            Pulling the Pravda reference would ruin the joke I remember from high school Russian class. Pravda (Truth) was the newspaper of the Communist Party, while Izvestia (News) was the official newspaper of the Soviet government. The joke was that there is no Izvestia in Pravda, and no Pravda in Izvestia.

            I think Bob said what I was getting at, but he put it better.

          • There is no such thing as non bias. There is no such thing as objectivity. There is not letting you KNOW what the bias is, but everyone has a bias. Usually when people talk about objectivity and when Reuters talks about being bias free, they’re talking about not having the bias be obvious in a story and not forming the story based on the bias.

            But , of course, all stories are born of bias — at least stories where a reporter isn’t just being a stenographer and sitting in some press room at the White House or elsewhere waiting for someone to come and deliver what sounds like news (but isn’t) so that he/she/it can faithfully regurgitate it.

            Harvest of Shame is the example I most often use as it is born of a belief that the plight of the American migrant was wrong. You can’t be objective, you can’t be non-biased and still believe that there’s something wrong there.

            What you can be is fair in telling the story. That’s all you can be.

          • Sonny T

            But bias shouldn’t affect dentistry, the law, teachers… And it sure as heck shouldn’t affect journalism.

          • Dentists work on whatever person walks through the door. Teachers have to teach whatever student comes to school. Lawyers represent whomever writes a check.

            Journalists need a story and they have to come up the stories to cover. That’s where the bias is; it’s not in the telling of the story — that’s where fairness comes in.

            And, of course, there are a lot of news organizations who cover stories just because other news organizations are covering it. And that’s not really journalism , either. That’s just repackaging and marketing.

            A lot of people think journalists should just wait until the press release comes in or the news conference is held and just regurgitate whatever is aid. But that’s not journalism. That’s stenography. Any monkey can do that.

            there are a lot of people who don’t think sexual harassment is a big issue. Some journalist did. That’s why he got a Pulitzer this year.

          • Sonny T

            “Dentists work on whatever person walks through the door. Teachers have to…” And journalists have to report the news. Still not seeing the difference.

            I’m talking front page news. Of course other rules apply to the editorial page.

          • Well let’s try an exercise then.

            What story would you work on today? It can’t be a story that’s already “out there”? What is the story that you need to ask questions about because you think it should be told?

          • Sonny T

            “Under pressure from President Trump, the Justice Department on Sunday asked its inspector general to assess whether political motivation tainted the FBI investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.” A good journalist could write a straight story on that, without bias. Really.

            The writing of “straight” or front page news is highly formulaic. Not much room for creativity. Several reasons, not the least to keep the journalist honest. If done properly, you will not be able to tell the political leanings of the reporter. At all.

          • Well, again, that’s regurgitating someone’s words. It’s not very meaty journalism. Sunday morning talk shows create the illusion of news. But not really news.

            Come up with a story that isn’t already being done. That’s your challenge.

            / The writing of “straight” or front page news is highly formulaic. Not much room for creativity.

            I’m fairly sure you’ve not written for a front page anywhere which accounts for the absurdity of this observation.

            // If done properly, you will not be able to tell the political leanings of the reporter. At all.

            But there is reader bias and in stories like this, someone is always going to look like he’s being targeted. His legions call that biased reporting and that a reporter’s political leanings are obvious. That doesn’t make it so.

          • Sonny T

            But Bob, the rules ARE formulaic. Front page news is written in a very structured way. This is why one reporter sounds (and should sound) exactly like another.

            Where’s my journalism professor when I need him?

          • Sonny T

            After all, I got a “B”. I should know something 🙂

          • You’re talking about how a story is written. I’m talking about what stories you develop without piggybacking off someone else’s original story.

            What would you pursue?

          • RBHolb

            The way you have proposed that the story be written itself arguably reflects a bias. You have chosen very neutral words that are one way of saying what happened. You are leaving out the fact that the “political pressure” was a “demand” from the President. You make it sound as if this is some neutral inquiry into “political motivation” that may have “tainted” an investigation, rather than using the President’s own words (“and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” [punctuation in the original]).

          • Sonny T

            The words “political pressure” and “demand” seem to me to be interchangeable. Neither is biased, I don’t think.

            News like this must simply be reported. Leave the editorializing to cable. There will be no lack of hot air on either side.

          • Victor

            But was’ t it found to be significantly flawed? As in largely made up. And didn’t Murrow admit as much?

          • No. I think you’re confusing the subsequent controversy. This was Murrow’ last documentary. He left CBS to become a propagandist for the National Security Council where he subsequently asked the BBC not to show the documentary for fear of giving Europeans the wrong (right?) impression of America.

          • Victor

            Well it has been a long time ago I read about it. But I think he was factually wrong,, intentionally, and unapologetically so.

          • I’m open to hearing the evidence.

          • Victor

            And if he feared giving the Europeans the wrong impression…..well, no one would know better than he just where the wrong impression may have come from.

          • Well, the documentary has never been challenged as anything other than one of the groundbreaking examples of documentary journalism. I don’t know if you’re suggesting otherwise. Available evidence says Murrow had a different job once he went to work for the government and revealing the truth was no longer his job description.

          • Sonny T

            Are you opposing Reuter’s editor-in-chief Steve Adler, who states, “(T)he integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”

      • LifebloodMN

        I disagree with your premise, not your words. The very methods that SPJ lay out ‘explain’ how to be objective in nature as opposed to being subjective. e.g. accurate, fair and thorough. These are ethics of objectivity.

  • Here’s the discussion referenced elsewhere in comments. With help, the now eight-year-old video has been rescued from the clutches of The Current’s disinterest. :*)

    Scroll to 48:40 and listen to a genius talk about “the model of assertion”