When I was a small, impressionable boy, my mother, a New York theater lover, took me to see Li’l Abner, one of Broadway’s best-loved musicals. Written by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer in 1956, the tongue-in-cheek song I most remember was “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands.” Basically, the song said that since the Republicans and Democrats can’t agree, are always criticizing one another, and no one really knows where anyone stands, the country is in the “very best of hands.”
In 2018, 62 years later, our nation is being torn apart by political unrest, corruption, and division. We the people have lost much of the faith we had in our government. Expecting our elected officials to work together to create an environment of integrity, stability, and progress, a great many of us have been left feeling like the children of parents headed for divorce in a loveless, chaotic marriage. Or orphans.
Looking to understand what’s going on in our country, millions of us naturally turn to the press. Journalists should be the trusted investigators, information gatherers, and conveners of conversations that uncover the truth. That’s how it was designed by our founders, and how it was all supposed to work. But today, our nation’s largest news organizations are operating in direct opposition to one another, and we are not sure whom we can—or should—trust. First, it was our embattled government that can’t seem to agree on the truth. Now it’s our journalists. Left to decide, “Who’s telling the truth, Fox or CNN?” and question the ethical standards by which they need to operate in our democracy, the integrity of a once-trusted cornerstone of our nation, the press, has come into serious question.
Not surprisingly, most Americans have elected to choose sides when it comes to journalists much the same way we have with our political beliefs. And like the good uncle, grandparent, teacher, mentor, neighbor, rabbi, or priest who steps forward to give children a sense of security in turbulent times, certain members of the American press have stepped forward to steady, assure, and guide us. In the past, people turned to iconic reporters such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite for their daily dose of truth. Now they turn to the likes of Sean Hannity as a watchdog, protecting us from the conspiratorial “Deep State.”
Being at war—I call it “America’s Un–Civil War”—each side fires off fiery insults accusing the other of having breeched their journalistic integrity in exchange for party loyalty. Lined up like rabid fans behind the sidelines, we become more polarized from our fellow Americans. Fanning the flames with little more than rhetoric, some self-serving news anchors report their version of “the truth” with an evangelical, religious fervor.
And the Un-Civil War rages on.
Beyond the heated debate over who in our free press is serving our nation—and who is reinforcing, enabling, exacerbating, and exploiting our Un–Civil War—is an opportunity.
Can we all please stop for a moment to acknowledge those reporters from both sides who are operating in the true spirit of professional journalism and going about their work in such a way as to strengthen, rather than divide, our democracy?
I’m convinced that most on-air media hosts and reporters try their damnedest to operate on the “solution side” of things by providing us with well-researched information. And the most courageous among them are, I believe, not afraid to draw the line when it gets crossed by diversion, misinformation, divisive name-calling, character assassination, intimidation, and bravado. Supported by teams of devoted investigative reporters and guest experts (like yours truly), these journalists and their news organizations work tirelessly to provide us with accurate, up-to-the-moment news.
Most important, the press keeps checks and balances on both the government and its citizens. American journalists have served our country with valor, courage, leadership, objectivity, and strategic intelligence—qualities we also look for in our military, intelligence agencies, police forces, government officials, and president. Providing this kind of accountability, and a safe forum for the exchange of ideas, is vital to our democracy.
The informational role a free press plays in an open society cannot be underestimated. The negative effects of suppressing news, documented throughout history, show that speaking truth to power keeps leaders and governments in check when they’re being threatened by corruption, negligence, and abuses of power. Comparing our country with repressive regimes like those in Russia, China and North Korea is one way to fully understand and appreciate the benefits of our free press. Far from being “the enemy of the people,” as some think, the press is a cornerstone of our democracy and leads us to positive social change where needed.
To maintain their integrity, I suggest the following code of ethics for journalists:
1. Report the facts in a straightforward and impartial way.,
2. Meticulously decipher news reports for hints of political bias or misinformation.
3. Call out those in the government or in your own profession who discredit the other side by dispensing sheer propaganda rather than facts.
4. Continue to ask the hard questions, and courageously pursue truth and injustice wherever it may lead.
5. Encourage fellow Americans to channel the love they have for our country into positive action by modeling civility, upholding decency, supporting the best-qualified candidates, speaking out constructively, protesting peacefully, writing their elected officials, voting, and volunteering in their community.
6. Help us maintain perspective and integrity in the face of partisan pressure.
7. Help us understand and honor the risks and sacrifices you make, including those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
8. Help us discern between real news and “fake news” on TV, radio, and the Internet.
9. Admit, retract and apologize for mistakes and misleading information.
This is a good time for us to honor our best professional journalists for their integrity, devotion, and service to our country. They need and deserve our encouragement and gratitude. No, they’re not perfect. Yes, they sometimes get it wrong. And yes, we have a right and responsibility to give them our constructive criticism. But let’s put down our heavy-handed rhetoric and honor them today. By rising above partisan politics, choosing a path of discretion, respect, humility, and reconciliation over one of self-righteous bravado, retaliation, and revenge, we also raise the bar on integrity. In the words of JFK, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Whether you believe the highest standards of journalistic excellence are best met by Fareed Zakaria or Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh, the National Review or the New York Times, please stand together with me and your fellow Americans for a moment—the way we do when the national anthem or “America the Beautiful” is played during the seventh-inning stretch of a baseball game.
Put aside the bottomless “Real News vs. Fake News,” “Good Guy vs. Bad Guy,” “more patriotic than thou” arguments, and resist the temptation to turn this into another boring political he said/she said slugfest. Please join me in saying a sincere, prideful, and heartfelt “Thank you” to those in the free press who fortify our democracy and contribute immeasurably to our nation. Together, let’s join them in weathering the storm, winding down the Un–Civil War, and standing up for what we believe with respect, integrity, civility, and gratitude.
Keep the faith, America. Together, we have it within ourselves to make our country better and stronger. Honoring those in the press who have earned our trust—and who make us a more resilient nation—is imperative. Turns out that “the very best of hands,” are those in our free press, democratic government and nation who are willing and able to check their ego’s and party affiliations at the door, roll up their sleeves, speak and act with integrity, work out our differences and build a better America together.