Connections: Ink-Stained Wretch

A quote from Thomas Jefferson, which has been pinned to the bulletin board over my computer at The Star for as long as I can remember, defines journalism as essential to the well-being of the American citizenry. Here are Jefferson’s words:

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Readers of this newspaper know we try, and always have tried, to meet the highest journalistic standards and have, for years and years, offered the public as much space to say what they want without charge. That we publish every letter is part of our creed, and we are proud of it. One of my tasks at the office is to tend to The Star’s letters pages. We do not edit letters, exactly, but we do need to read them to correct spelling mistakes, make sure there is nothing libelous in them, and occasionally make a small change so that the text of the letter conforms to Star style (for example, we do use the Oxford comma around here). Compiling them, reading them, and proofreading them — sometimes dozens in a single week — is, to me, a form of community service. The whole thing is very time consuming. Devoting several broadsheet print pages to letters has probably cost this family business hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more?) over the decades, in manpower, print, and paper pulp. 

It is basically thankless work at the best of times; at the worst of times, apparently, the sort of occupation an enemy of the people can be expected to do.

I can be found at the computer every Monday working away on the letters. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes tedious, sometimes thought provoking, sometimes they move you to tears. On occasion — more often than you might think — we still have to actually transcribe them, because a correspondent has written us in longhand or typed his or her missive the old-fashioned way, with a typewriter, on that antiquated stuff we used to call paper. 

The weekly deadline is 5 p.m., by the way.

The world of news has become very confusing in the last decade, as we are all aware. Once upon a time, journalists worth their salt took great pains to draw an inviolable line between editorial writing and news reporting, and there were similar great walls dividing the advertising department from the newsroom. We still follow those rules in this office, but, clearly, cable-television personalities these days serve up a mishmash that is part news and part spin and opinion. I sometimes think “news” stations should be required to run a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen when the program is editorializing rather than providing an honest attempt at unbiased news-news. 

Meantime, social media has changed the delivery of news beyond recognition. Actual, factual news — news gathered according to the old tenets and rules and standards, with the journalist at least giving ethical practices the old school try — is now part of a nonstop gush of information and outright nonsense that flies across our consciousness like water from a high-pressure fire hose. 

According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Facebook users get their news there. That translates to about 44 percent of the adult population of this country.

I’m told that the number of college students who are majoring in journalism has risen dramatically in the last couple of years, and that is, indeed, good news. I think most Americans probably do still believe newspapering is a respectable calling, and that honest news can be found, if you check your sources and don’t just believe every screaming headline that pops up between cat videos. Learning how to discern a solid source of information from a dubious one should be on every middle school curriculum. Don’t you agree?