Years ago, I used to present journalism students with an article (from the New York Times Magazine) titled “I Never Read a Newspaper—And You Shouldn’t Either.” I was trying to be provocative and get students to question what they were doing as journalists.

I thought of this several days ago when Ezra Klein, a founding editor of the Vox news and opinion website, suggested in an appearance on PBS Evening News, that journalists should stop covering Trump rallies since they’re essentially old news and full of falsehoods. Vox which went on line in April, 2014, is on the liberal end of the news spectrum and Klein is a former Washington Post blogger and columnist.

He raises an interesting point. Why indeed should journalists cover Trump rallies, highlight his tweets, and generally act as though anything a president says or does is news? His most recent rally, in Montana, I believe, was certainly a pastiche of old news, notably attacks on Hillary Clinton with the audience shouting, “Lock her up!” This is certainly “news” of the most ancient sort. It belongs, if anywhere, in the “so-many-years-ago-today” column.

(Trump also thumped along with his tired line against Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” and must have been gratified to see her respond angrily. So far as I know, Hillary never responds publically.)

There is an argument that journalists still need to let people know what their president is saying, however old, boring, or inane. But this surely could be done briefly, without film.

The point of my old NYT article was that people should think for themselves and ignore blather in the news media. It had a lovely quote from Robert Frost, who claimed never to read the papers. “If anything important happens,” he said, “somebody will tell me.”

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A recent post cried the blues a bit about network and even PBS news coverage. It’s time today to applaud some amazing news reporting by Jane Ferguson, a PBS foreign correspondent affiliated with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.

Ferguson has been reporting from inside Yemen, with a three–part series airing on PBS this week. Anchor Judy Woodruff also interviewed her about her work.  “Inside Yemen” does not sufficiently describe what Ferguson did. Rebel-held areas of Yemen, under heavy bombardment by a Saudi coalition with U.S. weapons, are basically off limits to journalists. Ferguson had to talk her way in, while disguised as a Muslim woman wearing a full burkha. (How she got camera coverage remains unexplained.)

The first PBS segment portrayed starvation among Yemeni children, with horrifying pictures of the nearly dead. The Saudi coalition blockades the area refusing, or delaying for long periods, the entry of food or humanitarian supplies. Ferguson had the whole story, graphically. In her interview, Judy Woodruff’s deep respect for this intrepid journalist was clear.

The second segment showed the destruction not only of homes but of hospitals and other facilities by coalition aircraft using bombs manufactured in the U.S. Judy filmed not just the damage, but also the U.S. manufacturer’s labels on some unexploded bombs. A third segment is due on PBS before the end of this week.

This is not Ferguson’s first essay in this kind of personally dangerous reporting, carried out from her base in Beirut. In 2017, she was in the South Sudan, again filming a human disaster created by war. She commented, on the PBS website, “It’s incredibly important to go to the swamps and talk to the people directly affected—who are living this nightmare—because the world needs to know that conflict is driving famine today. This is a man-made disaster, and therefore the solution needs to be to end the war.”

As a former journalist and journalism teacher I commend Ferguson’s good work. I’d also recommend it to our policymakers who have placed us in league with the coalition, which is using American weapons to bomb civilians from their homes and to destroy hospitals and other sources of humanitarian aid.

At the risk of appearing to be Captain Obvious, I set out this week to compare the coverage of the NBC and PBS evening news, on what looked like a fairly typical day.

Part of this was as a gift to my sister Ann, who was feeling dispirited (as who isn’t?) about the news. And I also wanted to do it for an old newspaper friend in California.

Had it been a day later, I would have run into the Kennedy Supreme Court resignation, which swallowed everything. But on the night I chose, news was fairly light and focused on the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Trump travel ban.

Of course the big difference in the two newscasts is time allotted. PBS gives nearly an hour to its program, while NBC after commercials gives less than half that. But even so, both newscasts covered at least briefly what, as a recovering journalist, I would consider the main spot-news items of the day. Besides the travel ban, these included the ongoing separation of parents and children at the Mexican border, weather, and the Pawnee wildfire in California. NBC added a Waco hospital explosion, an on-line car-sales scam, a challenge to the transportation secretary, a football player’s suicide due to brain disease, and belated presentation of a 1945 medal of honor. PBS covered the upcoming House immigration vote, new Syrian refugees, a Turkish crackdown on dissidents, protests in Iran, Trump’s berating of Harley-Davidson for its move abroad, and a significant study showing underrepresentation of women in law enforcement.

