Sunday February 15, 2015
Reflections on a bad week for the craft of journalism - Michael's essay
It has not been a good week for the craft of journalism or its practitioners. It has been seven days of shock, of personal and professional loss, of deep introspection touching on what we in media do, how we do it and how we often fail in our much proclaimed mission.
Somebody once described journalism as story telling with a purpose. Its only real purpose being to bring to its publics what Carl Bernstein calls "The best attainable version of the truth." The truth, trying to get it right, is the core value, the central test of the job; all the rest is commentary. When we get it wrong either by advertence or carelessness, everybody loses something. The people who work at the trade are as flawed, as weak, as venal, as upstanding, as courageous as anybody else in the information-crazed, wired world.
At the top of the terrible week we learned that the most respected and honoured network news anchor in the United States, Brian Williams of NBC, had lied about an incident during the Iraq War. He said a helicopter in which he was riding had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and nearly crashed. In fact it was another gunship which had been hit. A day later, after a ham-fisted, unsatisfactory explanation, he was suspended without pay for six months.
Journalists wondered aloud or to themselves, could I have "misremembered" some incident in my past? I asked myself; in more than 50 years of reporting did I ever colour a time or an event beyond its essential reality? In the millions of written and spoken words, had I ever consciously or subconsciously lifted a quote or copied a phrase from another source?
A day later we learned that Jon Stewart, the best media and political satirist of his generation, was giving up the Daily Show after 16 years. A feeling of drift began to settle in.
Then in the middle of the week came the death of a truly heroic war correspondent, Bob Simon of CBS News, killed in a car accident in New York.
Simon risked his life covering almost every war of the past 50 years, from Vietnam to Iraq to Israel to Afghanistan.
In the first Gulf War, he famously told Pentagon propagandists that he wouldn't play their game. He set off on his own to cover the war his way. He was captured by the Iraqis and spent 40 days as their prisoner.
Then at week's end two deaths, two endings of vital and pioneering careers.
In New York, David Carr, the revered media columnist of the New York Times, fell over dead in his beloved newsroom after moderating a public panel. He was 58. And in Toronto an old friend, Alison Gordon, died of a recurring cancer. She was 72.
Carr, whom I got to know after interviewing him at an event in 2012, was the kind of reporter that other reporters reflexively turned to, to see what happens when the job is done well, when it's done the way it's supposed to be done. Ironically his final Monday media column was about Brian Williams and the trials and lush rewards of the celebrity journalist.
David had been a drunk and a drug addict who beat back the darker angels of his nature and died clean and sober.
Like David Carr, Alison Gordon was a ground-breaker. In the Seventies she coveted and captured perhaps the hardest job for a female reporter - the sports beat.
She was reviled by locker room troglodytes. She was subjected to the vilest kind of sexism. She could have pleaded her way out of the job and onto a beat less trying. But she never did. She was the first female sports reporter admitted to the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Her press pass was made out to Mr. Alison Gordon.
Simon, Carr and Gordon, besides raw talent, had this in common - they went their own way. They cut and hacked their way through the thickets of pretense and conformity that plague this endeavour and made their own place. We are all privileged to be able to still do what we do as the competing media change, as newspapers implode, as jobs disappear - 200 this week at the death of Sun News Network - and as the working rules of journalism become more opaque.
At the end of his autobiography David wrote: "I now inhabit a life I don't deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn't end any time soon."
For David Carr and Alison Gordon and Bob Simon, all too soon