It’s time for some changes.
Buzbee was talking about the state of the media as well as covering President Trump. It was a direct and forthright speech. I wish it had received more coverage because it was also a call to arms for an industry under attack.
Buzbee’s answer to the problem is simple: We must, she said, “double down on facts.”
I applaud her loudly and agree most strongly. Journalism needs strong leaders like Buzbee speaking up and keeping the profession on track.
But I have two things to add to Buzbee’s excellent summation on journalism’s state and ‘to do’ list. Not only do I suggest a change in our industry’s symbolic motto — but I also think it will take more than journalists doubling down. It will also take our audiences being engaged.
Journalism cannot do this work alone. Because while it is a journalist’s job to get it right, it’s also the duty of any citizen, to support the profession — after all, a free press, not impeded by Congress is a guarantee written into our Constitution.
Let’s get a better motto.
If you’re a journalist, you’ve probably heard the phrase: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
And if you read a lot of journalists, you’ve also probably heard it.
Google it and you’ll net nearly five million results. It’s quoted by columnists with some of the most respected names in journalism, in publications across the country — from the New York Times to the Portland Oregonian.
Depending on who is writing, the phrase is referred to as an adage, a maxim, a core rule, a motto, a truism or the first rule of journalism.
It’s a cute reminder to journalists — regardless of platform — that your job is never to assume anything.
Even if the source is as trusted as dear old mom, be diligent about double-checking your facts. This is not just crucial to your job — it is your job. Always get corroboration. Find attribution and whatever you do, be sure.
You’ll even find it written in hallowed textbooks on investigative journalism.
But where did this not-so-gentle reminder come from?
Where else but City News Bureau of Chicago? City News was a journalism industry wire service and simply the greatest and grittiest journalism school ever for generations of journalists. It fed stories to Chicago news outlets for more than 100 years and produced thousands of amazing journalists and writers before closing at the turn of the millennium.
The words were supposedly first uttered by a hard-bitten editor — Arnold A. Dornfield, a crusty hard-driving City News editor.
Except it wasn’t.
A few years ago, when Columbia College Chicago wanted to paint key phrases from journalism greats, on the newly redesign department walls, Nancy Day, the department chair called me, a Bureau alum, to check it out. So, I did.
Not only do the majority of stories get the attribution wrong on this phrase, they also get the phrase itself wrong.
The iconic phrase evolved from something barked by Edward H. Eulenberg, another crusty, even harder driving editor who worked at the Bureau and then joined the Chicago Daily News.
Eulenberg is quoted in a 1999 article, saying: “What I said was, ‘If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.’ ”
To all who knew Eulenberg, this sounds much more like the man.
Yes, he inspired an army of journalists with his dogged attention to detail and his maniacal drive for reporters to get it right.
But his speech was never refined when he was driving home a point. After he stopped laughing, Bernie Judge, former head of City News said when I talked to him a few years ago and read him the original quote, “yep, sounds much better, more accurate.”
(By the way, I have four sources in writing on this and two former colleagues of Eulenberg’s including Harlan Draeger and Judge.)
So, this is what we know to be true — yet, we keep repeating what is wrong. How many journalists have repeated that phrase and never bothered to make sure?
I’d like this motto to remind us what is wrong in journalism, not one we smugly throw around to brag how we do things right. I’d love journalists not to righteously repeat this phrase as a shorthand few bothered to question.
It’s downright sloppy. It’s repeating an error because it sounds better than the truth. It’s public relations, not journalism. And it’s also one example of how journalism, when it’s not done to exacting standard, erodes trust.
Said Buzbee: “We as journalists must work to regain that trust every minute of the day, every day of the year. How do we do that? We double down on facts. We call out untruths. We are transparent about our sources. We make our journalism so grounded in factual information that it is unimpeachable.”
This is crucial, she warned: “This is a critical moment for journalism. It is tough, it is challenging, but it is also inspiring. It is a time of validation for the journalistic values that we all hold dear.”
And if you hold strong reporting and good journalism dear. If you care about our democracy. Then it is also a critical time for you. We need journalism. But journalism also needs its audience. Journalists should know we, their audience and citizens of this democracy, have their back. We care. We know their job is important. We are there.
Click here for seven simple things you can do to support journalism in our democracy.