Resolutions for journalists and everyone else

By Jack El-Hai | May 9, 2020 |

In 1955, TV newsman Chet Huntley was worried about the state of journalism. He decided to try to change his own behavior. We can adapt his resolutions to change ours.

Normally, I would hold this post until next December or January, when people have New Year’s resolutions in mind. But I’m impatient, and I won’t wait that long.

Chet Huntley (1911-1974)

Chet Huntley was a nationally-known American television reporter and media personality in 1955. He watched many of his colleagues veering off course from journalism to opinionated commentary. Now, decades later, I see that trend repeating in our news media. Once-trusted reporters and deliverers of the news are giving us their opinions, without separating those views from the news. 

Not only that, decision-makers and ordinary people of all kinds appear unskilled at separating opinion from fact.

It seems a good time to make note of the New Year’s resolutions Huntley made for himself to follow in 1955, as he expressed them in a radio broadcast on January 3 of that year. Some highlights:

  • “To show some improvement this year in learning how to depreciate my own opinions.
  • “To stop and think at least thirty minutes before offering one of my own opinions in a broadcast.
  • “That if my own opinion must be used, to label it as just opinion with the biggest verbal sign or billboard I know how to make.
  • “To remember, at least once a week, for the next fifty-two weeks, that Providence, unfortunately, did not endow me with complete wisdom or infallibility.
  • “To practice faithfully throughout the coming year to learn how to utter those noble and refreshing words, ‘I was wrong,’ just in case that uncomfortable situation should arise.
  • “To narrow down almost to infinity, or to keep at a minimum, the number of your fellow citizens to whom you would deny the privilege of being heard, if you had the power. Rather, to remember that they don’t deserve silencing — just answering.
  • “To remember that ‘success’ in the profession of journalism is, to be sure, measured by your actual and potential rendering of service; but it’s also restrained by the fact that the bigger you are, the bigger and more serious your mistakes.
  • “To live with the annoying proposition that a little insecurity may be good for a journalist.”

Huntley made a few other resolutions that year, but these are the most resonant now. They apply not only to journalists, but also to public servants, business leaders, parents, educators, and relatives. They apply to me and probably to you, too.

The head of the Crazy Horse Monument

What’s Wrong with the Crazy Horse Monument?

Four years ago, I took my family on a road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along the way, we toured the Corn Palace in Mitchell, sipped water and shopped the trinkets at Wall Drug Store, took in the splendor of the Badlands, and camped in the woods on the mountains sacred to…

White Castle restaurant

13 Weeks Eating Nothing But White Castle Hamburgers, in the Name of Science

What happens when you take a healthy young man and feed him nothing but hamburgers and water for three months? It sounds like the genesis of an edgy film — and in fact Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary, followed one man’s 30-day immersion in McDonald’s cuisine — but a real-life version of this experiment took place…

Art Linkletter

Confessions of an Art Linkletter Kid

Art Linkletter died two years ago, but I still sometimes think about the long black limousine that appeared outside my Los Angeles elementary school one morning during the spring of 1967. In stepped five children, including me, on our way to the set of Linkletter’s famous House Party program, where we would become the latest of Art’s kids…

E.G. Marshall

E.G. Marshall’s Invented Past

When the actor E.G. Marshall died in 1998 — remember him in the movies Twelve Angry Men and Interiors, as well as a slew of TV shows, including The Defenders? — the world’s media took note. Newspapers and magazines passed along many tidbits on Marshall’s life: that he was born on June 18, 1910 (Variety), that he was “of Norwegian…

Cherry-Sisters

The Cherry Sisters: good or bad?

Somehow, 100 years ago, five apparently talentless siblings from Marion, Iowa, reigned as America’s most famous female vaudeville team. For many years I have gathered information on the Cherry Sisters — Ellie, Lizzie, Addie, Jessie and Effie — and have found their lives full of puzzling events and psychological enigmas. Why did audiences come to…

President Lincoln's Funeral Car in Alexandria, Virginia

Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Car

For the past fifteen years, I’ve often heard from researchers and TV documentarians who want to know something about the railroad car in which Abraham Lincoln’s body traveled to its final resting place following his assassination in 1865. These people find me because I wrote an article about the car during the 1990s. Apparently too little…

Homer Smith

Crunching History for Television

Last week I had the chance to tell a history story on Almanac, my local public television station’s weekly public affairs and news program. (You can view my segment here.) I accepted the producer’s invitation to appear on the show even though I knew that condensing a complicated history tale is fraught with peril. Thanks to the…