Cokie Roberts, the legendary journalist of print, radio and TV, died today of complications from breast cancer. She held tightly to old-school standards of professionalism and personal decency. Politically liberal, and the daughter of two liberal members of Congress, she nonetheless was trusted by conservatives as well as liberals to be fact-based, fair-minded, and thoughtful.
Young journalists should emulate her. Actually, all people, of all trades, should emulate her. She made the public square a better place.
Other news obituaries will note Roberts’ pedigree: Her father, Hale Boggs of Louisiana, was U.S. House Majority Leader when his small plane disappeared in the Alaskan mountains in 1972. Her mother, Lindy, succeeded her late husband in the House until 1990, and later became ambassador to the Vatican. Some will hint, as much as “straight news” can, that Lindy Boggs was the very definition of graciousness personified, often accomplishing more in Congress with a smile and a whisper than almost any of her colleagues could do by twisting every arm in sight.
By all accounts, Cokie Roberts inherited her mother’s natural charm and kindness. Those attributes did not disable her from asking the hard questions a journalist must ask, but they made it clear to all that she was doing so without malice or hidden agenda. Through it all, even when delivering liberal-leaning commentary (which she carefully labeled as such, rather than mislabeling it straight news), Roberts insisted that truth and accuracy, not a partisan or ideological agenda, was her animating motivation.
For decades she and her husband Steven, an accomplished newsman in his own right, co-wrote a regular political column, rather centrist in viewpoint. The very last one, published earlier this month, captured Roberts’ concern for keeping civic life civil.
“Political tribalism keeps getting worse,” they lamented in their lead sentence. “The demand for unthinking and uncompromising loyalty keeps getting louder. Individuals or institutions that try to maintain a sense of fairness and balance, that don’t want to choose sides in our Uncivil War, are branded as weak-kneed, fainthearted heretics.”
Later in the column, they condemned, on all sides, “an instinct for intolerance: a deep disdain for anyone who strays from the party line, a demand for purity combined with a towering self-righteousness. [Some say] you have to be on Red Team or the Blue Team, a Loyalist or a Resister. Both sides fundamentally misunderstand the role of impartial and independent journalists. We belong to no tribe, root for no team.”
Finally, specifically admonishing modern media mavens who act otherwise, they made a plea for old-time journalistic values. “No news organization is perfect but at their best, they don’t work for the right or the left — for Trump or his rivals, for the Reds or the Blues. They are not Loyalists or Resisters. They are simply journalists — fact-finders, truth tellers — and more valuable than ever.”
What kept these words from being mere platitudes was that Cokie Roberts lived them. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, she was notably even-handed, asking tough questions of the Clinton side even as some of her fellow journalists, ones without her Democratic pedigree, rallied in Clintonian defense as if they were partisans. But she held Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich’s impeachment managers to account as well, providing a balance to coverage that was otherwise missing.
Somehow, meanwhile, she almost always kept her smile.
It would be nice if, in today’s fierce political atmosphere, we could keep the same equanimity that was Cokie Roberts’ trademark. If we did, it would be a fitting legacy of this warm and consummate professional.
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