After that, things got a bit weird on NBC with video of a man in shorts dashing across an airport runway (news?), an unexplained shot of flowing lava in Hawaii, and a three-minute “snapshot” feature on adult treehouses.

PBS went off (as it often does on the second half hour) to longer features, which on this night included immigration (5 minutes), a tourist boom on the Chinese-North Korean border (7 minutes), a well-done cultural analysis of the burgeoning protests around the country (14 minutes), and saving Easter Island from climate change (11 minutes). This last, strange as it may sound, was flat-out fascinating with on-the-spot-reportage by the incomparable (IMHO) Jeff Brown.

So what emerges? NBC, by necessity in its timeframe, does snippets geared to eye-stopping video that grabs the viewer bent on sensation. Then it’s off to a ton of medical and other ads. PBS, with its extra time, is slower and (let’s face it) sometimes duller. I can watch only so many interviews with congresspeople. (On the other hand, Marcia Coyle, a law journalist, has been a godsend in unraveling all the Supreme Court news.)

So where does this get us, sis? Both programs will keep us modestly informed on headline items. Sorry I can’t do anything about the preponderance of bad news these days. NBC may leave us awash in trivia at times. PBS now and then may bore us into heading for the icebox and a good book.

 

Panning for gold in Johnson County’s two principal histories—Branigin and Banta— produces more than a few shining nuggets. Here are two uncovered by a recent prospector, in a section on early-day circuit riding judges and lawyers.

On Page 127 of Branigin appears an account of possibly the county’s strangest trial, of a possum arraigned for “trespassing in the public way” near Amity.

County Judge William Watson Wick and lawyers Philip Sweetser and Harvey Gregg were en route from Bartholomew County to Franklin when the possum barred their way. Faced with this obstruction of justice, the three circuit riders seized the possum and put it on trial, with Judge Wick presiding, and Gregg and Sweetser appearing for the prosecution and defense, respectively.

The arguments, going long into the night, were “ingenious and highly entertaining,” Wick said years later. The possum was found guilty, given 39 lashes, and released, “after which the party resumed their journey and reached Franklin at daylight,” Branigin relates.

Judge Wick’s brother Daniel was also a traveling attorney—“a great wag [who] loved his joke almost as well as he did his bottle,” Branigin says, quoting Banta. On one occasion “he craved entertainment” at the house of George King, the founder of Franklin. King, a devout Presbyterian, gave free overnight accommodation to preachers of that faith, so Wicks passed himself off as a Presbyterian preacher.

The next morning was cold and disagreeable, and King set out a bottle so his departing guest could have a “dram”—a very small and weak one. Wick took it, but said later he regretted playing a preacher because “he was compelled to drink a preacher’s dram when he wanted very much to drink a lawyer’s.”

 

When Billy Graham died a few days ago, our area media reminisced about the thousands who flocked to the evangelist’s 1999 Indianapolis Crusade.

I wasn’t among them. After all, I’d seen him 40 years earlier at his crusade in West Berlin, “next to the Iron Curtain.”

That phrase was worked to death by journalists, including this young reporter for United Press International. We didn’t care much about theology, but were entranced by all the East Berliners who were dodging the Volkspolizei to cross the border at the Brandenburg Gate and hear Graham. This was BEFORE the Wall, so the East German cops could hassle them and demand IDs but not really stop them.

Graham opened his crusade in a huge tent a couple of blocks from the Gate and the border. I was right there in the tent every night. UPI’s boss for Germany, Wellington (Bill) Long, was intrigued by some things Graham had been saying that struck him as unusual, maybe even political. So I paid close attention. Graham’s organization and delivery were impressive, and George Beverly Shea belted out “How Great Thou Art” with vigor and enthusiasm. And at the end scores of Germans, west and east, trooped forward to declare for Christ.

And it was all happening next to the Iron Curtain, as I made sure to mention in every story.

Then came the climactic rally, for which the tent was moved to a field next to the burned-out Reichstag building, within spitting distance of the Brandenburg Gate.

Graham’s obituary tributes made note of his shrewd grasp of the media and the journalistic mind. I can testify to that. On the day of the final rally, Graham’s advance man visited UPI and other news offices to impress upon us the importance of the event and make sure we were pumped for it. And he had been reading our stories. “Don’t miss this one,” he said, looking at me. “We’re going to be even closer to the Iron Curtain.”

