Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Journalism's hope and power

Edward Kennedy closed his eulogy to brother Bobby with a variation of a George Bernard Shaw quote: "Some men see things as they are and ask why, I dream of things and say why not."

For me that sentient represents the power, nobility and awesome potential of Journalism. To see wrongs and expose them--but better yet, try to replace those wrongs with something right, while minimizing collateral damage. To make a difference, sometimes THE difference.

If you stand in Amherst town center at high-noon on the 4th of July and send up a flare, hardly anyone will notice. It will get lost in the bright background of a nice sunny summer day and even those who do see it will simply consider it a routine byproduct of a holiday celebration.

But if you trudge to that same spot during the coldest darkest days of February in late afternoon and launch that same pyrotechnic anybody in the center of town will stop and take notice, and they will tell their friends who will maybe pass it on to their friends.

Such is the power of the Internet, where stories can go viral simply by folks taking a moment to post the link or pass along an email and suddenly more eyeballs take in something on their computer screen or smartphone than will see the same story on network television later that night or in print the next morning.

In 1986 soon after the Challenger disaster, Professor Ziff had as guest speaker the editor of the Concord Monitor, Christa McAuliffe's hometown newspaper. I asked him what he would have done if he absolutely knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the Challenger would explode that morning but had no corroboration. He looked me directly in the eye and said (with his voice somewhat trembling) he would have done "Anything--absolutely anything--to get the word out, including standing in town center naked with a warning tattooed to my butt."

A page one story or editorial may also have done the trick, and at the time he was in a position to make that happen (probably over the objection of his managing editor or publisher if he only had once source). I got the impression he almost felt guilty.

We are hearing only now of all the economic shortcuts and chances BP took with their Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded killing 11 workers and perhaps forever staining the environment. Only now! Where was the investigative media spotlight teams a few months ago when it could have made a difference?

Yes, Twitter and Facebook garner fawning media attention for number of users and the ability to instantaneously transmit thought (much of it mindless); and it's safe to say some of those who died on the oil platform had an account with one or the other.

But is it their job to blow the whistle on safety shortcomings when it could easily cost them a very lucrative job? Perhaps, and considering they are now dead, a better choice indeed. But would the old guard mainstream media, who's supposed to act as watchdog, have paid attention--especially when Big Oil companies are lucrative advertisers?

Give voice to the voiceless. Stand up to the 'Powers that Be'. Seek the truth knowing full well that rarely is the truth pretty or easy to come by. And do so proudly by signing your name.

I wish the mainstream media would embrace the Internet rather than curse it. It has been over 15 years now and they still don't appreciate it. Print media rely on BIG expensive presses that "go to bed" after putting out a daily edition. The Internet is always on, with a publish button simply a click away. A blessing and a curse.

The wisdom of the masses is now infinitely easier to tap into as anyone with expertise, knowledge or an eyewitness account can instantly add to a story..or Anonymous trolls can ruin it for everyone by posting malevolent drivel.

And while the First Amendment allows for a lot of things, propriety and good taste can still be maintained. As William Woo pointed out, wearing a jacket emblazoned with "F_ck the draft" in a public place is legal, but may not be tolerated at Sunday family dinner.

The rules of Journalism have not changed, only the method of presentation. "The trick in effective change," according to Woo, "learning what from the past should be retained and what should be replaced." Or as Thomas Jefferson pointed out, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing."

Behind every print byline or website posting sits a human being trying to have an impact on other human beings. Words and good writing are still of paramount importance. Principles will always matter.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The mainstream media feels threatened by the internet, and this is why they will not embrace it. The general public trust internet sources such as yourself more than the bricks and mortar media. There is a general mistrust of large corporate media owned my billionares such as Rupert Murdoch, pushing for their corpratist agendas. Haven't you sen the articles lately about a proposed "Drudge Tax" ? Thank God for the freedom of the Internet. I believe that we the people are better informed now than at any other time in our nations history, and it is much harder for the powers that be to "pull the wool over our eyes". Keep up the great work Larry. I think you are a great service to this community.
- Signed, an anonymous Nitwit.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, the Federal Trade Commission is talking about tax breaks (allowing newspapers non-profit status) and an extra 5% surcharge ("ipad" tax) on consumer electronics to bolster and protect the aging old guard print industry.

Jeff Jarvis points out that in the entire 35 page FTC draft report, the word "blog" only appears but once.

Anonymous said...

The "mainstream" media were too busy the past two months scrambling to find excuses for the Administration's inactivity to actually do any journalism.

Besides, if you start digging into BP's failures you might start turning up things like waivers and permits granted by the Administration to a big campaign donor. Best not to look.

LarryK4 said...

President Bush rose to the occasion on 9/11 but failed miserably with Katrina (not to mention Iraq.)

This will be President Obama's Donnybrook.

S.P. Sullivan said...

Prof. Ziff retired before I got to take a class with him, but I got to spend two afternoons with him for an assignment in Journalism 300 (which, for the record, I took online). What a great man.

My favorite thing he told me was when he recalled his time reporting in Chicago. "I like to say that I got shot at twice in Chicago but only once in Korea."

LarryK4 said...

Why I was writing columns for the Amherst Bulletin is used to call Howard once in a while to bounce stuff off him.

To cite the cliche: the don't make 'em like that anymore.