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Great journalists must be fearless in face of threats

Dec 05, 2023

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Journalists face many different pressures in their work, ranging from everyday biases to death threats and targeted assassination. These pressures come from actors at all levels, from readers and news company bosses to global corporations and federal governments. Many of these pressures use fear to intimidate the journalist into covering a specific story through a certain lens — or not covering a story at all.

Straight Arrow News contributor Ruben Navarrette reflects on the 35th anniversary of his long career in journalism and has one key lesson to give to his junior colleagues in the field: Great journalism, like great journalists themselves, must be fearless and unafraid.

Happy anniversary to me. Next month I’ll celebrate my 35th year in journalism. And this much I know for sure: There are several characteristics that make for a good journalist, and at least one that makes for a bad journalist. If you’re tenacious, curious, thoughtful, fair, independent and precise, you might have the stuff to one day become a good journalist.

But if you’re afraid, if you scare too easily, well, you’re going to be a bad one. You see, fear is incompatible with journalism. The two are like oil and water. You can’t tell good stories if you’re too afraid to go out and find them no matter where they are. You can’t give voice to the voiceless or challenge the powerful if you’re afraid that doing so will make you unpopular. You can’t, if you want to live up to the journalist creed of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, you can’t do that if you’re afraid of the consequences. You can’t turn up the heat on the powers that be if you’re afraid that making your bosses uncomfortable might make you unemployed.

Happy anniversary to me. Next month I’ll celebrate my 35th year in journalism. And this much I know for sure, there are several characteristics that make for a good journalist, and at least one that makes for a bad journalist. If you’re tenacious, curious, thoughtful, fair, independent and precise, you might have the stuff to one day become a good journalist.

 

But if you’re afraid, if you scare too easily, well, you’re going to be a bad one. You see, fear is incompatible with journalism. The two are like oil and water. You can’t tell good stories if you’re too afraid to go out and find them no matter where they are. You can’t give voice to the voiceless or challenge the powerful if you’re afraid that doing so will make you unpopular. You can’t, if you want to live up to the journalist creed of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, you can’t do that if you’re afraid of the consequences. You can’t turn up the heat on the powers that be if you’re afraid that making your bosses uncomfortable might make you unemployed.

 

And, as I have been reminded recently by Israel’s defensive war against Hamas, you can’t report on or write about a controversial topic if you’re afraid that digging into it might anger the wrong people and jeopardize your career. Every week, it seems I deal with editors who are terrified of appearing to be seen as pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. The goal seems to be to get through the entire day without making anyone angry. I don’t have many days like that.

 

After 35 years of navigating this minefield, I consider myself bulletproof in the fear department. There are two ways to get there in this business. You can have $10 million in the bank so you don’t need your job and a newspaper or radio station magazine or TV network to pay the bills. Or you could have, as is true in my case, already been fired, canceled or laid off 15 times. That way, you’re not worried about losing your job, because you know there’s always another job, often a better one, around the corner. Sometimes the fear that grabs hold of a journalist isn’t about losing a job. Sometimes it’s fear of bodily harm or even death. When an ex-president who wants to be the future president does something so reckless as to label journalists “the enemy of the people,” well, you can’t be too careful. At anytime, a wing nut can fly off the MAGA machine.

 

There’s also the fear that some journalists have of saying or writing the wrong thing and making a bad situation worse. On September 11, 2001, I was working on the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News when terrorists toppled the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon. Five or six writers and editors spent that day, the whole day, adding our two cents to what would be the lead editorial on the morning after, September 12. The old joke, popular in newsrooms, is that a camel is a horse that was built by committee. Boy, did they ever get that one right. We wrote and rewrote the 500 words of that editorial until we squeezed every drop of life out of them. We were afraid of coming across as brutish or hawkish, keenly aware that the then-President George W. Bush was from Texas. We were, as the most important newspaper in the state of Texas, so afraid to come across like warmongers, that we wound up saying nothing at all. The only thing I remember about that editorial is that it was profoundly unmemorable. That’s what fear does to journalism, it washes it out. By contrast, the next day, the lead editorial from my other employer, the Washington Post, had a clear and direct one word title: War. At the time, as I read it, I remember thinking: “That’s perfect and fearless.”

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