Monday, February 23, 2015

The Four Recent Losses in Journalism and Why It Matters

If there were ever a time to write about journalism, this is it. Four of the most respected journalists in the biz are either gone or in the process of leaving-- and all are exiting on top or while falling down.
The recent losses of journalistic leaders has caused me to look back at the steps that led me to become fascinated with the adventure, the curiosity, the writing, and the intellectual challenges of both the people and ideology that make up the journalism profession.

When I was a kid I looked up to two types of people who I thought were the apotheoses of human achievement: astronauts and professional athletes. This made sense to me, since both were easily understandable to a kid who might not have full reasoning powers, but can comprehend both adventure and the easily graspable idea of winning and losing.

Beginning in in my late teenage years throughout my 20s, that focus shifted a with a sharp sense of urgency to musicians. I began asking myself, "What's the use of working towards self-realization if you aren't able to actively participate in the beauty of the creative process--such as music?" And with that I just fell head over heels in love with bluegrass and was determined to become an active member of that art form.

But now, as I get through my 30s, there's been another question that has replaced that one: "How do you fully participate in human creativity if you don't actively try to understand the complexities of the world and people around you?" The great writers, thinkers, and creative class who have had such a major impact on our culture typically have a knack for understanding the complex layers of the individual, society, and culture. Dylan, Guthrie, Twain, and currently even Jon Stewart all immersed themselves into American culture and the plight of the lower and middle class working people. All of these men were dedicated to using both experience and interactions to tell the beautiful and heartbreaking stories of the American people.

Written word, spoken word, satire, and music all have the power to bring change. Journalists might not have the same enduring legacy as authors and musicians, but they still play a significant part in all the major cultural shifts; many have been killed as testimony to that.

Musicians, writers, and journalists all tell existential stories about human nature, just in different formats. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, investigative reporters such as Taibbi, Hersh and Woodward, and satirists such as Twain and Stewart have all effectively brought more cultural and social shift to this country for the under-represented than most politicians.

Of all the hits that we've seen, Brian Williams is the messiest and most complicated. We've seen the most-watched news anchor of our current time possibly lose his job over a story that had nothing to do with the news. What it does concern are the ethical implications of a public who wants our public figures, politicians, and news anchors to also be entertainment celebrities. Williams walked that line better than anyone, but when it came time to creatively embellish stories, as every one of us does, the online punditry and twittersphere smelled blood and came in for the kill.

There was something that bothered me about this whole deal. Mostly because it was not necessarily about some newfound national desire for absolute "truth" in the media. Not when Fox News tells the truth a reported 18% of the time and is the #1 cable news outlet. No, there was something else going on and I think it was our bloodthirsty appetite to see a good man get torn down.

I saw very few people concerned about the trust that Williams had broken as the "Lyin' Brian" memes caught fire. There was much more of an engaged bloodsport spectacle of people feeling like they get to be a part of this action, like a crowd gathering at the gallows all clamoring to help pull the lever. If bringing a bad person down feels good, bringing a good one down is even better.

Jon Ronson wrote about the spectacle of public shaming in the New York Times:

"As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script."

Ronson followed several people who had been publicly torn down over offensive tweets, one of which was a young PR girl, Justine Sacco, where he describes the snowballing energy that drives our desire to participate as a virtual group in actions we would not do alone.

"But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers."

While that level of accountability is required for investigative journalists to keep massive institutions in check, it is not required by the public for our news sources-- remember that Fox News is the #1 cable news program--and that is ultimately why the national outrage over the Williams story did not feel either genuine or equal to the crime.

Just a few shades over in the industry, where a single embellishment or mistake can ruin a career, we have the great investigative journalists of our time, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. In a testament to fastidiousness, he had trouble getting the RS fact checkers to sign off on one of his most famous lines, where he described the investment bank Goldman Sachs and its role in the financial crisis:

“The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Taibbi: "I remember is the fact checkers coming to me at one point and they almost killed the line because squids don’t have blood funnels. I was trying to explain that was part of what made it funny, but they were very insistent. I had to go over their heads on that one."

Such scrutiny is required for investigative pieces because one factual error can wreck the entire work. If Goldman Sachs can find one substantiated error, falsehood, or lie then that's all they need to cast doubt on the entire article. Taibbi and RS know this (which makes the UVA rape article both out of character and somewhat unforgivable) so they task their fact checkers to go over every single sentence. That is why one writer is able to take on what is arguably the most powerful corporation in the world with both truth and substance.

On the other side, we have two of the most respected journalists of our time, Bob Simon and David Carr, suddenly pass away; while it might not feel like much to most people, these two were giants in the industry.

Much like with Stewart, you did not want to be caught in David Carr's crosshairs. While one was based around comedy and satire, the other was soberingly serious; but both raised the bar for media practices through their hard work and most importantly, intellectual honesty. The ire of either of these two meant you were caught either being lazy, or worse, dishonest, and in today's profit driven twitter speed news cycles we need more of these watchdogs, not less. Here's a great interview Carr did with Terry Gross on her show "Fresh Air".

Jon Stewart has had such an effect on news media that just his announcement of his impending departure sent the internet into such a frenzy of remorse posts that he opened the following day's show by asking, "Ummm....did I die yesterday?" Satirist, comedian, watchdog, voted "most trusted news-person"--I don't think anyone has been able to properly describe the impact Stewart has had on our current media landscape. Many have tried, and you can pull up countless posts that all do a great job of discussing various effects.

We love the arts for so many reasons, one of which is they give us a deeper insight into the human condition and experience. But strip away the smoke and mirrors of entertainment and we have a class of people who overflow with curiosity and bravery, and are able to understand the hugeness of the world and bring it to our doorstep. The older I get, the more I've begun to appreciate both the ability to do this as well as the western philosophy of freedom of speech that allows it. Criticism and cynicism aside, David Carr was adamant that the golden age of journalism is not necessarily behind us.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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