By Marcus Robertson
In some ways, the news is the same today as it’s always been: full of people looking to make a difference in their communities.
“We have a simple mission,” Chicago news legend Steve Sanders told me. “Tell the damn truth.”
Sanders, the longtime anchor for WGN, has had a long, impactful career in journalism that many could only hope for. And although we’re from different eras, Sanders shows how across time, journalists are cut from much of the same cloth.
He got into the field after being “entranced” by ABC’s coverage of Watergate in 1972. He felt a moral call, and what he saw on TV inspired him. Here was an American president – a wartime one, at that – whose corruption was being uncovered and aired every night in prime time. Journalists were to thank for that, and Sanders wanted in.
I can’t help but think about the parallels between Sanders’s journalistic upbringing and mine. We were both drawn by a sense of civic duty, and we were both inspired by seismic political stories (mine was the story of Russian ties to the 2016 election of Donald Trump). Then there’s the “Southern thing”: Sanders and I are a couple of college dropouts from Alabama, albeit separated by a few years.
As a young man, Sanders saw the evolution of George Wallace from a fairly progressive lawyer and judge into a staunch segregationist when his first run for governor floundered against a race-baiting opponent. Similarly, I watched as Trump morphed from a self-professed New York democrat into an anti-immigration conservative populist.
“I’m afraid he was a proof of concept,” Sanders said of Trump’s ambition-fueled political shapeshifting. I don’t disagree, but I think Wallace deserves some of the credit: not only did he adopt a racist ideology in order to win power, he also later pulled a complete reversal when it became apparent he wouldn’t win otherwise. It worked.
Despite all the ways the news is the same is ever, the obvious fact is that the industry has changed enormously in the last two or three decades.
“For this new generation, the news is harder than it was in my day,” Sanders said. “There are fewer resources for a lot of news organizations, and fewer staff members. So you end up having to work harder to reach fewer people than I did.”
I have no doubt he’s right. I expect my writing career to be hard, and my job prospects to be uncertain at times. But according to Sanders, I have a leg up on my peers; a “geographic advantage,” as he put it.
“As Alabamans, we’re natural storytellers,” he said. “We grew up telling stories on the front porch, always competing to see who could tell the best one.”
Sanders retired as arguably the reigning champion of the front porch, the South’s finest storyteller.
I bet the crown is just my size.