Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 21, 2014

The promises that news reporters make are a covenant with readers

— — Since I don’t routinely watch NBC’s “Meet the Press,” I can’t comment on the quality of the show or the abilities of the host David Gregory. I did, however, catch the controversy that arose when Adrianne Haslet-Davis refused to participate in a discussion about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing if the names of the bombers were going to be used in the show.

Ms. Haslet-Davis thinks of herself as a survivor, not a victim. I respect that. Apparently, someone associated with the show promised her that the names of the bombers would not be mentioned. Apparently, the person who made that promise couldn’t deliver, and when others on the show withdrew the promise, Ms. Haslet-Davis walked away — which is absolutely her right.

Running a marathon is a huge accomplishment. My daughter Coleen ran her first marathon — the Knoxville Marathon — a couple of weeks ago. I knew she put a lot of training into it, but the before and after pictures her husband Oscar posted on Facebook after the race told me exactly how much it took out of her. I am proud of her accomplishment, but as a parent, I couldn’t help being concerned about how much of her soul she invested in that 26.2 mile run.

But this column isn’t about marathons, bombings or any one person’s right to say no to a news person regardless of how pushy or persuasive we can be. No, this is about the role of a free press in a free country that is an extremely important component in preserving the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America — the amendment that guarantees each person’s right to free speech.

The press has been taking a shellacking over the “Meet the Press” issue, but there’s no way a free press can make any guarantees about what is said during an unscripted news show. Somebody along the line should have said that before Ms. Haslet-Davis took the trouble to jump through all of the hoops she had to jump through to get to the studio where the taping was going to take place. It wasn’t breaking news. If the studio wasn’t willing to doctor up the comments post-taping, they needed to communicate that earlier in the process.

I missed out on my one chance to be part of motion picture magic when I couldn’t make a similar promise. Ron Howard, through a personal assistant, had graciously invited me to travel to Newark, N.J., to be present at the make-believe Nobel prize awards presentation that came near the end of filming the motion picture, “A Beautiful Mind.” Early in the process, I had shared video of Dr. John Forbes Nash Jr., as well as other materials that the assistant said Mr. Howard thought were helpful. The assistant also invited Dr. Nash’s sister, Martha Legg, and her husband, Charles ,as well as other members of the Nash family.

Martha and Charles decided not to go, and Evonda and I had long before scheduled a vacation that same week. I know Evonda wouldn’t like spending a day in Newark, or spending a day at the beach alone. She would, however, have been able to deal with a change in our vacation dates if I would have asked her to. Still, I was sitting on the fence about blowing off a chance to enjoy a summer solstice on Assateague Island with my wife. “Happy solstice.”

The clincher came when Mr. Howard’s assistant told me I couldn’t report on anything until the movie was released. I think I know what she was meaning, but I don’t think she understood why I couldn’t make that promise. As a news man, if something would have happened that wasn’t associated with the movie, but had some bearing on the news, I would likely report on it. All I could think of is what a reporter would have reported on if he would have been present at the movie scene that went terribly wrong on July 23, 1982, and actor Vic Morrow was killed during the filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”

As a reporter, I can’t turn it on and off because someone asks me to. As a human being, I can make subjective choices, but I can’t make a promise to look the other way if my accurate reporting will make a positive difference in the world. I also know that all news isn’t good news for some people. As reporters, we don’t take an oath to defend the First Amendment at all cost. But to do this work for as long as I’ve done it requires a covenant of trust with the public that easily transcends any promise of personal ego aggrandizement.

I don’t consider myself as a guardian of the one true path to the appropriate comportment for journalists. I know that I’m a flawed human being, but I’ve learned to accept that about me. When it’s over for me and I retire from being a newsman, I’ll be a good fix-it man around the house and writer of books. But until that time comes, I won’t make any deals about how or what I’ll report as a working newsman. I can’t do it and still keep the other promise I have made to the readers. They’re the ones who keep me doing what I do.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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