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Walter Cronkite would be disappointed with today’s journalism


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In the past 64 years, I’ve lost a lot more than my hair, eyesight and control of my waistline. I’ve lost a lot of respect for the job that’s consumed the last 48 years of my professional working life.

Journalism used to be an important, proud and honest profession. We worked hard to earn your respect with honest and fair reporting, and we worked even harder to sustain that connection with our contacts and our readers.

Those of us who were fortunate to watch Walter Cronkite every night on the CBS Evening News saw true journalism. Although Cronkite admitted to embracing many progressive and left-leaning ideas, you never knew it in his reporting. He was fair and balanced long before it became a catchphrase.

I still remember Cronkite on Nov. 22, 1963, when CBS broke into As the World Turns to tell the world three shots were fired at President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade and that the president had been seriously wounded.

An hour later, Cronkite went on the air live. He put his glasses on and said, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.” Then he took his glasses off and stared directly into the camera. He no longer was a reporter. He was our friend at a desperate time. Then he choked back tears after peering at the clock.

During his 19 years as the anchorman for CBS News, he often was cited as “the most trusted man in America” by several opinion polls. Can we say the same for today’s media?

It’s alarming the majority of our country now get their information through social media and shows with obvious agendas. Actually, it’s more than alarming. It’s frightening.

To post a story online all you need are fingers and a reckless disregard for the process. You don’t need a sense of honesty. You don’t need to check facts. In fact, you can make it up.

I refuse to believe true journalism is dead. At least in our little corner, Clay Today always will be vigilant to finding the facts, no matter how many questions we have to ask. Being first isn’t as important as being correct.

Last week’s Clay County Sheriff’s Office deadly shooting of a man in Orange Park was difficult for everyone. A man is dead. Deputies are working through the trauma of using deadly force. Witnesses have to relive the sounds of gunshots.

A little more journalist integrity also died that night.

First, a woman drove to the scene and accused a deputy of killing the man without cause. Then she started streaming online, telling viewers CCSO didn’t give the man “a chance.”

The problem with her “reporting” was she wasn’t there. At least three witnesses saw her arrive at the scene several minutes after the shooting. One of the witnesses interrupted her online rant by telling her he saw what happened and she wasn’t providing true details.

“She was definitely spinning a narrative,” the witness said.

Good for the witness. As long as there’s a sense of fair play among the readers and viewers, my profession needs to keep working to clean up our act.

A day later, Sheriff Michelle Cook appeared at Quigley House headquarters ahead of sexual abuse awareness month. Reporters were told before the event the sheriff couldn’t talk about the shooting because it was being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

After the speeches, a reporter still asked about the shooting. And when Cook didn’t answer, the outlet reported she refused to talk about one of her deputies killing a man.

That was unfair. And it certainly wasn’t journalism.

Cook immediately responded on her personal social media pages, saying:

“I’m at that event and I’ve got victims’ advocates and team members and victims with me, and we’re talking about it and I have a local reporter asked me to comment on the shooting last night and I said, ‘You know, we’re here to talk about sexual assault awareness month, and I’m not here to talk about an deputy-involved shooting.’ So, the news station goes online and says the Clay County Sheriff refused to answer questions of after deputies shot and killed somebody Wednesday.

“I want to make it very clear to you the community I didn’t refuse to do anything. What, you know, what I did, I refuse to talk about it more for number of reasons. No. 1, I’m there to talk about the sexual assault awareness month. And that is such an important topic and we’re not going to take away from that topic. No. 2, I gave a news media briefing last night and gave out all the information that we had all the information that I could release and at this point it is up to the Florida Department of law enforcement to put out the information they have the investigation. I think I would be remiss if I started weighing in on their investigation. Listen, my commitment is for us to be transparent, to be accountable.”

I’m going to let everyone know a little secret. Accredited journalists aren’t entitled to information that’s not readily available to the general public. The advantage we have is we know who to ask and where to find it – all while building a respectable relationship to expedite the process.

But make no mistake, our need to know isn’t more important than the need to follow protocol and facts. The dead man’s family, CCSO deputies and our community deserve no less.

As a tribute to Walter Cronkite, we end this by saying, "And that's the way it is ..."