President William McKinley had a wife to whom he was extremely devoted, but who had a nervous condition that caused her to suffer from frequent seizures, sometimes at state dinners. When this happened, his solution was to throw a napkin over her face, carry on as though everything was normal, and then remove it when the seizure was past.
That was more than a century ago, and you may be wondering what this has to do with today’s world. Well, the answer is pretty much everything.
We have to choose between facing reality, or ignoring it, and covering up the truth with a napkin won’t work for us today. Here’s something you may not realize about news coverage. Reporters and editors unconsciously assume that rational behavior is normal.
If you go home tonight and go out to dinner, you will not end up in the news. But if you go berserk and kill someone in the restaurant, you will be a story. Those who cover the news understand this. However, they also make what Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein called a “presumption of regularity” about the basic institutions in this nation and society.
That is why it took so long to accept that the President of the United States might be liar and a crook. Well, Richard Nixon was, and learning that changed us more profoundly than I think most of us realized. We are a lot less starry-eyed about our leaders now.
Nevertheless, we are now in a situation we never imagined, and with which we are struggling to cope. Nothing in our professional training or our history has taught us how to cover an administration that has no respect for facts or willingness to acknowledge their existence.
Watergate, as traumatic as it was, now seems in many ways like a simple medieval morality play. The ruler is accused of foul crimes. He indignantly denies them. The nation’s legal institutions, aided by a free news media, investigate. At length the smoking gun is discovered.
The jig is up; the ruler resigns. Nixon lied about what he did. But he essentially didn’t deny the existence of truth and falsehood, or right and wrong.
Nor did he, or any other President, openly attack his own cabinet members only months after appointing them and try to create civil war and chaos within his own administration.
Journalists know how to report what is going on, and we are trained to get facts straight, and strive to be fair and balanced. But that is increasingly difficult today.
What we desperately need to do is to try to provide perspective to make sense of the world we are now in. To my mild surprise, the number of students interested in studying journalism at Wayne State University, where I teach, is increasing – even though the job market, especially in traditional print journalism, is beyond terrible.
To me, their interest is encouraging. We need journalists to report on, and make sense of what’s happening – in Detroit, Lansing and Flint, everywhere. They need an array of multimedia tools. But they also need something else. To study history.
No matter what you are writing about, you can’t know where we are until you know where we’ve been. I think we’ll need that perspective in coming months more than ever.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.