My friend Jerry and I, with our wives, went to see “The Post” at our local cinemaplex last Sunday afternoon. I came out raving about it and predicting a clean sweep in the Academy Awards.

Jerry, who studies movies and the Oscars more than I do, was less sure. He thought it might be a shoo-in for best picture, but wasn’t quite as certain about Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks for the acting awards. But as retired journalists and journalism teachers we both loved the classic newspaper scenes, including that of a pressman pushing the “go” button on the press when the decision to publish the fateful story is made.

At one level this is a story about the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret analysis of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. And anyone familiar with the story has to ask why the film focuses on the Washington Post instead  of on the New York Times, which initially broke the story and ran with it for several days until a court enjoined further publication on grounds of national security.

The reason? “The Post” is not really about the Pentagon Papers, except as a plot vehicle. It’s about the Post’s new publisher, Katherine Graham, and her struggle to establish herself as woman-in-charge, not simply a boardroom figurehead. Before she can do that, the Post has to find its own source, which it does by tracking down Daniel Ellsberg and getting its own set of the voluminous Papers. Then Graham, egged on by managing editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), has to face down the paper’s own lawyers and the financial gurus who fear that publishing the Papers will wreck the Post’s brand-new agreement to become a publically owned company.

Since the newspaper has the same source as the Times, publishing while the Times is still enjoined might bring criminal charges, even jail sentences, for the Post’s executives as well as financial disaster for the newspaper. Streep, as Graham, wrestles convincingly with her decision and finally says “Go.” And the Supreme Court comes to the rescue by ruling, 6-3, that publication doesn’t endanger national security.

This may seem like ancient history, so why am I predicting a sweep in the Oscars? It’s because this film mirrors so many of the controversies that currently embroil our country. It’s an anti-Trump film, with the role of Trump taken by a vindictive Richard Nixon glimpsed through a White House window. A closing sequence foreshadows the impeachment issue, with burglars shown at work in the Watergate. “The Post” also reflects some issues of the “Me Too” movement, with Katherine Graham taking her rightful place in the male-dominated news industry. My wife noticed something I missed at first—Graham’s transition from a powerless boardroom role to an active publisher at home in both the newsroom and pressroom.

How could Oscar voters resist? Movie audiences have been applauding the classic scenes of newspapers rolling off the press, and our little group in the local theater did the same.

 

George Allen is in my local newspaper again today, with another long letter lauding President Trump and deploring anyone to the left of him. His letters are now a regular feature of the paper’s editorial page, to the point that he really deserves “column” status and his picture.

I don’t know Mr. Allen except editorially, and mention him only because some newspapers I’ve worked for would long since have rationed his appearances. The letters—and there have been dozens over the past several years—are much the same. His comments and targets show remarkable consistency, and should he ever decide to run for public office he’ll have great name recognition.

I’ve not inquired why the newspaper gives him free rein. Perhaps he’s seen as providing balance, particularly to the two local columnists who are his favorite targets. Perhaps the publishers agree with him, or have decided there is a “base” out there to which they should cater. Certainly they are free to allocate editorial-page space any way they want.

I’m musing about this only because it calls to mind other editorial pages I’ve known. Perhaps the strangest policy was the one followed by my old boss, Louis Buisch, of the Hornell, N.Y., Evening Tribune, who refused to print letters at all unless they were of such quality that they could run, with the writer’s name, in the sacred space reserved for the paper’s own official editorials.  We ran very few letters. A similar rigor applied in obituaries, where the paper enforced strict rules on what would be included. Calling hours, which Louis considered ads for the funeral home, could be included only if the home bought a little paid ad for them at the end of the obit. In many papers today, including my local one, the entire obit is a paid affair, and anything goes, including the names of pets among the survivors.

O tempora, o mores.

Perhaps the funniest example I’ve encountered of publisher hauteur involved the owner of a small Indiana daily who was unabashed in making his paper the vehicle for his personal opinions and hates. At length, a reader wrote to him, suggesting that just for one day he restrain himself. “Do you think that, just for one day, you could refrain from saying ‘pinko commies’ in a headline,” the writer implored. “Or using words like ‘pansy,’ ‘faggot,’ or ‘queer.’ It need only be for one day, but do you think you could do it?”

The publisher appended a one-word response to this request: “No.”