Tuesday, October 05, 2010

On the role of media ...

The role of media is to tell the story without becoming part of the story..

This is conventional journalism wisdom and I say sometimes it's hogwash.

Last week, New York Post Editor and talk show host Fredric U. Dicker got into a heated argument with gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino over accusations Paladino made against his opponent Andrew Cuomo. This led to Paladino accusing Dicker of working with Cuomo … and eventually telling Dicker – who refused to back down – that he would “take him out.”

Many learned journalists would say that Dicker had crossed the line and should have backed down from the argument after Paladino refused to answer the question Dicker had asked. Dicker should have been content with going back to his desk and writing, “Paladino refused to answer the question,” they would say.

It is a popular school of thought that as journalists, we are there to record events for posterity sake, but shouldn't interfere with what's going on too much – kind of like Marty McFly in Back to the Future. If we do interfere, it will disrupt the space time continuum and the whole world will instantly turn to dust. Or something like that.

I say as journalists, we are there to get the story. And if we have to get our hands dirty a little and get involved in what's going on to get the story, then so be it.

Investigative reporters – the kind you see on the TV news confronting slumlords and whatnot – couldn't do their job without being part of the story. They knock on the door with the TV cameras behind them, sticking those cameras in the faces of the “alleged” slumlords and start asking some tough questions.

I see it as akin to a lawyer asking a judge if they can treat a witness as hostile. I'm not sure if that ever happens in real life or only on TV shows, but it sure is compelling. People sometimes take the same tone with others when they can't get an answer by asking politely. They berate the answer out of them. It might not be pretty but it works.

Well, it works sometimes. Dicker got thrown out before he could get his answer.

Both Dicker and Paladino are unrepentant about the situation, each claiming the high ground.

“People understand where I'm at," Paladino told the New York Times. "They want someone who will fight for them -- they don't want someone who's going to back down."

Paladino's right. I do want that from my politicians. But I also want it from my media. I want someone who's not going to back down and let the person they're attempting to interview dictate the terms of the story. I don't want “no comment” to be good enough.

No journalist worth their salt would let a source edit their story for them. It's just not intellectually honest. But by running away from someone who doesn't want to answer a question, they're basically allowing them to edit it before it's even written.

I'll be honest. That is what I try to do here, after all. I'm being somewhat hypocritical. I've accepted “no comment” on dozens of occasions. Maybe hundreds. I've gone back to my desk and typed it, feeling defeated with every click of the keypad. But I don't have the kind of gumption to get up in a guys face and demand answers the way Dicker did last week.

That's why we need to respect guys like Fred Dicker. We can't always count on the story “coming out.” Or the other candidate forcing the issue.

The role of media is to tell the story. But in order to tell stories, you need to have answers to questions.