The power of a journalist

The best advice I ever got as a writer came in the fall of 1989. A few weeks earlier, at 22, I had published my first op-ed in a major newspaper — The Los Angeles Times.

The advice had everything to do with the concept of power. And the person giving it was my friend and mentor, the essayist Richard Rodriguez.

I was a senior at Harvard College, and I was talking to Richard on a pay phone (Google it, Millennials).

Because it dealt with student life on campus for Mexican-Americans, the op-ed had ruffled feathers. And, as far as some of my Latino classmates were concerned, it hit a little too close to home. They didn’t hesitate to give me an earful about what they thought I’d gotten wrong. It wasn’t yet winter in Cambridge, but the chill in the air was unmistakable.

My classmates said I should be more careful about what I wrote given that I had so much “power” to shape public opinion because of the forum I’d been given.

On one level, I understood what they were saying. I knew that ideas, clearly communicated and properly conveyed, could influence the actions of others in ways that could help shape history. And, naturally, I was also familiar with the phrase, “the power of the pen.” I knew that the written word could be especially impactful and that it had often been used to hold accountable elected officials, law enforcement personnel, and other authority figures.

Yet, power is a big word. And, at that moment, I didn’t feel so powerful — especially in light of the pummeling I was taking from my friends.

So, I called my consigliere to ask what he thought. Rodriguez did me a huge favor in disabusing me of the notion that I had any power at all. He told me about a popular columnist in Tijuana who had developed quite a following writing about the Mexican drug cartels — right up to the point where they killed him.

“Writers have no power,” Rodriguez said. “They only have the power to offend.”

I never forgot those words. In the nearly 30 years since then, I’ve written and published more than 3 million words of my own. I’ve offended plenty. But, all along the way, I’ve never forgotten my friend’s observation about power.

It has kept my feet on the ground, given me perspective, and preserved my common sense. It has kept me humble, kept me out of the arena, and kept me from becoming the story. It reminds me that one can’t make a living by expressing his opinion — and then turn around and deny others the right to express theirs. It has helped me become a better journalist, and — hopefully — a better person.

Journalism — and the cheap substitute made up of cable news and talk radio — could use better people.

Witness the hijinks of CNN’s Jim Acosta, who recently challenged President Trump over his immigration rhetoric and made himself the story. Or look at how Fox News’ Tucker Carlson makes a habit of belittling and insulting guests with whom he disagrees.

When things go wrong in the world of media, it’s typically because someone thinks he has more power than he actually has or because whatever position he occupies went to his head.

As a journalist, over the years, I’ve learned my limitations. I’ve struck out, backed the wrong horse, and been fooled by frauds. And those lessons have taught me the difference between thinking you have power and actually having it.

Power isn’t about having a forum or standing on a soapbox. It’s about having the ability to impact others, influence behavior, and change outcomes.

You can talk all you want, and write all you want. But if no one is hearing you, following you, or heeding your pleas, then you have no power. Not really.

I have urged readers to reject racist immigration laws, vote against demagogues who exploit anxiety, and support common sense reforms that provide a path to legal status for the undocumented.

In each case, those urgings were ignored. In the tug-of-war between good and evil, or between right or wrong, what is good and right does not always win out.

Fear and racism are big obstacles to overcome.

Still, I have to admit, I have accomplished one thing — over and over again, according to my readers. Sure, I’ve offended people. But, on occasion, I’ve also made people think.

And yes, I suppose you could say there is power in that. But don’t get it confused. It’s not my power. It lies with my audience.

It’s my job to explain a complicated world. And it’s their responsibility to take what I give them, mull it over, decide what needs doing, and act accordingly to make the world a better place.

Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”