I wish I could say I chose to major in journalism in college because I dreamt of being a fearless member of the Fourth Estate.
Growing up, I was an early reader. Of everything. As a 7-year-old, I remember reading the newspaper to my grandparents for their amusement. By the time I was 10, I was reading the newspaper for my amusement. Every week after church, my dad stopped at a convenience store on the way home and bought that day’s big, fat Sunday Nashville Tennessean. I read almost as much of it as he did—the rule was I had to wait until he’d finished a section. He didn’t want me mixing up his paper before he got to read it.
I liked the news. I loved Walter Cronkite. I was a little too young at the time to comprehend Watergate, but I watched Richard Nixon’s resignation speech on live TV.
Truth is—in addition to curiosity—readin’, writin’ and literature came naturally to me. Journalism sort of found me.
As a college student, I got to hear the legendary Helen Thomas talk about covering every U.S. president since Kennedy, twice—the second time because I got student activity fee money approved to bring her to my campus. And as a college member of the student government association, I sat next to John Ehrlichman—yes, Watergate John Ehrlichman—at the SGA’s private reception with Ehrlichman before his talk on campus. I remember his answer to a student’s question about whether he had voted for Ronald Reagan. “I did not,” he said, “because as a convicted felon, I no longer have the right to vote.”
Mass comm law was a required class in J-School. We studied every court case in American history that had threatened or ensured press freedom. Of course, the Pentagon Papers was among them. I hadn’t been old enough at the time the White House tried to order The New York Times not to publish a story to know what was going on, but in my college classroom, even as an academic lecture, it was clearly a huge deal.
I went on to have an 8-year professional journalism career that I loved. What Helen Thomas always said about being a reporter is true—even if I never covered a U.S. president—“You have a ringside seat to history.”
Long before the nightmare scenario that real journalism finds itself in today, competing with social media, the Internet, smart phones and charges of “fake news” leveled at anything disagreeable, I made the difficult decision to leave the field. Not because I didn’t still love it. Because I hoped to find greater opportunities to advance professionally in corporate communication.
In the eight years I spent as a reporter, I got ink in my veins and it’s still there. I know because I felt it on Friday night when I went to see the movie The Post.
It’s the story of the Pentagon Papers and the fight over newspaper publishing of a federal government study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Of the four of us who saw it together, three had worked for some period of years at a newspaper. In fact, that’s how my husband and I met.
My favorite line in the movie was when Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee conveyed to the paper the word of publisher Katharine Graham: “Run it.”
The press won the Supreme Court case, 6-3, and at the scene when a reporter is quoting Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion to her colleagues, “The press is to serve the governed, not the governors,” there was actual applause in the movie theater.
“The press is to serve the governed, not the governors.”
–Justice Hugo Black, New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)
The applause was from people who understand the constitutionally protected right of a free press is to ensure that “the fourth estate” exists to serve as a watchdog on the three branches of government. That’s democracy.
Of course, the same White House that tried to stop newspaper publication of the Pentagon Papers went on to be the White House at the center of the Watergate break in. Which brought down the aforementioned Mr. Ehrlichman.
As fate had it, the next day I got to serve in my free press-supporting role as a member of the board of directors of the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists.
On Saturday, we hosted our annual legislative lunch at which the Knox County delegation hears from area constituents. About 10 legislators took questions from about 100 local citizens for more than an hour.
Topics included the opioid crisis, family farms, university boards, gun carry regulations, environmental regulations, funding for Planned Parenthood, the state’s Better Education Plan, the rising cost of healthcare, and the potential legality of medical marijuana in Tennessee. One legislator noted 1,400 bills were filed during the legislature’s 2017 session.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Catherine Luther, director of the UT School of Journalism and herself a former network news producer, and attended by some of her students.
SPJ members collected registration info and lunch money, facilitated question submissions, and thanked both the legislators and their constituents who also volunteered their time to come out on a cold, snowy Saturday and hear what was on the minds of the other.
The turnout included a group prominently wearing “Planned Parenthood of East Tennessee” T-shirts and a few others wearing “Knox County Tea Party” T-shirts.
And a newspaper columnist.
And a TV news crew.
Everybody was civil and respectful.
That’s democracy. In action.