It is unfortunately true that when most people hear the word journalism they automatically envision reporters descending on tragic scenes shouting ghoulish questions. “How’d you feel when you saw your son’s dead body?” Or they blame the ruthless papparazzi for Princess Diana’s death, losing sight of journalism’s many heroic professionals: Woodward and Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, and, more recently, Amy Goodman (Democracy Now), and Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army).
Without the courage of investigative reporters, Richard Nixon might have served out his full term, and our nation most likely would have witnessed an entirely different history. Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to The New York Times. They revealed that the government knew early on that the Viet Nam war could probably not be won, that continuing it would lead to more casualties than publicly admitted, and that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied to the public and to Congress.
My point is that journalists go after the truth and shout it out to We the People. We need them: we cannot rely on governments to tell us the truth. Sure, some media deliver a hefty dose of propaganda with their reportage, or even tell outright lies; still, not all are dishonest. Without reporters we would know a lot less than we do, and those in power would get away with even more than they already do.
I don’t presume to put myself in the same category as Woodward and Bernstein, but I’ve done my share of newspaper work and learned a thing or two in the process. For several years I was Assistant Editor at the Woodstock Times, a weekly paper in upstate New York. While it was a great opportunity for me to learn the news biz, especially how to cover topics I cared about, I also covered local news, some of which nobody else would do—like the town’s new sewer system, or the ambulance bought with donations.
During one of those assignments that seemed, to all outward appearances, a boring write-by-rote, I was happily surprised by a hit of that rarefied air breathed by reporting’s upper echelon. Unlikely as it seems, it was at a meeting of county agencies starting up a day care program that I grokked the full nobility of my profession.
As at most of these kinds of gatherings, the movers and shakers sat on fabric-covered chairs behind a long desk facing an audience of citizens and reporters, the latter relegated to ice-cold metal chairs placed around the fringes of the room. I sat with my legs crossed, notepad on my knee, head down, scribbling half shorthand, half my own unique symbols, hair falling in my face. Suddenly an extraordinary physical sensation came over me: my body felt like a conduit into which words were poured, processed and translated into ideas of supreme importance. My hand followed a kinesthetic route taking notes that would eventually be typeset onto newspaper and distributed to thousands of readers. I was nothing more and nothing less than a channel through which information was transmitted. Hardly a top-rate job description and verging on corniness I know—yet it gave me a sense of wild exaltatation. With hindsight I’ve come to regard that moment as one of being well-used: I was performing a necessary task, contributing to the community in which I lived. Go ahead, laugh—but I felt close to heroic.
Now that my moment of heroism is on record, I’ll confess that I seldom was. One day I answered the office phone to an anonymous caller reporting on a cross-burning in front of a house purchased by a mixed-race couple about 15 miles away in Phoenecia. I immediately started calling around for more information. In my young naivete—I was barely 30—I questioned cops, realtors, and shopkeepers as casually as I might ask what they thought of the new ambulance.
Late that night I got a call at home. A woman’s voice commanded, “I want it stopped!” No hello, no self-identification.
“Never mind that. I’m doing you a favor. If you persist with what you’re doing, you will be watched. Consider this a friendly warning. The next one won’t be so friendly.”
“What is this?” I actually laughed. “The Lou Grant Show?”
“This is real life, honey, not television. It’s not one of your hippie games either.” Before hanging up on me she repeated, “Believe me, I’m doing you a favor.”
I hung up and sat by the phone, dazed. I supposed these things happened, but nothing like it had ever happened to me, so it did seem like a television show.
For the next few days I went about my life, the call never far from my thoughts. I didn’t investigate the story any further. It is one of the things I regret having done, or not done, in my life. It’s true I was in no way prepared to cover such a dangerous story—I was learning the news business “on the job”—but I wish I’d asked the publisher or another reporter to help me; we might’ve done it together. To my credit, I did tell both the publisher and a reporter about it, but the former only cracked a few jokes and promptly forgot it, and the reporter, full of righteous indignation, swore she’d ship off her daughter to stay with grandparents while she charged into the fray. She too promptly forgot about it.
I did not. To this day I frequently think about that cross and my inaction. The incident looms large in the narrative of my life. Not only do I regret dropping the ball for the moral lapse it represents, but I sometimes wonder, had I followed the story and exposed the Klan, would my career have benefitted? Who knows: I might’ve won a Pulitzer! Or been hailed far and wide for my bravery! Offered a job with the New York Times! It’s not that far-fetched; such things happen every day, so why not to me? Because I wimped out, that’s why. Out of fear I did nothing, and I never heard another word about the local Klan, the cross-burning, or the couple who’d been their target. A few years later I did testify at county hearings looking into the Klan’s activities, but nothing came of that either.
I do not lightly set this down here for the world to read. Why, I asked myself, should I publicly announce that when the shit hit the fan I turned tail and ran? I failed to live up to my principles. I decided, however, not to chicken out this time, though I can’t imagine anything will be gained here. Maybe I just wanted to say that I still believe in the nobility of journalism. Despite some of the terrible things done in its name, newspaper and online reporting is one of the few real sources of People Power, a rare avenue of Truth. Don’t give up on journalists.
- ‘We can’t rest’: Reporters in the U.S. need protection from the aggressive surveillance state (rawstory.com)
- All the Presidents Men (1976) (kyleknappett.wordpress.com)
- Woodward/Bernstein: Could the Web generation uncover a Watergate-type scandal? (nextlevelofnews.com)