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Tom Henderson: The errors of our ways

‘The newspaper regrets the error.”

Newspaper corrections traditionally end with words to that effect, and I like that phrase.

Some people see corrections and apologies from a newspaper as a sign of incompetence. These days, when so few of our elected children admit their many mistakes, let alone regret them, I see newspaper corrections instead a sign of maturity.

Grown-ups admit their mistakes. They own up to them. They apologize for them because they know mistakes have consequences.

People who work for newspapers know that mistakes can be like toxic bacteria in the drinking water — microbes of misinformation spread rapidly, imperiling the health of the entire community. So they feel compelled to acknowledge those mistakes, no matter how embarrassing.

Henrik Ibsen understood that point in 1882 when he wrote a play about a physician who discovers toxic bacteria in the drinking water. In the play, self-serving politicians, unwilling to admit their mistakes, whip up public hysteria against him for simply trying to provide accurate information to his community.

The play is titled, “An Enemy of the People.” Does that sound familiar?

When Donald Trump uses those same words to describe the press, he merely parrots every malignant scoundrel out there to vilify the mirror of his own grotesque reflection.

Journalists spend a great deal of time defending their craft against Trump and his cultists.

We promote ourselves as the champions of truth and justice, but you know what? We actually do owe you several apologies.

Reporters too often eat what they’re fed, taking dictation rather than asking questions. They talk about people rather than talking to them. They focus on conflict rather than common ground.

Critics say Americans deserve better journalism but, in fact, Americans are getting precisely the journalism they deserve. What journalists need to apologize for is giving it to them.

National Newspaper Week is Oct. 2-9 this year, so this is the perfect time to issue an apology.

Let me start by apologizing for the state of journalism education. Advertising and public relations have been incorporated into college journalism curriculum since journalism was first recognized as a legitimate academic discipline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, the journalism schools of old were largely dedicated to the pursuit of, well, journalism — the detection and disposal of (politely put) effluvia. Now many journalism schools seem equally interested in the production and distribution of effluvia.

Consider my alma mater — the University of Oregon, which increasingly seems like a wholly owned subsidiary of Nike, Inc. My old journalism school now invites students to focus their academic attention on video gaming, along with “advertising and brand responsibility.”

Where students once learned how to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, they now learn how to best promote their masters’ brands. And, of course, everything is geared toward the digital.

Some people will tell you there is nary a difference between digital and print journalism. All that’s changing is the delivery system.

Treat these people gently. The poor dears have been asleep for the past 25 years.

Not to brag, but I saw the dangers of the digital age back in 1980 as a 17-year-old high school student.

Back then, clusters of computer geeks created bulletin boards where they could post and share written material. One such bulletin board was called Micro-Text and operated out of an electronics store in Salem.

Chuck, the store’s owner, asked me to write weekly movie reviews for Micro-Text for $10 a week. I like to tell people I was the world’s first online movie critic, but I know that Chuck was not the first computer nerd to operate a bulletin board.

He certainly wasn’t the first person to predict the coming of the World Wide Web either. There were books at the time about the coming “Videotext” revolution.

What made Chuck particularly prescient is the spirited conversations he and I had about what form that revolution would take.

He said the day was coming when every newspaper would have its own bulletin board — i.e., website. He rightly predicted that it would soon be hard to tell if the newspaper had a website or the website had a newspaper.

The glory of all this, Chuck said, is that editors and publishers could tell exactly which stories people were reading and calibrate the news product to give readers what they wanted.

Are readers apoplectic about the skin color of cartoon-character mermaids? Very well.

Scrap the story on the destruction of the world’s coral reefs. Our readers’ wish is our command.

Chuck saw all this coming. He eerily predicted the rise of clickbait and what is nowadays known euphemistically as “audience-driven journalism,”  though I still call it pandering.

For Burger King, “Have it your way” is a swell bit of what the kids call brand ideation. But not for news outlets.

Many critics, especially in this age of alternative facts, would argue otherwise.

They see newspapers, and other elements of so-called “legacy media,” as outrageously arrogant for rubbing against the grain of their communities. The customer is always right, after all.

The newspaper business is still a business, and as the people who count the beans like to say, you have to be a business before you can be a mission. I wish I had a bean for every time I heard that line, though the logic behind it is inescapable.

I would simply argue that you have to be a mission, else there’s little point to being a newspaper business in the first place. There’s certainly more money to be made selling hamburgers than newspapers.

However, a newspaper shouldn’t be a burger joint where you can order as much unhealthy food as you want. It should be like your family doctor who tells you all those burgers are clogging your arteries.

Professionals like doctors, lawyers, scientists and journalists shouldn’t tell you what you want to hear. They should tell you what you need to hear.

That attitude is a terrific business plan, the prevailing ethos contends — for bankruptcy.

They ask, how does a business stay in business by giving consumers exactly what they don’t want to buy? For confirmation, they point to the number of people abandoning legacy media.

I suspect the exodus has more to do with pandering than it does giving customers what they want. When you try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to no one.

Many courageous newspapers and media outlets continue to uphold the best traditions of journalism and earn the respect of their readers without pandering, however. And present company is included.

Who knows? The critics may be right. Maybe responsible journalism no longer sells.

Maybe people want ginned-up stories about the gender of Potato Head dolls, the shoes worn by cartoon M&Ms and Karens clutching their pearls over the teaching of actual history in history class. After all, you spread enough of this effluvia into the air, and you eventually have a genuine odor problem to report.

All this sounds like I’m excoriating readers for their stupidity — and I am, to an extent.

Our society as a whole is dumb and getting exponentially dumber.

In that sense, people truly do get the journalism they deserve. They wanted it. They clicked on it. They got more of it.

Joseph Pulitzer, the 19th-century newspaper mogul who himself had a lot of things to apologize for, had the right idea when he wrote:

“Every issue of the paper presents an opportunity and a duty to say something courageous and true; to rise above the mediocre and conventional; to say something that will command the respect of the intelligent, the educated, the independent part of the community; to rise above fear of partisanship and fear of popular prejudice.”

We have so often fallen short of that mark in favor of giving readers what they want instead of what they need. For that, and for all our other failings, we should apologize — and pledge to do better.

Guest writer Tom Henderson, now making his home in Independence, has served as a newspaper reporter, newspaper editor and journalism educator for more than 40 years. He worked at the News-Register from 2014 to 2020. He has since been working as an independent journalist, producing stories for a number of publications, including The Oregonian. A former adjunct professor, he has also been assisting with the journalism program at Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School in Portland.

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