Mr. Rogers And Journalism
Journalists need to let their ahhh (wonder) show through when they witness the glory of life … they have as much responsibility to celebrate life and the goodness of it as they do to root out evil.—Fred Rogers
When I saw A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the 2019 feature film isn’t only about a children’s television icon, but also about a journalist and, by extension, journalism.
Based on a 1998 Esquire magazine article by Tom Junod (https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/), the movie is ostensibly about Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks. But the story is also about how a reporter, named Lloyd Vogel in the film and played by Matthew Rhys, developed a relationship and how that relationship transformed the reporter’s life.
When Junod started the magazine assignment, he had just finished a couple of articles where he had pulled the scabs off of wounds, making revelations that resulted in misery for some. He was questioning himself and his profession.
Turning The Tables
At an early meeting between the two, Mr. Rogers turned the tables on the reporter. They were talking about the puppets in the hundreds of episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when Mr. Rogers asked, “What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?”
As the conversation continued, Junod reluctantly divulged that he had a ragged stuffed animal called Old Rabbit.
“Old Rabbit. Oh, and I’ll bet the two of you were together since he was a very young rabbit. Would you like to tell me about Old Rabbit, Tom?” Mr. Rogers asked.
The magazine article continues, “And it was just about then, when I was spilling the beans about my special friend, that Mister Rogers rose from his corner of the couch and stood suddenly in front of me with a small black camera in hand, ‘Can I take your picture, Tom?’ he asked. ‘I’d like to take you picture. I like to take pictures so that I can show them to Joanne (Mrs. Rogers).”
Junod told Stephanie Russell-Kraft, reporting for the February 13, 2020, Columbia Journalism Review, about the choice he faced at about that time. “Am I going to battle, or am I going to go for this particular ride?” he said. “I decided to go on the ride. That was a conscious decision: He is turning this around on me; can I, in turn, turn that around on him by making that the bones of the story? Which is essentially what I did.”
Focusing On Goodness Instead of Evil
.Junod ended his Esquire article by telling about going to Mr. Rogers’s Pittsburgh office, where he found his interview-subject-turned-interviewer in conversation with a minister. Mr. Rogers asked the minister to lead them all in prayer.
Junod wrote,”…all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella….and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed, that this was the moment Fred Rogers—Mr. Rogers—had been leading me to from the moment he … asked me about Old Rabbit.”
Junod provided details in the Columbia Journalism Review article, saying, “When I first met Fred, I knew that he was different from anybody else I’d ever met. And the thing that sustained me through the reporting and writing has turned out to be what has sustained me through my career since then: it has been this possibility that goodness might be as interesting as evil. Ever since I was quite young, I was mystified by the existence of human evil. But Fred offered me a completely different avenue of inquiry. I look at my career as ‘before Fred and’ after Fred.”
In writing the Esquire article, Junod may have learned more about himself than he did about his subject, but he learned and revealed some things about Mr. Rogers, which he related in the Columbia Journalism Review article:
- Fred Rogers, who was a Presbyterian minister as well as an inspiring television personality, had “figured out a secular language for spiritual matters. The whole ‘you are special’ thing—I look back on it now and it’s very much a religious sentiment that he managed to couch in not just secular but childlike tropes.”
- Junod also said, “I think that Fred was extremely talented at friendship. It was a remarkable ability he had to form bonds with people. He had that. But I think that he saw that I needed to be trusted again, and he gave me that.”
Four Principles Of Journalism
Mr. Rogers died in 2003 at the age of 73, but It was only during the summer of 2019 that Junod learned about four principles of journalism that Mr. Rogers had jotted down. They were in the Fred Rogers Archive at the Fred Rogers Center (https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/what-we-do/fred-rogers-archive) in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Rogers reportedly used them when he prayed for Junod in hopes that the reporter would adhere to them. They went something like this:
- Journalists are human beings not automatons. Human beings not stenographers.
- Journalists have a duty to let their outrage show through when they come across injustice.
- Journalists need to let their compassion show through for other people’s suffering.
- Journalists need to let their ahhh (wonder) show through when they witness the glory of life … they have as much responsibility to celebrate life and the goodness of it as they do to root out evil.
Fred Rogers decided what he wanted to achieve in life the first time he saw a television set in the early 1950s. He was at his parents’ Pennsylvania home when he encountered the strange contraption, turned it on and saw people throwing pies at each other, which he found appalling. He recognized immediately that the medium could be powerful and he wanted to harness its power to spread grace.
Millions of children have grown up watching Fred Rogers and ended up believing in their own goodness and potential because of him and his insistence that they were special. Even Koko the gorilla recognized him from his show when they met face to face and she began removing his shoes, as he did at the start of every episode.
As a journalist and Mr. Rogers fan, I’d like to see a lot more programming and reporting based on on his four principles and a little less less pie-throwing.