I have not been a journalist for 25 years but journalism remains a passion. I idolized Watergate heroes Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in my teens, started my career as a small-town reporter, met my wife in a newsroom and worked extensively with journalists in my career in government and business. I am such a journalism junkie that I still read the Columbia Journalism Review, the NY Times public editor and other journo commentary.
To me, the diverse body of investigative work done by American journalists has been the most reassuring and impressive development of this dreadful, dark and rock-bottom campaign.
I am sure that my journalism friends upon reading these flattering words about their work will do a Danny Thomas spit take. That's because I have had disagreements -- no wars -- with journalists during my time as a communications leader and spokesman. The first shot was usually fired by me in an early-morning email that went something like, "your story today is a complete misrepresentation of the facts and is deliberately skewed to create a larger issue than actually exists."
In retrospect from the safe shores of semi-retirement, those notes may have been a little rhetorically excessive. I know that good journalism is really hard, particularly today when everyone thinks they are a media critic and have their own platforms to express their version of the truth.
The news media has taken a beating this campaign from the commentariat, politicos and the candidates, particularly Donald Trump, on everything from perceived partisanship to poor moderating. In some instances, the criticism has been fair -- see Matt Lauer.
In fact, it has been a kick-ass election cycle for journalism. Faced with two secretive candidates and a skeptical and bitterly divided public, many journalists covering the campaign have been dogged in pursuit of the truth in a post-truth world.
Newspapers -- the Washington Post (go Jeff Bezos!), and the New York Times -- have been the stars of the campaign. My favorite has been David Farenthold of the Washington Post, whose reporting uncovered Trump's misuses of charitable funds and deceptions about his philanthropy. Farenthold's reporting has easily been the best of this election cycle; he has consistently pulled on threads that unraveled Trump's cloak of sophistry and spin.
The New York Times was late to the Trump story but it has reported thoroughly on Hillary Clinton's email mess. It's story on Hillary Clinton's responses to her husband's female accusers was the best piece I have read on how she thinks and operates. The Times also landed the Trump tax story.
Unfortunately, newspapers are not where most Americans get their news about the election, according to the Pew Research Center in Journalism & Media. The vast majority of Americans say cable news is the most helpful source of information on the presidential election, followed by social media and local TV news. Unfortunately, cable's noise and ubiquity has drowned out some of the best print/digital reporting.
Cable news is good at breaking news but in between these events it is rife with speculation, talking heads and just plain jabber (exceptions: Jake Tapper, who asks tough questions; and Steve Schmidt, who offers cogent analysis). Cable news covers election like sports -- who had the best day, who's up, who's down.
Overall, TV news seems to have lost its way. It's not fair to blame Lauer for poorly moderating a candidate discussion when he spends so much time on topics like recipes for almond-crusted chicken and what the "Today" show puppy does during the day. Okay, maybe it is fair to criticize him but the broadcast networks, excluding PBS News Hour, Frontline and Sunday-morning talk shows, rarely cover issues with any depth or break any news. Their nightly broadcasts and morning shows are filled with celebrity, "person-of-the-week," and transactional news like extreme weather or crime.
Bravos are also due to a recovering and increasingly impressive business press that covers public policy issues related to the election. For example, John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal broke through the breathtakingly fraudulent claims of the blood-testing startup Theranos and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The October issue of Vanity Fair recounts how Carreyrou first became curious about Theranos' claims because of its secrecy and inability to explain its own technology (corporate communicators, remember this).
There are other emerging news sources that I love -- BuzzFeed News, BusinessInsider, ProPublica, Vice, Vox -- almost too many to mention and consume. But journalism is hurting at the local and state level, where statehouse and city hall reporters often uncover corruption before prosecutors. Media guru Steve Coll recently wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that the newspapers have shed tens of thousands of newsroom jobs since 2007, creating a "hole in the heart of American journalism."
A few years ago, I was on a panel about the media at a World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. Somehow the discussion veered into the media's alleged mistreatment of accused murderer and Olympian Oscar Pistorius. I was shocked when another panelist asserted that the media's reporting had been so unfair to Pistorius that maybe there should be restrictions on or government oversight of the media.
I responded that the last thing a young democracy -- or any democracy -- wants to do is to attempt to control a free press (as Donald Trump has proposed). In some cities, towns and even countries, particularly where one party dominates electorally, the media is the only check on those in power.
South Africa and America need a strong media. Business needs a strong media. We should encourage talented people to enter journalism and stay in it. That means business and the general public need to better understand the news media and financially support education programs. Perhaps I'll do my part by creating a "make good" list of all the excellent reporters that I "disagreed" with over the years and let them know I am rooting for them. Well, maybe just a few of them.