CPJ Burton Benjamin Memorial Award 2011
November 22, 2011
And, We’ve Gotten Used to It
One of Bud Benjamin’s dreams was to expand the CBS Evening News to a full hour. And Bud wasn’t thinking of filling it with helicopter shots, celebrity gossip, and punditry.
He imagined an entire hour brimming with investigative reporting, exposés and dispatches from around the world.
It was a different time in journalism. A time when professional duty was patriotic and the freedom of the press motivated and inspired newsrooms.
I know it is hard to believe–but it’s true–newsrooms were not supposed to turn a profit. Frankly, news was considered an acceptable loss leader on the balance sheet, a brand builder and most of all a public service.
To keep our FCC license and the public trust, we had to use the public’s airwaves in the public interest some of the time.
Yes, that’s a whole lot of “public.”
But that’s the way it was. It’s the way it should be again.
Today, how we look and how we “present” information has become far more important than how we gather it.
It’s upside down and backwards. And the worst part is…we have gotten used to it.
The caretakers of the Fourth Estate have, at times, left the building unattended. Public interest be damned.
It was Thomas Jefferson who noted in 1799 that “Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.”
Jefferson trusted the press–not to stir up heat, but to deliver insight.
Of course freedom of the press and of speech both come with pitfalls. People can peddle opinions as if they were facts. Those armed with the big, expensive megaphones drown out those blowing whistles.
But now, we see our fellow citizens taking to the streets.
And, that my friends, is our cue to get back to work…. As the People of our nation begin rising up, they expect the business of news to be about inquiry and accountability.
And, luckily for us, we can still do that…but, it will not often be within the confines of big corporate media.
As you know, we are living in an age when big money owns everything…including the news. That cash bought a lot of silence for a long time. Enough time for unchecked power to get this country tangled into messes all around the world. We all know that money talks. But, so do the people.
They tire of conflicts at home and abroad…conflicts that avert our eyes from the corruption and callowness that does little more than spill our blood and misspend our treasure.
“We had fed the heart on fantasies,” wrote William Butler Yeats, “the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
In other words, we have gotten used to it.
What happens to a country when the press helps divide people into Us and Them? When it fans the flames of conflict and calls it reporting?
We need to restore, at some point, the teaching of the craft of journalism. The best way to protect journalists is to teach them how to do journalism and, therefore, protect themselves from becoming irrelevant.
I am reminded of the finest speech ever made on the subject of television journalism. It was given by Ed Murrow in 1958. Murrow said,
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But, it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends…otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.”
Dear friends, from both the journalist and corporate worlds we must untangle the wires from the lights. We must halt the steady decline of broadcast journalism and the endless compromises to the boardroom.
Some say it is too late. That Congress wrote our epitaph in 1996 when they all came together and passed the Telecommunications Deregulation Act. Since then, the lights in a box have gotten brighter and flashier…but the truth dimmer and dimmer.
And…we have gotten used to it.
The late great Molly Ivins used to tell a story about what happens when fear grips a country.
Molly liked to tell the story about her late friend, the celebrated Texas civil libertarian John Henry Faulk, who, as a boy of six, went with his seven-year-old friend, Boots Cooper, to rid the family henhouse of a harmless chicken snake. From its high perch, the boys found themselves eyeball to eyeball with the snake. Growing up in Texas, it’s not uncommon to see a chicken snake…but being close enough to spit in the snake’s eye must have been quite disconcerting.
As Molly would tell the story, the two boys, ran out of the henhouse so fast they nearly tore off the henhouse door…not to mention doing damage to themselves in the process.
When Faulk’s mother reminded the boys that chicken snakes are not dangerous, Boots Cooper responded, “Yes, ma’am, but some things will scare you so bad, you’ll hurt yourself.”
That is what we have been subject to as a country. We have been so afraid; so hell bent on destroying enemies…both real and imagined…both foreign and domestic…we have hurt ourselves, and we have diminished out freedom and damaged our democracy.
You are probably asking yourself now what you should do.
There are so many wrongs to make right, it is going to get messier before it gets better.
We have to begin asking the hard questions once again.
We have to demand and earn back the respect that gave us the right to ask them.
We must protect whistleblowers by using our megaphones to make their risky admissions even louder.
We must demand access to all those taking risks to challenge power.
We must refuse to simply read press releases and rely on official sources.
And we must begin to enforce our own professional code of ethics. Refuse to compromise. Going along to get along is getting us nowhere.
Tonight, if I can convince you of anything, it is to buck the current system. Remember anew that you are a public servant and your business is protecting the public from harm. Even if those doing harm also pay your salary.
To once again quote Ed Murrow, there is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference…this weapon of television could be useful.
And wouldn’t it be great if our country could get used to that.