INDIANAPOLIS—Long ago, at the start of my career as a columnist, the late Harvey Jacobs gave me some advice.

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John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

In addition to being the longtime editorial page editor of The Indianapolis News, Harvey was my mentor. He had entered the hard-contact world of journalism a couple of decades before I was born.

When one of my early pieces kicked up a small dust storm—some snappish letters to the editor and angry phone calls from the press secretary of the column’s focus, a Democratic elected official—I grew a little dismayed.

Harvey called me into his office and asked me some questions.

Were the facts in the piece solid? Yes.

Had anyone who was miffed by the column been able to point to any number or other fact that was wrong in it? No.

Satisfied by those answers, he then began to counsel me.

He said that being criticized was part of the job. Journalists questioned, critiqued and picked apart the actions and beliefs of others. It was inevitable that some of the people about whom we did stories or columns wouldn’t like what we said and would react.

It was only fair, he said, that they be allowed to have their say, too.

Then he came to his kicker.

“What you need to realize is that anyone who can afford to buy a copy of the newspaper and pay the price of a stamp to send us a letter to the editor buys the right to call you or me an idiot in our own paper,” Harvey said.

His message was clear, one I took to heart.

If I was going to make it in this business, I was going to have to develop a thick hide.

I thought of Harvey’s advice when the minor contretemps between President Joe Biden and Fox News White House reporter Peter Doocy popped up.

After covering a White House meeting on economic competitiveness and inflation, Doocy asked Biden, “Do you think inflation is a political liability in the midterms?”

The question clearly miffed Biden.

“It’s a great asset. More inflation. What a stupid son of a b****,” the president said.

Doocy’s colleagues at Fox News responded with fury. They accused Biden of “declaring war on the free press.” They said the president’s comment was an unprecedented act of uncivility and aggression toward a journalist.

Several other news organizations—CNN, a couple of the national newspapers—lined up with Fox.

There were at least a couple of things wrong with this reflexive reaction.

First, it ignores Fox’s long history of flaying and barbecuing alive every public figure whose political and ideological beliefs are even slightly to the left of Genghis Khan. Doocy has made a specialty of asking questions designed to provoke peevish responses from those with whom Fox disagrees politically.

He wanted to tick Biden off.

He succeeded. He got the sound bite he wanted.

So, why are he and his colleagues complaining?

Second, the Fox crowd and friends ask us to pretend the four years of the Donald Trump presidency never happened. Biden’s comment was snarky and unpresidential, but it didn’t rise to the level of calling journalists “enemies of the people,” barring them from press conferences or threatening to have them beat up or jailed, as Trump did.

The last reason the media response was mistaken was that Harvey was right. People in this business need to be able to catch as well as pitch.

If we journalists are going to poke, prod and criticize others, we must be willing to be poked, prodded and criticized ourselves.

We either believe in full and free expression … or we don’t.

The truth is such contentious exchanges can lead to good things. Some of the best and most productive professional relationships I’ve had as a journalist developed after a public figure and butted heads and then hashed things out.

We still disagreed on important questions, but our subsequent disagreements were undergirded by mutual respect.

Joe Biden called Peter Doocy after the incident to clear the air.

If Doocy is smart, he will use this incident and the call to redefine the relationship and cultivate the president as a source.

That’s what Harvey Jacobs would tell him to do.

And Harvey would be right.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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