Journalism, the essential fourth branch of government

At least that’s what I used to teach. I drew a tree with three gnarly branches on the blackboard (remember those?), making a big deal as I added the fourth implied branch: Respected Journalism, gathered by people who were knowledgeable about different points of view, conducted in-depth interviews, did painstaking research, and didn’t report quotes out of context. Mistakes were made, but for the most part, these folks were dedicated to their profession.

Thank the universe for Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers and Rachel Maddow, journalists who do real research. And thank goodness for comedian Jon Stewart.

What happened to mainstream journalists like those of yesteryear, Walter Cronkite, for example, who at one time was the most trusted man in America?

Full disclosure: My heroes in my ’20s were I.F. Stone of the muckraking I.F. Stone’s Weekly, broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (“Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation.”), and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Yeah, I swing to the left.

But I was trained as a questioner, as a teacher whose highest goal was to encourage students to think, to question their most staunchly held opinions. I remember teaching social studies at Hartford High School in White River Jct., Vermont in the late ’70s. Principal Frank Kennison called me into his office to relate a call from an irate Democrat, who insisted I was teaching Republican dogma. We both laughed. The call made me feel good and showed that I presented — and allowed — a wide range of opinions in my classroom.

These days, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other Republican candidates refuse to debate their Democratic opponents. Brewer so embarrassed herself with her lack of expertise and her misuse of “did” at her one and only debate with Democratic challenger, attorney general Terry Goddard, that her handlers figured it was better to not let her loose again.

And forget about a Beck or Limbaugh spouting factual history to their radio minions. PEOPLE — I want to yell out the window like Peter Finch in the movie “Network”: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Beck, Limbaugh and their ilk are not journalists, they’re entertainers, making millions dredging up an economically frustrated citizenry’s latent anger.

At least Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert use humor to attempt enlightening, lightening up the seriousness of their message.

The Tea Partiers revert to their own revisionist history. (

I remember William F. Buckley, the late editor of National Review and a true conservative. I didn’t agree with his views but he was a true intellectual and a brilliant debater who stopped at the right-wing belief of a liberal-socialist-communist conspiracy trying to take over America.

My mentor, the late Howard Zinn, the radical (and proud to be so) Boston University professor emeritus and author of “The People’s History of the United States,” was often accused of writing revisionist history. I would call his work alternative, out-of the-mainstream history, but why was it less essential than the history of robber barons and generals?  His work illuminated  missing parts of traditional American history.

Last night Dan and I were watching one of this month’s new “Saturday Night Live” shows. On “Weekend Update,” Seth Myers noted U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s (R-Del.) complaint about the “media’s tricks.”

Two tricks the media [or real journalists] use, said Myers, “are record and play.”

I sure miss Howard Zinn.

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2 Responses to Journalism, the essential fourth branch of government

  1. Anne Harris says:

    I suppose you noticed that “Emmy” lived in Thetford Center. I stayed at the hotel at W. R. Junction several times while you were near there.
    I voted for Adlai Stevenson, when you were too young to vote.
    The little blue notes on the red background are mostly impossible to read.
    See you Thursday. Anne

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