Add This

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Because sometimes we need to be reminded

Three years ago, on the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bill Moyers gave a rousing speech to journalists gathered in New York City. It was part scolding, part revival and part call to arms. Here are a few excerpts I wanted to share today:
[Edward] Wasserman acknowledges, as I do, that there is some world-class journalism being done all over the country today, but he went on to speak of "a palpable sense of decline, of rot, of a loss of spine, determination, gutlessness" that pervades our craft. Journalism and the news business, he concludes, aren't playing well together. Media owners have businesses to run, and "these media-owning corporations have enormous interests of their own that impinge on an ever-widening swath of public policy" -hugely important things, ranging from campaign finance reform (who ends up with those millions of dollars spent on advertising?) to broadcast deregulation and antitrust policy, to virtually everything related to the Internet, intellectual property, globalization and free trade, even to minimum wage, affirmative action, and environmental policy. "This doesn't mean media shill mindlessly for their owners, any more than their reporters are stealth operatives for pet causes," but it does mean that in this era when its broader and broader economic entanglements make media more dependent on state largesse, "the news business finds itself at war with journalism."
Methinks we need a reminder of this reality, particularly as the proposed Federal Shield Law moves forward and the language of who is and who is not covered remains too narrowly defined (one colleague this week suggested the test should be whether or not Tom Paine would be covered). Or when we're more concerned with image over substance, branding over values, bottom line over front page. When we're sufficiently blinded by our own comfort and self-righteousness that we actually believe that citizen journalists are to blame for the public perception of big media instead of recognizing its our own failures that are the cause of public distrust. (Who was it this week who said the worst thing to happen to journalism was the mortgage?)

If I ever doubted that my colleagues in newsrooms felt threatened by all this change, the events of the past few weeks have certainly plopped that reality right in my lap. Those outside of newsrooms don't share the same sense of foreboding about the news industry as those inside newsrooms. Spend a little time outside of newsrooms and you see opportunities for good journalism opening up all around. But you have to break out of your preconceived notion of where journalism happens.

[Dan Gillmor] … argues persuasively that Big Media is losing its monopoly on the news, thanks to the Internet - that "citizen journalists" of all stripes, in their independent, unfiltered reports, are transforming the news from a lecture to a conversation. He's on to something. In one sense we are discovering all over again the feisty spirit of our earliest days as a nation when the republic and a free press were growing up together. It took no great amount of capital and credit-just a few hundred dollars-to start a paper then. There were well over a thousand of them by 1840. They were passionate and pugnacious and often deeply prejudiced; some spoke for Indian-haters, immigrant-bashers, bigots, jingoists, and land-grabbers. But some called to the better angels of our nature-Tom Paine, for one, the penniless immigrant from England, who, in 1776, just before joining Washington's army, published the hard-hitting pamphlet, Common Sense, making its uncompromising case for American independence. It became our first best seller because Paine was possessed of an unwavering determination to reach ordinary people-to "make those that can scarcely read understand" and "to put into language as plain as the alphabet" the idea that they mattered and could stand up for their rights.
Maybe we're just waiting for someone to give us permission, maybe we're just waiting for the timing to be better, maybe we're just hoping that if we just stay quiet things will improve. And maybe the world is just waiting for us to finally stand up for our rights, no matter what the context.
I am reminded of the answer the veteran journalist Richard Reeves gave when asked by a college student to define "real news." "Real news," he said,"is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms."

Amen, Brother Moyers, Amen.


Kelly said...

Love the comment by Reeves!

Michelle O'Neil said...

Love Bill Moyers!