The legendary investigative journalist Wayne Barrett received the 2016 Urban Journalism Award at City Limits’ 40th Anniversary Gala Celebration on Monday night. Barrett took the mic about 90 minutes before the first presidential debate:
I’d like to say a few words of real thanks and a few words about the state of journalism.
Thanks, first of all, to Fran, the editor of my life for over 50 years. Thanks to the best story Fran and I ever co-bylined, Mac. Thanks to my departed brother Jack, my tour-guide to the tawdry, who dispatched me to cover kid Trump way back in the 70s. Thanks to my other Voice colleagues, several of whom are here tonight. We thought a deadline meant we had to kill somebody by closing time. Thanks to my army of interns, the soldiers of detail who taught me so much.
And thanks to City Limits. Born four decades ago to combat the Trump of those days, Roger Starr, a city housing commissioner whose ideology of planned shrinkage landed him on the editorial board of the New York Times, where racial triage was the intellectual fashion of the time, City Limits and the sweat equity and community-based housing groups it embodied—centered around ANHD, the association for neighborhood housing and development—defeated shrinkage and sparked the housing revolution of the 80s. Some of those pioneers who created this voice are here tonight—Ron Shiffman, Tom Robbins. We have had decades of city capital investment in affordable housing. As much as it was once assumed that even this city could not devote capital funds to housing, it is now assumed we will spend billions.
And the housing revolution does not merely correlate with the decline in crime, it caused it. The crime drop is more City Limits than Compstat, more ANHD than PBA, more a result of fixing broken housing than theories about broken windows.
Lastly, a few words about journalism and tonight’s debate. As usual, Springsteen got the campaign best—in “Badlands,” which now describes large swaths of America:
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.
Kelly Anne Conway said today that Trump is the Babe Ruth of debating. Maybe that’s when America was great before. He’s certainly not the Hank Aaron of debating. Since Donald’s rise, I’ve had over 60 journalists visit me in Brooklyn; many have plumbed the cavern of Trump files in my basement. Almost every major print outlet has come. So have a dozen TV crews, but few of them have been American. There have been many fine print pieces of investigative reporting about Trump, but they have gotten almost no TV airtime—the oxygen of presidential politics.
Michael Kruse, for example, did a stunning piece in Politico on 9/11 that revealed that Trump went on a New York station that day 15 years ago and, with the bodies still filling our streets, pointed out that his building, 40 Wall Street, was now the tallest building downtown. He wasn’t even right. I thought this had to be top TV news but Hillary stumbled getting into an SUV and in the week of pneumonia coverage that followed, Trump’s self-promotion on America’s dark day disappeared.
I am a sports nut and there is now no way to distinguish sportcasters from newscasters. They both promote the game. If the two worst NFL teams are playing in a Thursday night matchup, it is described as a “clash of titans.” We all have long understood that ratings are a driving force in TV; we did not understand until now that ratings are all that matters.
I always told my interns and the classes I’ve taught at Columbia, Hunter and LIU that we are the truth-tellers. That ours is the only profession paid to tell the truth. Other professions sometimes tell the truth—doctors tell the truth sometimes, but they’re not paid to, and lawyers do sometimes–but reporters are paid to tell the truth all the time; they are the most honest profession.
I can’t say it anymore. How many millions would networks lose if Clinton was up by 10? If the coverage coincides with the need to keep it close, are we to assume that’s a coincidence? The related but other part of the rationale for coverage that defies truth is audience satisfaction. Howie Kurtz, the media reporter at Fox, has taken to critiquing anti-trump coverage that makes it onto other networks as alienating half its audience. “Give them what they want” is now an underpinning to the TV narrative. I used to say journalists were detectives for the people. Now we’re reflections of the people.
The culmination of this drive to the bottom are these debates. It’s not just Chris Wallace and Fox and Trump who are demanding no fact-checking and no follow-ups. It’s the Commission on Presidential Debates itself. If journalists are not allowed to be journalists, they shouldn’t play one on the greatest national stage in history. In the NBA and the MLB, the teams have their own channels now and they pick the sportcasters and everyone understands they are partisans. Let Chelsea and Ivanka moderate the debates. No journalist should participate in a sham where journalists are required to become passive observers.
America made its deal with television decades ago. We gave them the public airways for free. It’s a trillion-dollar subsidy. We were supposed to get back some public-service programming, primarily in the form of real news coverage. Now it is just another profit center inside each network where ratings overrule journalism. In 2014 they let a ratings-driving Ebola scare deliver the Senate to the Republicans, and as soon as the election was over, Ebola disappeared.
We are gripped by another ratings-driving fever. But this time, just like the ratings-driven shock and awe of Iraq, we will live it with its consequences forever.