During my time in high school and college, cheap cotton shirts sporting witty or funny phrases defined my fashion. They were must-haves more than the jeans or running shoes paired with them. I loved seeing people pass and smile, or laugh, or look at me quizzically if they missed the joke. They also were great icebreakers for someone often too shy to just say hi.
A few shirts ensured an opening. The one with “I’m the one your mother warned you about” made girls giggle, which eased me past “Hi” within that group. Another that said, “Detroit: Where the weak are killed and eaten” so tickled a Motor City native at a buffet in Florida that food shot out his nose.
But my favorite shirt, because my understanding friends liked it so much, said in white Courier lettering, “I’m in journalism for the money.”
The shirt is long gone, but a recent question-and-answer article in the trade publication Columbia Journalism Review recalled it. In the article, business news reporter John Carney discussed his rationale for moving from The Wall Street Journal, a publication that steers from a defined political agenda, to Breitbart.com, which drives headlong into one.
Breitbart’s tilt is so pronounced if it were the Leaning Tower of Pisa it would have toppled by now. Founder Andrew Breitbart built the site around his libertarian views then pushed a more populist message in the years before his death. Today, Breitbart.com is better known as an alt-right megaphone that spent the 2016 presidential campaign delivering a high-volume screech for Donald Trump.
Carney said he embraced Breitbart.com because it lacked a business news division and he was asked to help create one, and because the site appears well-positioned poised to cultivate Trump’s economic message.
“Very few people really got the rise of Trump as right as (Breitbart) did and I think they deserve a lot of credit for being ahead of the curve on that,” Carney told CJR. “We’re going to use that as our model. Perhaps a lot of the reason some of us in mainstream media have been behind the curve is because we bought into too many of the orthodoxies.”
Which is what reminded me of the old journalism shirt. By orthodoxies, Carney means balance: the attempt by news media to hold government and institutions accountable and present facts without political tarnish – a historically hard job given that journalists must also exert personal accountability to do it well.
The problem is that accountability is not naturally sexy, even back when I was wearing that shirt. My friends and colleagues in journalism school and later through a 30-year newspaper career were called to accountability, not doomed to it. They enjoyed the endorphin rush from pursuing truth for the sake of public service and civic justice. They laughed at my shirt because low pay seemed to be a canon in the journalist’s professional code. Those who balked at small salaries lacked commitment, college debts be damned.
For example: In my senior year, the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid sent recruitment letters to prospective graduates working at the campus newspaper. The two-paragraph statement hinted at a starting salary of $50,000, more than twice what was typical at the time. Given the Enquirer’s reputation, my friends laughed at that harder than at my shirt. But two in our crew who quietly inquired and were rejected distanced themselves from us without our prejudice. They appreciated the code but preferred not to buy into it. Soon after they distanced themselves from journalism as well.
Today, the media marketplace spans the width and breadth of the Internet and has no admission requirement or ethical constraints. Journalism degrees no longer announce a commitment to the craft but the ability to write complete sentences. Average salaries are lower now because many news and alt-news outlets believe compensation is measured in clicks and likes and retweets and shares – much more valuable to anyone who prefers brand-building to public service. Breitbart.com saw its readership soar after hitching to Trump’s bandwagon and now draws more unique readers than even Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Fox News.
Another boon to the media marketplace for people like Carney: the rise of relative truth. Once upon a time, truth was buttressed by supporting facts and diametric to falsity. Now, we are encouraged to believe that truth comes in multiple flavors like ice cream, and we are allowed to choose the one that suits our tastes.
Breitbart.com has “a very single-minded dedication to not being respectable, but as I look at it, to just tell the truth as they see it. And that’s what I want to do,” Carney said. “I find that spirit of willingness to be the dissenting truth-tellers very attractive.”
The truth as they see it. We already have a word for that in the dictionary: opinion.
Truth is never easy to obtain because it is like gold; you have to mine for it. Those who fit the unexpurgated definition of a journalist still feel the same call to service I did when I was in the profession and possess an innate duty to hold others accountable for the sake of our republic. Indeed, theirs is a vastly different playing field dotted with obstacles unimagined when I was in the game, but they suit up daily with eagerness and vigor.
When I tell them about the shirt, they laugh, they get the joke. They wish they had one. If I made a new one substituting the word “clicks” for “money,” they would laugh at that, too.
Carney? Probably all I would get from him is a quizzical look – if not his middle finger.