Rutland Herald and Monpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday September 11. 2016


In the summer of 1961, I first read William Shirer’s Berlin Diary. Shirer, who had been a  wire service reporter was the first man selected by Edward R. Morrow to be part of the CBS Radio news team that later became famous as the Murrow Boys. Shirer had reported on the Nazi rise in Germany starting in 1925. The Berlin Diary covers the years 1934 to 1941. This is a sample of the text:

“ We who have been so close to this German scene, who have seen with our own eyes of tramping of Nazi boots over Europe and heard with our own ears Hitler’s hysterical tirades of hate, have found it difficult to keep a sense of historical perspective. I suppose the reasons why Germany embarked on a career of unbridled conquest go deeper than the mere fact, all-important though it is, that a small band of unprincipled, tough gangsters have seized control of this land, corrupted its whole people, and driven it on its present course. The roots go deeper, I admit, though whether the plant would have flowered as it has without Hitler, I seriously doubt. First Germany and then the world grossly underestimated him. It was an appalling error, as first the Germans and now the world are finding out.”

 Shirer left Berlin before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which led to America’s entry into WWII. After years of pressure from the Nazi censors and the German secret police, the Gestapo, Shirer felt he could no longer report objectively to his American listeners. The contents of Berlin Diary provided much of the first- hand accounts he would use in his highly praised 1200 page tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which he wrote after the war and which I also read that summer of 1961.

 I was a 22 year old budding journalist at the time and both books left a deep impression upon me – it was after all just sixteen years since the war had ended. But Berlin Diary shaped my life, in that it made me determined to become a foreign correspondent. True, there was a romantic side to such a career, but there were major challenges too. I found myself wondering if I would have the courage to stand up to the censors and secret police in countries I could expect to work in – the Soviet Union for example. Remarkably, just five years later I was ABC News roving correspondent, based in Paris, facing a range or assignments in which my courage, among many other things, would be sure to be tested.

All of that being said, I believe journalists covering the 2016 American presidential campaign are being tested in ways which I have never seen in six decades of reporting. Their dilemma was sharply drawn in the lead paragraph of a recent column by the New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenburg:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J, Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all those things, you have to throw out the text book American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century if not longer, and approach in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known and by normal standards, untenable.”

However, as Rutenburg and many others concede, these are anything but normal times. Trump is the ultimate outlier, and has demonstrated time and again that none of the old rules – such as telling the truth – apply to him. Yet so many reporters, whatever their personal views may be, are still trying to apply the old rules. The result is they regularly draw false equivalents. Trump is a liar so Hillary Clinton is liar too, and neither can be trusted. Never mind that the lies she is accused of telling are of a whole different magnitude (unless you are the chairman of one of the House of Representative’s plethora of investigating bodies, whose sole purpose is to destroy her candidacy- an admission once made in a fit of candor by one of its officials..

I believe today’s journalist could learn something from old foreign correspondents such as William Shirer, who chose to report the unvarnished truth from 1930’s Berlin. A subsequent generation of foreign correspondents consciously or unconsciously followed that playbook as we traveled around the world reporting on wars, diplomacy, floods and famines. We were detached from the local politics, and basically called things as we saw them. I am sure we were not always right, but we were almost always on the side of right. It might have been dangerous to your person to report on the Nazi outrages. But how much more dangerous to your reputation if not your soul, would it have been to ignore or soft-pedal them? 

That, in a way, is the conclusion reached by Rutenburg at the end of his thoughtful column on the reporter’s dilemma.

“This is what being taken seriously looks like. As (Senior NYT Editor Carolyn) Ryan put it to me, Mr. Trump’s candidacy is “extraordinary and precedent shattering’ and ‘to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous with readers.’ It would also be an abdication of political journalism’s most solemn duty: to ferret out what the candidates will be like in the most powerful office in the world…..It is journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment. To do anything less would be untenable.”

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