Edited March 4, 2020
Pullen Talks History & Future
“I grew up and joined the profession in ‘The Golden Age of Journalism’ in the late 1970s, where Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired us all,” said author and writer Rick Pullen in his “Journalism Today” presentation in the Fort Myers Beach Public Library’s 3rd Floor Community Room before roughly a dozen people on Tuesday morning, February 25.
Pullen, the author of the “Naked Ambition” and “Naked Truth” books about investigative journalist Beck Rikki, was himself a long-time investigative reporter for several newspapers, motivated by Woodward and Bernstein of “Watergate” fame. He broke numerous corruption stories concerning a Pentagon munitions scam, an Army procurement scandal, and a bank land fraud scheme, among many others, before becoming a freelance writer, then eventually founding “Leader’s Edge,” the nation’s primary insurance brokerage industry monthly magazine.
“I am really proud of my work, especially when it came to exposing sleazy politicians, although this often came at great risk, especially to my sources, so that is why we often use their information ‘on background’ to get the truth, as that is the only real way you can conduct investigative reporting. Remember when it comes to politicians, 99% will say or do anything to remain in power, and that is especially true today, in the era of President Donald Trump. The key to investigative reporting is you don’t do it with a cleaver but a scalpel, and you always have more than one collaborative source, unless you uncover the piece of paper with the damning details.”
Rick recounted, “Often investigative features begin with a telephone call or someone knocks on your door, or you just get the feeling something is not right here, because when you try to get from Point A to Point B, it does not make sense, as the real story lies somewhere between those two! The trick of being a good investigative journalist is it takes time to get people to trust you, so you take them out for a lunch or lunches or a drink or drinks and you talk and talk off the record for hours, until they feel comfortable around you and learn they can trust you, and you eventually win them over and they reveal what they know. This can take a long time to develop this relationship, and that is often the way an investigative reporter digs out a story.”
Daily newspapers are disappearing, Rick explained, “and those that remain often work with staff sizes roughly one-third of what they were ten years ago, so you cannot possibly do as good a job. Niche publications still do well, but those that revolve around general interest features, like “Look” or “Life” Magazines, are pretty much done. I hate to think that the United States soon will end up with just three daily newspapers – The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal – as daily newspapers all across the nation, like those in Chicago and San Francisco, are folding.”
Corporations are a threat to mass media, Rick believes, “as corporations usually own mass media. An excellent case in point is the recent Harvey Weinstein sexual offender story. Because of his influence, NBC and CBS News would not investigate it, but fortunately The New Yorker ran with the story, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times also covered the story and also won the Pulitzer. This is what journalism is supposed to do, and 99% of newspaper writers and editors believe in the search for the truth, but major corporations owning media outlets make this more difficult all the time. An exception right now seems to be The Washington Post, whose owner is Jeff Bezos, as even though he is pumping a ton of money into it, he seems to completely keep his hands off the reporting aspect, as they still are free to run negative features about him.”
Pullen advocated that “the short-term savior of the daily newspaper appears to be, against all odds, President Trump, as since he took office, new subscribers to The Washington Post and New York Times increased by roughly 10,000 people/week. Smaller newspapers, however, continue to struggle to make money; as a result, they drastically reduce staff and that is why local coverage of things like your Town Council are drying up, as dailies and even weeklies like your ‘Island Sand Paper’ do not have enough reporters to cover everything. Another threat is that smaller publications live-&-die on advertising dollars, so they must be careful about who and what they write about; I previously worked for a newspaper where the regional healthcare system was the major advertiser, so the local hospital was the ‘Sacred Cow!’”
Telling Opinions From Facts
“Before the 20th Century, ‘Yellow Journalism’ was everywhere,” stated Rick. “Every political party and group had their own newspaper that printed only their own biased point of view, and this remained true well into the 20th Century. Even before the 1970s, the media usually hid things, like many aspects of John F. Kennedy’s private life. From the mid-1970s, however, for at least the next quarter century, if there was a story, journalists were free to dig it out and get it out, as nothing was sacred as long as we did not have a personal ax to grind, but then the economy collapsed, and now today much of the media slants either to the Left or Right, based not on fact but personal opinion they disguise as fact.”
Pullen cautioned, “Most readers today cannot separate for themselves the news coverage in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times or any other newspaper from its Editorial Page. While 99% of newspaper writers and editors present their stories in an impartial manner, with honest news straight across the board, the general public brands the publication Liberal or Conservative solely on its Editorial Page content.”
“If It Bleeds, It Leads!”
