Let me tell you a story about the truth, something that is so difficult to get out of some government officials, and especially in some media today. This was my first major lesson in the truth and sacrifice of doing what’s right.
My main journalism professor, Lucien Salvant, walked into the newsroom of The Digest, the student newspaper at Southern University in Baton Rouge. We had come up with a really big story that wasn’t going to be flattering to the school’s administration.
Salvant had looked closely at the story, as he always did for our major front-page stories. His goal was to look at structure, point out obvious errors and ask questions about how well we knew what we were writing about. Basically, did we have facts, not opinion, to back up our story?
He was the same newspaper writing instructor who would praise your story in front of the class, then in the same breath, say “You have an F” because you misspelled someone’s name, had the incorrect age or address.
His point was to get even the smallest pieces of information correct.
On this particular evening, things were different. This story accused the university’s administration of diverting student government funds to something the administrators wanted to do. It wasn’t illegal, but it was going to make them look bad.
Salvant, or “Lou” as he was OK with from us, looked at the writer and the rest of the editorial staff because there were a couple of things that would probably happen when this story hit the streets. If the story was correct (and it was), there would probably be swift retribution against the newspaper staff and perhaps Salvant. If we were wrong, the same thing would happen, only quicker, and it would be justified.
Salvant looked at us and said if we could prove everything in the story and if we had documents to prove it, “go with it” and he went back to his office. The story was read over several times that night and later the next day at the printer’s office.
Within days after publication, the student newspaper lost its school funding and we were summoned to the president’s office. But without the school funding, we continued to publish because we had an off-campus bank account funded by advertising revenue. The administration tried to take that, too, but eventually that didn’t happen. And soon the school’s funding for the paper returned.
But the administration did not renew Salvant’s contract, which we figured he knew was coming. Through him, we learned something important. The truth meant something to him and he wanted us young, would-be journalists to believe the truth mattered, not some of the time, but all of the time.
It hurt us dearly that our favorite professor lost his job for being an advocate of the truth. But we admired him and we felt good about ourselves. He made us better as journalists, but more so, as people.
Boy, a lot has changed since then. The truth is now something abhorred by some media groups. Red is not red. Green is not green. Your eyes are lying to you. Those things with wings, flying around in the sky are not birds you are looking at. When I told you and others yesterday that I will fund that program, well I never said that. I am telling the truth today that I am not funding the program and that you and others did not hear what you heard.
To say otherwise, that person says today, would be “fake news.”
It is so heartbreaking now to see politicians and certain media outlets and reporters enthusiastically support lies, repeat them, color the truth and deny that water is most times wet.
Listening and watching what passes for news and newspeople now is so disheartening. Lies are acceptable. And, for many in the public, it’s as if lies are OK as long as the liar has on the listener’s team colors.
My professor, Salvant, has gone to better things in his life. Most of us he taught have gone into media, education, law and other professions. But there is something we share and we are proud of: The truth is valuable and worth the risk to maintain.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at email@example.com.