In many respects, the 21st century hasn't been kind to journalism.
The proliferation of new sites and channels has fragmented audiences, and reliance on digital advertising has slashed revenue. Social media platforms now deliver oceans of content to every corner of the Earth. This development, when coupled with the absence of accountability that dependable news organizations pride themselves on, is a dreadful one-two punch.
President Donald Trump came into office railing against many of the foundations of our democratic institutions, including a free press.
In the last decade, the ugliest and most cunning threat to journalism comes from leaders in different parts of the world increasingly questioning not just the veracity of what is being reported, which isn't new, but the integrity of those who report it, which is. Some leaders have gone further and egged on their supporters to target and harass anyone they don't approve of in the media.
President Donald Trump came into office railing against many of the foundations of our democratic institutions, including a free press. Forty months into his administration, coverage of the coronavirus outbreak is the latest sign that — contrary to conventional wisdom — he hasn't laid a glove on serious journalism. His attacks, most recently against excellent reporters like Jonathan Karl (ABC), Yamiche Alcindor (PBS), Peter Alexander (NBC) and Paula Reid (CBS), put the bully in bully pulpit, but they haven't shaken the soul of the First Amendment.
Trump's daily briefings, which sometimes include pertinent and significant information, have also frequently become a sideshow, filled with false and misleading statements, compulsive boasting and self-promotional videos. That's why with each live briefing, many news outlets, including ours, are aggressively fact-checking in real time, assessing the value to viewers minute to minute and cutting away when warranted.
Despite these challenges, what has become powerfully clear during this pandemic is that the heart of journalism has never been stronger. As ever, journalists are asking tough questions and going where the facts lead. Not looking to win any popularity contests — just doing what Woodward and Bernstein inspired my generation and the generations that followed to always do: seek the best obtainable version of the truth.
Over the past four decades, I've covered a wide array of miserable catastrophes, wars and social upheaval, but the hallmarks of good journalism have seldom seemed more important than they do right now. More than 300 million Americans are sheltering in place — with more than 26 million of them now unemployed — and they're looking for accurate, updated information about this terrifying story and what may lie ahead. They're looking to journalists to counter misinformation that endangers lives and livelihoods. And they're seeking out the perspectives that give us hope: those of the extraordinarily brave nurses and doctors and public health experts on the front lines of this battle.
Reporters have been on this story from the start, tracking the spread of the coronavirus without fear or favor, faithfully doing their jobs even — and especially — in this perilous time. Every day, with every story, they try to find what is most relevant to the public and relentlessly work to uncover the essence of what it means.
Over the past few months, journalists have followed the virus's spread; chronicled its medical, economic and social impact; and shared vital information about how people can stay safe. They've corrected wrong information, exposed myths and conspiracies and sought a balance of relaying real dangers within a context of chances and percentages.
This is true of both national outlets and local journalists, with the latter a particularly dogged group. Cost-cutting measures have culled their ranks for years, and even in recent weeks, as they work to share this critical story with their communities, they have been furloughed and laid off. They tell the stories that hit closest to home, often without the acclaim, resources or job security they deserve. And yet, they persevere.
Journalists have found a way, because there is no other choice. At its core, journalism is a public trust, and, in times like these, journalists see their service through regardless of the harm they may face. This is the seminal story of our time, and we absolutely must get it right.
We have done this before. During World War II, Americans learned about the Nazis' nightly bombing in London when Edward R. Murrow stood on a rooftop and reported the news.
During Vietnam, Americans finally found out what was really going on because our journalists stood up to the government and sided with the truth.
Today, enduring, influential newspapers and wire services have provided as much illuminating coverage as at any other time in our history. The networks and cable news don't hesitate to share these stories, crediting the sources, adding their own investigations, analysis and due diligence, and broadcasting them to a vast worldwide audience. That will have real impact over the coming weeks and months as Americans confront big questions about our reshaped society.
Humbled by the responsibility we bear, we try our damnedest to serve our audience.
Make no mistake, journalists have plenty of faults. Our coverage is rarely, if ever, flawless. We are a collection of human beings making hundreds of decisions a day. During times like these, as millions of people turn to the news for answers, the choices we make about what to air and how to report it can make the difference between panic or persistence, and even life or death. Humbled by the responsibility we bear, we try our damnedest to serve our audience.
In one of his last on-camera interviews, I asked the legendary editor Ben Bradlee how he would define journalism, as he knew it over a lifetime. He said, with almost a religious conviction: "'If true' ... the greatest words ever written in journalism. ... What's the truth? What is the truth? What really happened?"
In that moment, I thought how lucky I was to have a career in the news business. In this moment, it feels more like a calling.
At this dark hour, people are scared. They're being bombarded daily by noise and information, not all of it correct — some of it intentionally divisive and polarizing. They're hungry for accurate information and the straight, unvarnished truth. Now, and in all the days to come, journalists will be there.