This is response to a friend of mine on Facebook who asked if the famous quote from Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”, should still be the guiding principle for journalism.
I’ll wade in, although I’m not an educator. Have you ever seen Good Night and Good Luck? Fabulous film about Murrow’s challenge to McCarthy. What’s incredible about it is that it shows the power of Murrow’s challenge, but it also highlights the cost. Murrow was able to do this in part because he had a trust that I think is hard to replicate these days, and I think establishing, much less maintaining, trust is just as much of a challenge as garnering enough attention.
Murrow won but at a high cost. His show was cut in air time due to high production costs. One of his team, Don Hollenbeck, committed suicide. The whole thing is bookended by a speech that Murrow gives about not letting televisin become just “wires and lights in a box”.
No one apart from Murrow seemed able to resist McCarthy and shatter the grip of fear the Wisconsin Senator had on the US. (I say this, writing from Wisconsin.)
It’s why Murrow is both a hero of mine and a teacher. He is responsible for creating much of the storytelling grammar of TV journalism just as I hoped to help create some of the storytelling grammer of digital media.
But he also a hero because he earned trust and then used that trust to do something that helped end one of the darker periods of US history.
Now in the present, if you look at the Gallup trust survey, every major institution in the US has seen a collapse in trust since 2005 (a small uptick recently), and the collapse in trust in journalism is almost totally driven from the right wing of the partisan divide. At the moment, there is a big chunk of the American population who strongly believe that when we shine a light it is to put something in shadow, cast it into darkness. And there is definitely the implication from conservatives that I know that we do this for purely malicious reasons. (Of course, I don’t believe that, but it is a strongly held belief.)
Look, this is way too long as a Facebook comment, but it is to say, that while I don’t believe trust has much to do with the decline of journalism as a business. I do believe that the decline in trust of journalism is emblematic of a collapse in trust in, well, just about everything.
And to that point, I have been asking people: What would it take you to trust in journalism, government, schools, churches, business, each other again? No one gives me much of a satisfying answer, but as I look for something productive with the rest of my career, I think this might be a worthy new mission.