26 April 2007

Exits and Returns

One of the things I learned, the easiest of lessons, was that the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be. (So, if you seek popularity, this is probably not the profession for you.) . . . .

There are a few things I would like to pass on to you as I come near to the end of my career.

One: It's not about fame. By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are. Besides, fame does not last. At its best, it is about being paid to learn. For fifty years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge. What a rare chance to grow as a person. . . .

Nor for that matter, is it about prizes or awards, although these are very nice...Rather, the richness of the profession – and it has been an uncommonly rich life for me – has been in the wonderful collegial friendships I have, many from those Civil Rights and Vietnam Days, right through to the present, the friendship of so many people who care passionately about what kind of a country we are.

When I was young, I wanted to be a witness to important events. That’s one of the reasons I went to the South in the beginning. What I got was a great ticket to sit in on history, far better than I could ever have imagined, and above all, a life where I was never bored...

I want to leave you today with one bit of advice: never, never, never, let them intimidate you. People are always going to try in all kinds of ways. Sheriffs, generals, presidents of universities, presidents of countries, secretaries of defense. Don't let them do it. . . .

Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.

David Halberstam, Speech to the Columbia School of Journalism, 18 May 2005:

Again, the bitter sweeness of life: Days after the death of the great journalist David Halberstam, Bill Moyers returned to PBS with the resurrection of Bill Moyer's Journal.

The first show was like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face of those 'Beltway Guys,' the entrenched Washington press corps, delving into how they all seemed to miss the falsehoods and evasions of President Bush's justifications for war in Iraq (the video of the show, "Buying the War," and a transcript are on line). The show pointed out how, in the wake of 9/11, the press like the rest of the nation fell into almost blind patriotism and did not look deeply into the claims the administration was making about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Later, most reporters seemed content to buy what the White House was selling, without questioning the sources or checking facts. Some -- particularly CNN -- seemed more afraid of being called non-patriotic by (and losing ratings points to) Fox News than they were interested in doing basics of reportage. It was a sad, but illuminating, report, and one I hope journalism schools make all their students watch.

My partner and I are ardent Moyers fans, starting back with his glorious talks with Joseph Campbel, through his time on Now, and the recent 'On Faith and Reason' episodes. So we're in Televised heaven right now, and looking forward to his next reports.

In memoriam, I close with some sharp, on target comments by David Halberstam on the state of the press today from Glenn Greenwald's blog on Salon.com

Those to whom the most is given, the executives of our three networks, have steadily moved away from their greatest responsibilities, which is using their news departments to tell the American people complicated truths, not only about their own country, but about the world around us. . . .

What I think is happening is something extremely serious,nothing less than a change in the value system in a very important part of the news business.

At the core of the old value system was a belief on the part of the men and women who worked in journalism that this was an uncommonly privileged life, that we did not do this for the money -- almost all of us could have made a great deal more money in some other field, but we were uncommonly privileged, free men and free women working for a free press in a free society, beneficiaries of exalted constitutional freedoms, willing, if need be on occasion, to report to the nation things which it did not necessarily want to hear.

What has changed is not the talent and idealism and passion of the journalists out there, but the value system which governs the way they work, and finally what gets in the paper or on the air. . . .

A number of things stand out in the change of values which has come about in the last decade or so. Because of its growing power and influence and because of the ever-greater competition, not just network against network, but network against cable show, the television executive producers have redefined what constitutes news -- often going for stories that television likes to cover, stories which are telegenic, because they have action or are sexy or are tabloid- or scandal-driven.

We have morphed in the larger culture from a somewhat Calvinist society to an entertainment society, and that is reflected in the new norms of television journalism -- where the greatest sin is not to be wrong but to be boring. Because boring means low ratings. And so altogether too many people at the top in the television newsrooms have accepted the new, frillier dictates of the men and women above them in the corporations.

But the quantum change had come with the coming of cable, and the fierce new competition generated by cable news shows, which were primarily about sex, scandal and celebrity. Or celebrity, sex and scandal. Soon, we began to see a willingness on the part of the networks -- their own audience fragmenting, their ratings down -- to embrace, particularly in their magazines, these tabloid values as their own....

Television's gatekeepers, at a time when a fragmenting audience threatens the singular profits of the past, stopped being gatekeepers and began to look the other way on moral and ethical and journalistic issues. Less and less did they accept the old-fashioned charge for what they owed the country.

The viewpoint seemed to be -- from their testing and polling -- that the American people did not want to know what was going on, so why bother them with unwanted facts too soon? So, if we look at the media today, we ought to be aware not just of what we are getting, but what we are not getting; the difference between what is authentic and what is inauthentic in contemporary American life and in the world, with a warning that in this celebrity culture, the forces of the inauthentic are becoming more powerful all the time.

1 comment:

BronzeBuckaroo said...

David Halberstam was one of my favorites and I don't have many of those these days. Learning of his death saddened me.