Paul Prather: I believe in politicians, journalists, teachers

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Recently I addressed the combined Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives in Frankfort. I spoke as part of a program for legislators on ethics in public life. I was invited by the Legislative Ethics Commission, which organizes this annual event.

I've never served in the legislature, mind you. I rarely even covered politics back when I was a full-time newspaper reporter.

Thus, I know virtually nothing about the moral dilemmas lawmakers face.

But hey, I'm a preacher, so I'm used to holding forth on subjects about which I'm utterly ignorant. I've never been intimidated by my lack of knowledge in any arena.

When they asked, I went.

The legislators, God love them, were indulgent and patient with me.

I did say one thing in Frankfort I want to share with you. For some of you it might confirm the abysmal depths of my naiveté, but I meant it, and to my mind it's worth repeating.

I said I felt rather foolish lecturing these folks on ethics, partly because of my meager qualifications, but mainly because I don't assume all our elected officials to be amoral crooks out to engorge themselves at the public trough.

In fact, I assume the great majority of them are decent, honest public servants genuinely trying to do good.

Don't get me wrong. It's wise to have programs that remind those in public office of the possible pitfalls they need to watch out for. But it's also good to recognize that most of these men and women probably don't need such warnings, because they're already scrupulous.

It bothers me that we as a society have allowed ourselves to be talked into a knee-jerk cynicism toward nearly everyone who works in the public eye, not just toward politicians, but also toward journalists, teachers, clergy, you name it.

To some extent, it's always been that way. A century-and-a-half ago, Abraham Lincoln was derided as an incompetent ape. During the Great Depression, Will Rogers earned a fortune making jokes about Congress.

But I swear it seems to be getting worse. And this isn't healthy.

I've spent much of my life in the only profession whose members are more loathed than politicians: journalism.

Even politicians feel morally superior to reporters. Sarah Palin, to cite just one example, has pretty much built a career on ridiculing the "lamestream media."

We all know — don't we? — that newsrooms are stacked to the ceiling tiles with pinko atheists who wake up every morning aquiver with their conspiracy to overthrow truth, justice, God and the American flag.

Here's the thing, though. I worked in a newsroom for years, among 100 or more of those journalists at any given time.

I've also worked for churches, universities and large corporations.

I can tell you this: Journalists were, as a group, the single most ethical bunch I've ever shared office space with.

Most bent over backward to get their facts straight despite tight deadlines and trying conditions, and to allow all parties in a controversy to tell their side of a story. They were themselves a diverse lot: Christians, agnostics, Democrats, Republicans.

The thing they all had in common — or nearly all of them — was they tried to do what was fair by everybody, whether or not they agreed with them. Every day.

Most of the flak they caught was the result, not of dishonesty or bias, but of their courage, their accuracy and their willingness to speak unpopular truths.

Similarly, there's a lot of distrust aimed now toward public schools and schoolteachers. I mean, schoolteachers, for crying out loud.

You'd think every ill in society that can't be blamed on politicians and journalists has be the fault of lazy, uncaring teachers.

I'm married to a teacher. One of the elders in my church is a teacher, as is his wife. I know lots of other teachers. Scads of them.

Are there lazy, uncaring, incompetent teachers out there? Probably. Somewhere.

But the teachers I know rise at 5 a.m. to get to school early so they can spend extra time on their lesson plans, and then they bring home papers to grade at night and spend their weekends hauling kids to academic contests or grading more papers.

They buy classroom supplies out of their own pockets. They sacrifice their summer vacations to take graduate courses (and pay the tuition themselves), so they can perform their jobs better. They buy food and clothes for needy students, and rescue other children from bullies, suicidal despair or drug problems.

I meet people who think every minister is, by definition, an egomaniacal charlatan out to separate the gullible from their paychecks. There are those who think every last cop is a sociopath with a John Wayne complex.

All these attitudes are, in and of themselves, lazy, cynical, illogical and dishonest.

They're also destructive.

We seem to have developed the habit of choosing a few bad examples — the lawmaker caught with his hand in the till or his britches around his ankles; the maladjusted reporter who makes up a story out of thin air; the doofus teacher who shows movies in class every day — and extrapolating that to entire professions.

Most people who work in the public realm do so because they care about people and about the public good. Day in, day out, they give it their best, if imperfect, shot.

They make mistakes occasionally because they're human. But mostly they get it right, because they're better people than we give them credit for being.