I was reminded of this very sternly by a grizzled, temperamental, fire-breathing, atherosclerotic and not infrequently soused managing editor of a daily newspaper for which I still harbor a fondness even if she is but a shadow of what she once was.
"If you think you're so damn special, you aren't. If you think you're important because you get to waltz into police stations and show up at bloody car crashes and get to carry press card, then get over it or else don't work here."
This was the standard dressing down he gave to all new, young, self-important reporters who forgot that they were getting far less for their work than were most janitors, burger-flippers and convenience store managers. We never connected the fundamental law of supply (young, stupid reporters were a dime a dozen) and demand (there wasn't a whole lot of call for reporters) to our inflated sense of self-esteem. In other words, if we'd thought about the fact that we got to be journalists and still get paid only $90 or $100 a week (in 1976 dollars), we'd have had a whole lot less self-esteem. But, fortunately for newly minted journalists, we never took an econ course in college (nor did we ever take a math course, a foreign language or even the simplest of biology, chemistry or physics classes -- but we could surely by-doggies act like we had -- and we surely could write the hell out of a good tale on a topic about which 15 minutes ago we knew nothing). But I digress.
"Let me tell you the truth, boy," the old ME said as he took a nip from the little bourbon bottle he had stashed in his desk. Newspapers used to have a lot of old-fart characters like this. Where did they all go? "You are no better than the people you're writing for. You don't have any more rights than they do. Your freedom of the press is their freedom of the press. You're just their representative. If they wanted to go sit in a courtroom all day and see a trial for themselves, they could. If they wanted to go down to the county courthouse and pull their next-door neighbor's property tax bill, they could. There's just two reasons why they don't. So you know why they don't, don't you?"
"I don't guess so, sir," I said, because I really didn't.
"I'll tell you why: First, because they don't know they can. Second, because if they did know they could and they didn't have to work earn a buck, no courtroom would be big enough to hold them all."
He stretched, lit another cigarette, sighed, and continued: "You see, boy, and don't ever forget: You're the people's representative. You report for them, you find out what they need to know know, and you tell them. You better always respect them and you better always remember that you're no better than any of them or I'll kick your cocky ass out of here real quick."
You can tell that I have never forgotten that lecture. And trust me when I tell you that the scene was a whole lot more colorful than I've painted it.
And my point is?
What he said was true, and there are too many journalists in high places who either never got the talk, or else they forgot it. Like that so-called journalist on TV the other night at the GOP convention who said on an open mike that Republicans don't mind partying "while black people drown" (which authorities feared might happen in Nola because of the current hurricane). He not only was a resentful shill for one group of people, he also hated the group of people he'd been assigned to cover. He, like a lot of other journalists, thought he was better that one group of people while being the sanctimonious protector and defender of another group of people whom he also thought were below him.
Heaven help me if I ever forget that talk. And the old editor? He outlasted me by a mile at that newspaper. I think it was his sixth heart attack that finally killed him.