A nose for news
Reprinted from the Daily Freeman of Kingston
By Bonnie Langston
John Darnton served The New York Times for nearly four decades, winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way, and now he is sharing his expertise and experience with students at SUNY New Paltz as the school's fifth James H. Ottaway Sr. Professor of Journalism.
Since the end of August, Darnton has been teaching a class titled "The News Media Under Siege," and despite what could be considered an unwelcome course schedule - 8:30 a.m. Monday mornings for nearly three hours - he said students in the class of 15 not only show up, they are enthusiastic.
"They jump in. They like to talk. They like to speculate and they like to reach conclusions," Darnton said after a Monday class. "I'm impressed about how many of them follow newspapers."
Darnton, who started at the Times as a copy boy in 1966 and retired a short time ago as the paper's culture editor, said it is his job to "bring in a whiff of the real world" to students.
They seem ready to breathe it in. Among their main interests is journalistic ethics, a topic at the forefront of the news lately. Darnton said students often discuss Times reporter Judith Miller, who refused to testify before a grand jury in a case about a CIA leak. She spent 85 days in jail because she would not reveal her source, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Libby later was indicted.
"I think it's a sad case, because it's become very confusing," Darnton said. "As they say about Northern Ireland, 'If you understand it, it hasn't been explained to you properly.'"
Darnton said if Miller eventually takes the stand - which she did after Libby released her from her promise to protect his identity - the outcome could prove problematic for the media.
"I believe strongly in protecting the confidentiality of your sources," Darnton said. "We certainly would not have had Watergate without that. I believe strongly in the principal Judith was upholding by going to jail."
Darnton was incarcerated himself during his career. It happened after his first foreign assignment, when he was based in Nigeria. After 13 months, he was held and then deported for writing articles that displeased the military government.
Later he covered a civil war in Rhodesia; anti-apartheid riots in South Africa; wars and guerrilla movements in Ethiopia, the Congo and Somalia; and the fall of Idi Amin in Uganda. His work in Africa won him the George Polk Award, given annually for courageous reporting. He won the Polk award again as well as a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for dispatches he smuggled out of communist Poland.
Darnton received a three-year assignment to Poland in 1979, moving to the country with his wife, Nina, and their two daughters. It was a time of economic hardship. Darnton recalled a grocery store that had only bottles of vinegar on its shelves. People rebelled. There were fiery speeches.
"The whole country was like a university coffee house - endless talking," Darnton said.
Then came government reprisals.
"Bang. Martial law came down," Darnton said, pumping his fist, "sort of like the coming down of a cell door."
Telex communications were cut, gas rationed, curfews enforced, roads blocked. Darnton said no more than three people could meet except in church.
"Everything was under control," he said, including the media, which was run by the state. The need for truthful reporting was "huge".
"It can be a hunger if it's denied," Darnton said. "It can be very alienating when people are fed a pack of lies."
Trust, he said, is essential.
In the United States, reporters enjoyed the public's trust in the mid-1960s, when Darnton became a copy boy. "News reporters were still the good guy," he said, kind of "everyday Joes."
That regard has changed. Today reporters are more likely seen as villains, he said, part of the establishment, a pack of wolves who will trick interviewees to get what they want in order to move ahead in their careers.
Darnton faults television for some of that perception, a perception at least partially gleaned from the stereotypical news personality thrusting a microphone in the face of someone whose loved one was murdered minutes earlier.
An element of news people, he said, sit back and pass judgment, something that makes viewers think reporters are part of the wealthy power structure.
"In reality, reporters are not usually a highly paid group of people," Darnton said. "Even at The New York Times, salaries are not comparable to doctors, lawyers or people in comparable professions."
The media is under siege in other ways as well, Darnton said. More and more newspapers are owned by conglomerates. And several major television stations have been purchased by entities that do not have journalism as a core.
Then there are computer journals or newsletters called blogs, short for Web logs.
"In the course, I don't include blogs as news media," because blogs are mostly commentary, Darnton said. "That raises the question of 'How believable is the information?' Some bloggers will openly admit the information is not totally reliable."
That's not saying that newspaper stories are always reliable either. Some journalists have tarnished the image of both their profession and their newspapers. They include Jayson Blair, who resigned from the Times in the spring of 2003 after fabricating material for stories and plagiarizing quotes; Janet Cooke, a former reporter at the Washington Post who had to return her Pulitzer Prize in 1981 after making up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict; and Stephen Glass, fired in the spring of 1998 from the New Republic for making up quotes, stories and supporting material.
Darnton said he and his class discuss those issues and much more. He hopes he doesn't discourage students in the process, but he wants them to be aware. He hopes, too, that someday reporters will once again receive the respect he said they are due.
Despite the problems, including occasional abuses that occur in journalism, Darnton said he considers the profession to be noble and a great public service.
"News is the oxygen of democracy," Darnton said