David Frost’s death this past Saturday brings to mind an image of him sitting across from Richard Nixon, questioning him about his presidency, including the scandal leading up to his resignation.
“Well,” Nixon famously said as Frost kept pushing him to answer questions about the Watergate scandal, “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
This is, above all else, Frost’s legacy: his search for the truth, the drive that is and should be at the heart of journalism.
What is the point of an interview, or of reporting the news, for that matter?
In a society like ours in the U.S., democratic systems are key. For people to be able to make informed decisions when voting or with other democratic procedures, they need to have an idea of current events to understand what is going on around them and how they should react.
This is where the news comes into play. This is basic information. It makes sense. Television broadcasts and newspaper or magazine articles help to inform the public about both domestic and international events. Technological developments, like the Internet and social media, have only made it easier to spread information.
News is the search for the truth and the reporting of that truth to constituents.
A journalist may be hard pressed, though, to report the truth like Frost tried to do.
Networks and newspapers, radio stations and broadcasts — all of them depend upon the goodwill of donors and the favor of advertisers to function. If a reporter or news organization offends those who fund it, then the news organization may cease to exist.
It’s also easy to offend a politician or interviewee. If a politician gets a harsh treatment with one news agency, then they may simply freeze them out, leaving them without anyone significant enough to interview and gain ratings.
Ratings also play a factor in advertisements, as networks and other news organization must keep high enough ratings for advertisers to feel that their advertisements will reach a large audience. This means that journalists and news organizations will cater to ratings, almost to the point of absurdity.
But this doesn’t mean that journalism should come to mongering over the next sensational yet irrelevant story while ignoring other stories that ought to be pursued. Even years after the Watergate scandal, Frost believed that the public had a right to know what the former president had been thinking.
Realistically, not all journalism can be fearless.
Journalism and journalists are bound by the obligations of a network to make money and stay in business.
Even Frost and Nixon themselves made money off the original “Frost/Nixon” interviews, and a later movie and play were based on the interviews. The business is first and foremost a business.
Journalism should be about the search for truth and real news, but sometimes a journalist has to get his hands dirty to get the job done.
In the meantime, Frost serves as an example of a journalist who managed to report the news and leave a lasting legacy on journalism and the world.
Reach the columnist at email@example.com or follow her at @jentrylanza