man reading a newspaper

Democracy and Newspapers

The three most influential people in my life as a journalist are, sadly, all part of the Great Newsroom in the Sky now. Professors Michael Perkins and Bob Woodward (AKA Bob Woodward-Not-That-Bob-Woodward) helped educate me at Drake University, and Lisa Warren was the best editor of the Dayton Daily News’ Southwest Ohio papers who ever lived. All taught me how to be who I was as a journalist, which was a tough, fair, attentive, engaging reporter/editor who didn’t make excuses.

Which is why a podcast I listened to recently made me think of the rather disgusting phrase, “rolling over in his grave.” I’d rather not think of these Stalwarts of Newspapers’ Past doing any such thing. But you’ll get the point.

I give credit to the podcast, The Daily, for asking the tough question after New York Times reporter Grace Ashford discussed how she and colleague Michael Gold uncovered the many, many, many lies of Republican Congressman George Santos. The Daily is run by The New York Times, so having Ashford on could have been seen as a pat on its own back, if not for the question: So why didn’t you do all that work before the election? Ya know, when voters could actually have used the knowledge to have it shape their choice of whom they wanted as their representative?

George Santos a liar. The fact that he hasn’t resigned due to pressure from his own party is a sign of the times for modern-day politics. Yet Ashford’s answer made me thing of the Triumvirate of John’s Journalism Gods.

Ashford took a modicum of the blame, rightly stating that papers don’t have the resources they once did. Then she spent most of her time answering the question by placing blame on the Republican and Democratic Parties for not vetting the candidate enough.

Excuse me? Really? A journalist of The New York Times is saying that politicians didn’t do her work for her, which is why her paper didn’t uncover the easily discoverable lies of a candidate who, among other things, made up huge swaths of his education, work experience, finances and heritage to grab power by, as he put it, inflating his resume like we all do. Really?

Ashford said the Republicans didn’t vet their own candidate thoroughly enough. She then said that the opposition research provided by the Democrats did, indeed, point out some of Santos’ issues, but it focused more on his Jan. 6 statements and other things that didn’t involve massive lies. She then went on to say that, though The New York Times, has “New York” in the title, it is now more of a national paper and that there aren’t as many resources dedicated to local news.

Except the election of federal politicians isn’t local news. As much as Congressionaloids act in the supposed best interests of their local constituencies (hardy-har-har on that one, folks), they help shape federal policy. Do we need to look at the old video of How a Bill Becomes Law most of us saw sometime in elementary school?

Many moons ago, I was talking with someone about the decline of newspapers. This was back when I still was in the industry. I told him that the death of the newspaper was a bad portent for the nation because it was the newspaper journalist, not the TV “news” person or any sort of blogger, that kept government corruption in check.

“So you think there will be another Watergate situation that goes undiscovered?” I was asked.

“Maybe, but it’s far more likely that the unchecked local, state or Congressional politician will get away with a whole host of bad stuff because that’s where newspaper journalism is rotting the quickest and the most,” I replied.

And so it has come to pass.

Perkins and Woodward would have rightly flunked me in any of their classes if I said a good reason for not getting an important story was because an involved party didn’t spoon-feed me the information. Lisa Warren would have fired me — and then made sure no newspaper within in 10,000 miles hired me. And she’d been right to do so.

These days, Ashford gets to go on the most popular podcast in the land and have stories written about how influential her coverage was at uncovering such a huge story. The problem is, that influential story doesn’t mean anything because there’s nothing that says being a liar of astronomical proportions disqualifies you from serving as a Congressman.

The result is that an important seat is occupied by a man who just might be a criminal beyond being a liar — and he is essentially protected. The Republican majority is so thin and the seat in question rests in such a split district that there’s no way the leadership will push him out. They’ll keep him off committees, sure. They won’t sit at his lunch table. But unless there’s a huge swing to the Right that gives the GOP a safer majority, Santos isn’t going anywhere.

And that’s the fault of political reporters such as Ashford and once great newspapers such as The New York Times.

Ashford ended her podcast appearance by saying that Santos himself was to blame for her failing at her job. How could anyone believe, she said, that someone’s whole life would be a lie?

Because he’s a politician, Grace, and because it’s your job.

John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at johnagliata@gmail.com or (352) 226-5852.


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