A Little Respect for the Daily Doormat

TUCSON, Arizona — At midnight, the presses rumbled like kettle drums in the basement, the newsroom went from clamor to calm, and I always felt a tinge of tribal thrill. Two kinds of people make up the world, a crusty editor once told me: newspaper people and the other kind.

The Arizona Daily Star, the city's conscience in the '60s, thudded onto doorsteps at dawn, thick with news about local corruption, a nation in ferment and a restive world beyond. Its proprietor had covered Hitler's fall; his editorials impacted like mortar shells.

We shared an ornate old salmon-colored building with our afternoon rival. From its iron balconies, we kept watch — literally — on City Hall and the tile-domed county courthouse. After work, we drank with inside sources who routinely spilled the beans at the Tucson Press Club.

Today, it is tempting to despair. The Star's skeleton staff works in a soulless suburban office to produce a shadow of its former self, printed in Phoenix. Gannett killed the 139-year-old afternoon Citizen in 2009 after its circulation dropped to 17,000 from 60,000 in its heyday.

Across America, when we need good newspapers more than ever, corporate owners strip them down and sell off parts. Thousands of broadcast and online “outlets” bury us with “content” of untested credibility. Interns replace pros who learned their craft the hard way.

And yet. For all the gloom, the ghost of a colonial publisher returns to Tucson each year to fire up young journalists eager to work harder for crap wages to inform people who know that reliable news is as essential to life as food and water in any free society.

In 1734, a British governor jailed John Peter Zenger for libel — fake news. His wife, Anna Catherine, kept his weekly going for 10 months until lawyers convinced a jury to free him. That led to a First Amendment and so much struggle since to protect truth so citizens can decide things for themselves.

This year, Christiane Amanpour accepted the University of Arizona journalism school's Zenger Award. Truth enables democracy, she told a rapt full house. Lies ensure dictatorship. She has spent three decades seeing that play out in authoritarian states across the world.

Christiane caught a 5 a.m. flight from New York, after a long haul from London, and took a redeye back to cover the U.N. General Assembly opening. Inspiring kids to understand real journalism underpins much of what keeps her going.

I met Christiane in 1990, fresh out of Atlanta, as allies prepared to take back Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. She'd been on the U.S. carrier that fired the first shots. Minders muzzled reporters, trying to influence what they wrote. Back in Dhahran, she visited our AP workspace to fill us in. Her mellifluous soliloquy of humor-tinged outrage drew a crowd of passersby.

In Bosnia, I saw her depth of analysis, delivered close to the action with exotic Anglo-Iranian inflection. That was the basis for her new watchword: truthful but not neutral. Just-the-facts-ma'am colleagues at first accused her of bias. Today, that is journalism's new standard.

Bosnian Serbs bent on genocide seized land from Muslims and Croat Christians, who fought back. Bill Clinton refused to intervene in what he called a complex civil war. Reporters saw reality. Blaine Harden of the Washington Post grumbled to me, “This is as complicated as armed robbery.”

By then, I'd seen such disconnects all over the map. After a year at the Star, the foreign-correspondent biz sounded pretty good: see the world on someone else's dime without doing pushups or shooting people. Reality bit soon after when the Associated Press sent me to cover an ugly war in the Congo.

I was clueless. My French was pathetic. “You'll have to say the guy is dead,” my sister said, “because you don't know the word for wounded.” Worse, despite all my preparatory reading and interviewing I had no idea about how the real world worked.

After picking up the threads with help from wise old hands, I figured that if I could just explain what was going wrong to readers back home, someone would fix it. Not exactly. Uncounted millions have since died needlessly in the Congo, still corrupt and chaotic.

As an AP wire animal until 2005, I backstroked down the mainstream, reporting objectively so people could draw their own conclusions. And I watched avoidable recurring calamities worsen until today Earth risks being left to crocodiles and cockroaches.

Christiane Amanpour is right, but there is a catch. To make sensible judgments, a reporter must gather facts at firsthand. It helps that drones now allow us to hover over a story, but we still need to be down at ground zero in the thick of things.

And then there is what the French call mauvaise foi, a few shades harsher than the English version: bad faith. Biased people reject observable fact and tailor their judgments to suit themselves. That includes legislators sworn to serve a nation rather than a party.

During House hearings, for instance, Rep. Debbie Lesko, an Arizona Republican, told Robert Mueller his report cited Washington Post and New York Times stories nearly 200 times with only 25 mentions of Fox News. “Honestly,” she said, “there's almost nothing...that I couldn't already hear or know simply by having a $50 cable news subscription.”

Perhaps she actually believes that Fox's opinionating at a distance equals investigative reporting by two credible newspapers of record. Or that watching a cable channel is the same as digesting that exhaustive work. Either way, that is hair-raising legislative incompetence.

Students lined up reverently for photos with Christiane were a clear sign of promise. For the first time, we gave a junior Zenger Award. It went to Hilde Lysiak, 13, who began publishing her own paper at 9 — with a murder investigation. She made headlines when she faced down the town marshal in nearby Patagonia who forbid her to film him. Whether the story is about a cop or a president, she said, truth is always worth fighting for.

As I write at 5:30 a.m. (we work early now in the warming west), the Star just landed on my doorstep. It comes in a car, not on a bike the way we delivered it as kids, so thin that it barely makes a plop. But it still arrives every morning at dawn along with the New York Times.

Paper is now optional, but little else has changed since Zenger's day. Yet courageous reporting keeps democracy on course only if a critical mass responds to it. Watchdogs, if ignored, are no more effective than those coyotes that howl at the moon out my back door.