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Giving thanks for, yes, journalism

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

To which Shelly shot back: "What the hell are we, Pravda?"

It's a question I hope we ask every day. Journalism shouldn't wait for some powerful "they" to settle things.

The best lesson Shelly ever taught me came when I shared information with him about alleged corruption by a politician. I knew another newspaper had it, too, but I wasn't sure it all checked out.

Shelly said something more editors should be willing to say in this age of instant publication online: "Sometimes, it's better to be second."

He was not trying to quell my competitive instincts. He very much wanted us to be first when we were right. But above all, he didn't want us to be wrong, especially when someone's reputation was at stake.

The competing paper published the charges first -- and they turned out to be false.

Shelly had a delightful way of signaling that a seemingly harebrained idea came from above. "This is high church," he would say. He was telling us that we had to deal with the idea somehow, but that he'd back us up if we reached conclusions the top brass had not expected. And he always did.

 

It might surprise regular readers that one of my very favorite editors was rather conservative in his politics as he became disillusioned with what he saw as liberalism's failures.

But his personal politics never shaped his view of what constituted a valuable story. The writer Charles Kaiser, also a Shelly fan, noted that he "was so utterly straight that his judgment was never clouded by ideology" or, more miraculously, by "internal politics."

This is what day-to-day reporting strives for, and I give thanks that I encountered someone early on who truly took this mission to heart.

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E.J. Dionne's email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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