Many people today rely on television for their local and national news, Rick opined. “Local news appeals to sensationalism rather than actual news; there is a saying in local broadcasting, ‘If it bleeds, it leads!’ They tease you first with the weather, then focus on a car crash or robbery, with little national information, and forget about any foreign stories. Sensationalism sells on local TV!”
He called FOX News “the primary culprit and the most corrupt, as all its views are just opinions that cater to the Right; FOX News claims it is unbiased but it is not and don’t be confused by that. MSNBC, while not as bad as FOX, clearly leans Left, while CNN truly covers the middle, as they are mostly unbiased, and that is why most people hate them, especially President Trump, because they do remain so unbiased! If you want to know who the crooks are, FOX will not tell you and MSNBC probably won’t, so buy a quality newspaper that still gives you the real in-depth story and read it, to learn everything you possibly can as accurately as you possibly can. PBS does a great job, so when it comes to national evening broadcasts, watch them, because no one does it better; they have no bias, ask the tough questions and appeal to smart people.”
Many years ago, Rick recalled, “CNN had a show called ‘Firing Line’ with a person representing the Left against a person from the Right, and they would literally argue and scream at each other and ratings went through the roof, and now it seems like every supposed newscast copies that format. Today, however, the problem is that the supposed experts are not experts at all but people espousing their own personal opinions as facts, and many things they preach are simply wrong, but no one screens them for their knowledge or corrects them when they make a mistake, so it is no wonder that today we have a President like Donald Trump who consistently misinforms, yet no one holds him accountable or is even offended anymore. It is tougher all the time to find people in the middle who offer only the truth and facts, so despite feeding these news beasts 24-hours-a-day, the viewers learn nothing true.”
Rick described Rush Limbaugh as the perfect example. “He is not a journalist but an entertainer who deals not in fact but opinion, yet he receives the Medal of Freedom from President Trump. Limbaugh will say anything because he is an entertainer who makes millions of dollars a year saying anything he wants, so I don’t blame him, but to call him a journalist is as untruthful as most of the things he says.”
Your Own Gatekeeper
Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other online sources confuse fact with entertainment as well, related Rick, “so no matter what side you favor, most things you read online are crap, so pick up a copy of your local newspaper instead if you want the truth, as Google and Facebook let you post anything you want, and that is harming our democracy, as they have no gatekeepers to the truth, unlike newspapers. It is tough to be your own gatekeeper and I don’t know how you solve that. People say things will improve when Trump is no longer President, and we will return to the calmer era of a Barack Obama or George W. Bush, but Presidents set the template, so who is to say the next one will not be worse. Impartial journalism used to be the only defense the United States had to protect its freedoms, but now the repeated charges of ‘Fake News’ have changed that, and of that there is no doubt!”
Rick described “the United States as the greatest nation in the history of the world, but despite our high ideals, we are built upon repression, as we discriminated against everybody, including the Blacks, Jews, Italians, Irish, and Polish through today’s ethnic groups. Remember that while Journalism writes the first draft of history, the winner is the person who writes the history – 20 or 30 years or more after the fact – so how President Trump and our current era will go down in history, no one can yet know, so Trump may actually end up fulfilling his repeated claim that he is a greater President than Washington or Lincoln! I feel sorry for kids growing up today, because they will not know the difference between fact and opinion, as they truly believe that whatever they look up on Facebook, Google or Wikipedia is automatically true, as information on those sites may come from the Russians, for all we know!”
The Future of Journalism
“The average newspaper reader today is age 50 and above,” concluded Rick, “and my kids who are in their 30s are no different than anyone else in their generation or younger – they read all of their stuff online. When I tell them to pick up a newspaper, they exclaim, ‘Oh Dad!’ Major newspapers offer online editions at relatively cheap rates, like at $30-a-year versus the printed edition at $700, but the older demographic still prefers the feel of a newspaper in their hands. Those age 40 & under, however, read almost everything online. So what is the future of Journalism – I don’t know, because I cannot imagine the new technology ten years or more into the future.
“No journalist can be completely unbiased, however, because we are all only human; there are bad apples as well, but 99% of newspaper journalists are honest and as unbiased as possible. You can read coverage of the same story in two different newspapers and come away with two different points of view, as the reporters may determine the main aspects are not the same, but with newspapers, you still have as much credibility as possible. In the end, Journalism comes down to the reporter finding the facts, analyzing them, determining what is important and what is hypocritical, and getting that out to the public in as clear a way as possible, and that is hard to do!”