New York Times columnist and veteran journalist Bob Herbert stressed the importance of journalistic integrity and avoiding the temptation to cover sensationalist stories Wednesday night at the School of Media and Public Affairs.
Herbert – a fellow this year at SMPA – took issue with the presentation of almost every popular topic journalists tackle, including celebrity gossip, political pundits, Twitter and even the weather.
“We treat the death of Michael Jackson as though it were somehow comparable in our coverage to Sept. 11 or the death of a Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., or something like that and that’s just craziness,” Herbert said to an intimate crowd in an SMPA classroom. The lecture was the first in a series Herbert will be doing for SMPA.
“You trivialize a story by sending someone out there to get buffeted by the wind or get rained on,” Herbert said. “It doesn’t make a weather story more compelling to see a reporter getting drenched.”
Herbert also heavily criticized pundits and talking heads for presenting opinion as fact. He called pundits’ messages “wackiness” or “craziness,” and referred to the pundits themselves as “the crazies.”
“You can be an ideologue and be well-informed about your ideological position and not be somebody like Glenn Beck who believes that Barack Obama has a deep-seated hatred of white people… If you’re going to move from the standpoint of no basis in fact and use that as a means of informing the public then I think you’re doing the public a disservice,” Herbert said.
Herbert has been reporting for the New York Times as an op-ed contributor since 1993, and his semi-weekly columns often focus on urban affairs and the struggle of working-class communities.
“I do reporting, I base my opinions on fact, I interview public figures, I interview people who are affected by issues of the day, I name my sources, I quote people directly, that sort of thing, and then I give my take on it, I say, ‘This is what I think,'” he said.
Herbert also expressed disappointment in which topics were thrown to the wayside in favor of a hot story.
“I think that all the journalistic outlets – newspapers, television and everyone else – have really blown the coverage of the Great Recession,” he said, adding that journalists should “show middle-class families who are showing up at food pantries and food banks because people have been out of work and suddenly no longer have money even to buy food.”
A heated question-and-answer session followed the lecture, with several students taking issue with Herbert’s main idea that pundits are crazy.
“The market demands the kinds of content we create,” one student said.
To that remark, Herbert replied, “I don’t think the news should be driven by the market.”