Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite

When I was a kid I wanted to be a journalist. Journalists were, to my mind, the closest thing we had to living superheros. To live in a democracy it is your choice to be informed about the world but it is also your obligation, your duty. Journalists were the front line forces of this obligation. They told the truth, sometimes at great cost. They shone light in dark corners. They held a mirror up to humanity to say look, here, this is what we are: our beauty and our ugliness, the profound and the profane. Our founding fathers thought a free press was so important they enshrined it in the Constitution, a radical enough idea that even they sometimes had trouble sticking to that ideal.

By the time I made it to college, journalism was already undergoing changes which left me disillusioned enough that I changed my mind about majoring in it. J schools were now paired with advertising departments which seemed to be calling the shots. Writing classes were giving way to How to Present Yourself on Camera and in the background one could not help but hear the strains of Dirty Laundry wafting through the air (Kick 'em when they're up...Kick em when they're down...)

I give presentations now on the First Amendment in Libraries, and in those presentations I say that I chose Librarianship over Journalism because Librarianship better represents the living ideal of the First Amendment. Although I believe this is true, it's also not an entirely accurate reflection of my life's path. I lost my love, my desire and my dream of becoming a journalist several years before I discovered librarianship, and the intervening years were spent wandering in a desert trying to find my lost passion.

Throughout my formative years Walter Cronkite was the face of my inspiration. He represents something I'm sad to say has become the Old School of journalism; when journalists strove to discover and report The Truth. The Truth might be complicated. The Truth might be buried. The Truth may take a long time to work out. The Truth might be hard to hear. But there was only one Truth, and to tell it to the world was the goal. One wouldn't think that journalists reporting the truth was something that needed to be improved upon, but alas today we live in a world where the Truth has lost favor. The Truth has been replaced with being "Fair & Balanced".

As someone who loves the idea of journalism and reportage what possible problem could I have with the idea of being Fair and Balanced? It is actually a concept that has always been taught to reporters, otherwise known as "being thorough" and "getting the whole story". But in its current incarnation I fear that Fair & Balanced has become a Trojan Horse slipped into our national consciousness. Good reportage looks at all sides of a story, but Fair and Balanced means giving equal weight and time to all sides of the story, which is not the same thing.

If 9 out of 10 dentists agree that swishing with syrup is bad for your teeth, interviewing the 10th dentist might be interesting, but hiring him as your Alternative Dental Care expert and forcing the head of the American Dental Society to have a serious debate with him about the merits of syrup swishing is not fair or balanced. In fact it's mighty close to a lie.

And while we can all chuckle about syrup swishing, there's nothing funny about say, for example, Holocaust denial, or news organizations insisting that interviews with Elie Wiesel must give equal time to the American Nazi Party, or the idea of generations of children growing up to believe, because of what they see on the Fair & Balanced news, that the notion that the Holocaust never happened is a legitimate argument.

Perhaps I am becoming a Grandpa Simpson on this topic, cranky about some imaginary lost past. The world is more complicated now (is it really?). There's no such thing as "The Truth", and we couldn't handle it in it's raw form if there were. The idea of journalism as a historically perfect ideal that has recently run aground? Well, even I'm not that silly. I was a History major. We didn't invent the phrase Yellow Journalism in my lifetime. But even so, when I called a friend of mine to commiserate over Walter Cronkite's passing, a friend who was also a History major, and more of a news junkie than I am, he said "Now the only real voice of truth out there left is...Jon Stewart. What the fuck does that say?" And I think he's right.

Instead of being sad about the failings of modern journalism perhaps what I should really say here is that I am glad, so very glad, and grateful, that I had a chance to witness some of the great men and woman of journalism in my lifetime, and Walter Cronkite was a god among them. Although he's gone, great journalism hasn't died with him, and neither has the truth. Although they may be harder to find, thanks to his example, we know what both look like.