Last week, in a phone conversation with The New York Times, White House strategist Stephen Bannon derided the news media as stupid, lazy and corrupt. He described it as out of touch with the American public and biased to the point of being the equivalent of an opposition party.
Representatives of the media responded that they are not the enemy; they are an essential part of our democracy, whose job is to tell the truth.
At the same time that open warfare was breaking out between the press and the president over whose news is fake and whose facts are alternative, I was lucky enough to see the limited-engagement, all-star cast, Broadway production of “The Front Page” at the Broadhurst Theater in New York City.
The play was written by two former newspaper reporters. It is set in Chicago in the 1920s. All the action takes place in the big, open press room of Chicago’s criminal courts building, which is next to the jail and overlooks the gallows below. Eight different newspapers have reporters assigned to cover the beat.
The big story of the day is the impending hanging of Earl Williams, a white man who has been convicted of killing a black policeman. In the current production, Williams is rumored to be an anarchist (in other productions, a Communist).
Williams escapes and makes it into the nearly empty press room, where he confides in the Examiner’s star reporter Hildy Johnson (John Slattery) that he shot the policeman by accident, contrary to the narrative being promoted by the corrupt mayor and sheriff (John Goodman) in an effort to win enough black votes to get the mayor re-elected.
Johnson tries to keep Williams a secret from his rivals so he can get the scoop. Together, he and his editor Walter Burns (Nathan Lane) conspire to sneak Williams out of the building, which leads to several slapstick moments. Three hours fly by as the cast celebrates a golden age of newspapers.
It was an age when newspapers were a major component of civic life. When big cities had several papers and big daily newspapers put out more than one edition a day. Newspapers had distinctive characters who appealed to, and inspired, different loyal readerships.
It was characterized by fierce competition between good-natured adversaries who enjoyed each other’s company when they weren’t pounding the pavement or a typewriter. Being a reporter was an exhilarating job, chasing down stories and meeting deadlines.
Maybe that’s all a bunch of romantic nostalgia, but I think that old system served the public pretty well.
The current status quo does not. Too many reporters no longer approach a story with an open mind as something to be investigated, discovered, understood and then described to readers. They come at it with an agenda and only report what fits and promotes that agenda.
One major newspaper in a city that presents one perspective on events is not enough. The fact that four times as many reporters identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans is a problem. It takes more than one point of view to get at the truth.
The Internet is a poor substitute for newspapers with standards and editors and fact checkers. Many of today’s surviving newspapers have lowered their standards by running stories without checking them, and by eliminating the barrier between the opinion and news pages. The current effort to marry legacy newspapers off to social media providers is troubling.
Maybe the golden age depicted in “The Front Page” is gone forever. Maybe it never existed in the first place. In any event, it is a worthwhile goal. Newspeople should welcome and nurture a competitive, multi-viewpoint press, not scorn outlets with different perspectives – if for no other reason than it means jobs for many more reporters.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.