Reporter: Is there anything in your mind the President can do to make this better?
Beto O’Rourke: What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists. I don’t know, members of the press, what the fuck? [Reporter tries to interrupt.] Hold on a second. You know, it’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence; he’s inciting racism and violence in this country…. I don’t know what kind of question that is.
O’Rourke’s scolding of the press is well-deserved. Allow me to translate it into a few rules to report by.
Tell the truth. Speak the word. If you prevaricate, refusing to call what you see racism or what you hear lies, you give license to the public to do the same and give license to the racists and liars to get away with it.
Stop getting other people to say what you should. It’s a journalistic trick as old as pencils: Asking someone else about racism so you don’t have to say it yourself.
It is not your job to ask stupid questions. Like Beto, I’ve had it with the milquetoast journalistic strategy of asking obvious questions to which we know the answer because “that’s our job, we just ask questions.” Arguing that you are asking these questions in loco publico only insults the public we serve.
You are not a tape recorder. Repeating lies and hate without context, correction, or condemnation makes you an accessory to the crimes. That goes for racists’ manifestos as well as racists at press conferences.
Do not accept bad answers. Follow up your questions. Follow up other reporters’ questions. Just because you’ve checked off your question doesn’t mean your work here is done.
Listen. Do not come to the story with blanks ready to fill in the narrative you’ve already imagined and pitched. Listen first. Learn.
Be human. You are are not separate from the community you serve; you are part of it. You are not objective; you have a worldview. You cannot hide that worldview; be transparent.
Be honest. The standard you work under as a journalist — the thing that separates your words from others’ — should be intellectual honesty. That is, report inconvenient truths.
Improve the world. You exist to serve the public conversation, not to incite conflict, not to pit sides against each other, not to make the world worse.
Finally, I’ll add: You’re not the public’s protector. If Beto says “what the fuck?” then I say report his words; spare us your asterisks.
We live in unusual times so usual methods will not suffice. We need new strategies to report on new dangers or we will be complicit in the result.
Moments after I posted this, I saw that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also offered excellent advice for journalists. Unusual times, indeed, when politicians know better how to do journalism than too many journalists. She tweeted:
Racism is the most important story of the day. It has been the most important story of the age in America but it was not the biggest story in news until now. That has happened only because we have an obvious racist in the White House and racists supporting him and now they cannot hide from the recognition and media cannot hide from covering the story. So take this good advice.
And then I saw Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. on Nicolle Wallace’s MSNBC show deliver a vital, forceful, profound, brilliant lesson in racism in America. Please watch again and again.
The morning after, I saw The New York Times violate everything above with this:
Yet later: Please add Julian Castro to the list of politicians offering wise criticism of the press.
And here’s video of my appearance with David Gura on Up on MSNBC about this very post: