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Frustrating or not, a free press is absolutely necessary for an informed citizenry

After a frustrating encounter, a veteran newsman counseled me: “Just because you don’t like the way some reporters act doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their work well.”

Mary Stanik

“Think about what might happen if much of the world was facing imminent destruction and there were no reporters around to tell you what was happening, why it was happening, who caused the disaster, where the worst was expected, and how you might save yourself and your family. What would you do?”

I’ve been thinking about these fairly frightening words a good deal in a world where some in places of great as well as slight power consider journalists to be the enemy of the people. I’ve especially been considering these words following the revocation of the White House credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta and the insults delivered by President Trump to three prominent female African-American White House correspondents. These particular words were spoken to me many years ago, shortly after I started work as a spokesperson for the University of Minnesota’s medical center and needed tough guidance more often than I wanted to admit. The sober thoughts were given to me by the late Gordon Slovut, the internationally renowned longtime medical correspondent for the Star Tribune and one of the greatest mentors of my life.

Gordy counseled me on a day when I was upset about some out-of-state television reporters who were getting me into big trouble with medical staff by showing up unannounced on an intensive care unit to interview the family of a child who was near death following a liver transplant. The family didn’t want to speak to anyone, and the hospital forbade the presence of reporters and cameras on intensive care units. The reporters complained about my lack of cooperation, professionalism, etc., to the hospital director’s executive assistant. As it was, the executive assistant believed my side of the story but asked that I try to work out some deal with the reporters. I agreed to do so. But first I called Gordy to have an off-the-record counseling session.

Gordy, who at the time had been a newspaper reporter for more than 30 years, sometimes had his own difficulties with television journalists. I remember him telling me more than once that “newspapers occasionally hire beauty pageant winners or kids and spouses of the rich and famous, but usually only the ones who work hard and really report the news.” When I told him about the journalists who wanted me sacked for alleged non-performance, I also told him I wanted to just stop working with them completely and only deal with their competitors. When Gordy sensed I was done venting, he paused for quite a long while. He then asked me what I would do if no reporters were around to tell the story of the world’s end. I remember being taken quite aback by his scary question, especially since the matter at hand was, while very serious, not about imminent global annihilation. I sputtered something about well, no, of course we need and want reporters and that I just wanted to punish those particular reporters.

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Gordy laughed, but not very much. He said I should contact the reporters’ news director about the rules-flouting and invasion of the family’s privacy. Then he shocked me more than he did with his global destruction query. As he had been reporting the child’s story as well, he had been keeping up with reports from the child’s hometown, which was much easier for him than it was for me in those pre-website days. He said these same reporters had done the lion’s share of work in broadcasting stories that helped the family find a donor liver and raise the many thousands they needed to get their child into the hospital. He added that they also were the first journalists in their area to report that the fundraising leaders were likely to be charged with fraud.

“So, kid,” he said in a way that made me realize I had better shape up, and bloody fast, “just because you don’t like the way some reporters act doesn’t mean they aren’t doing their work well. It’s your job to tell them (privately) when they treat you like dirt or break reasonable rules. But it is never, ever your job, or that of anyone else, to prevent them from doing their work.”

Much of the talk following the Acosta credentials revocation and the insulting of the three journalists has rightly focused on matters such as racism and sexism. Many have justly pointed out the historic horrors we wouldn’t have learned about were it not for journalists free to practice their profession without fear of censorship or worse — horrors such as the Holocaust, the futility of the Vietnam War, sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, or the deadliness of cigarettes. But what I learned from Gordy on that day (and from my own experiences on many others) was that a free press is absolutely necessary for a truly and properly informed citizenry. No matter if the stories are big or small, whether they affect hundreds or even billions immediately or hundreds or even billions at a time yet to come.

If you think of journalists such as Acosta or others as enemies of the people, think very long and very hard about the stories you would not know about were it not for their efforts. Try it. And no, you don’t have to think about no journalists around to report the end of the world.

But it might not hurt if you do so all the same.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”


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