Sunday, September 27, 2009

journalist, defined

In a piece in the Atlantic on the ways in which political hitmen armed with keyboards and DSL lines are sometimes shaping the debate, national correspondent Mark Bowden ends with this ode to the character of the journalist:

There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy. Even an eager and ambitious political blogger like Richmond, because he is drawn to the work primarily out of political conviction, not curiosity, is less likely to experience the pleasure of finding something new, or of arriving at a completely original, unexpected insight, one that surprises even himself. He is missing out on the great fun of speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor. This is what gives reporters the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. A reporter who thinks and speaks for himself, whose preeminent goal is providing deeper understanding, aspires even in political argument to persuade, which requires at the very least being seen as fair-minded and trustworthy by those—and this is the key—who are inclined to disagree with him. The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist carries an authority that no self-branded liberal or conservative can have. “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote. Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful precisely because it does not seek power. It seeks truth. Those who forsake it to shill for a product or a candidate or a party or an ideology diminish their own power. They are missing the most joyful part of the job.

This is what H. L. Mencken was getting at when he famously described his early years as a Baltimore Sun reporter. He called it “the life of kings.”

In a more ironic vein, you also gotta love what New York Times media critic David Carr has to say about the character of a journalist in this column about a former newsman who quit the newsroom for corporate comm -- and came running back:

Journalists, for all their self-importance, are often a little naïve about the way the real world works. Sure, being a newsie is a grind, the hours are not great and the public holds us in lower esteem than the women who work the poles at Satin Dolls down the road from the Tick Tock in Lodi, but it beats working by a mile. Every day is a caper, and most reporters are attention-deprived adrenaline junkies who care only for the next story. Journalists are like cops, hugging the job close and savoring the rest of their life as they can.

The skills of finding out what is not known and rendering it in comprehensible ways has practical value in other parts of the economy, but the thrill of this thing of ours is not a moveable feast. The difference between a reporting job and other jobs is the difference between working for The Man and being The Man, a legend, at least, in your own mind.

1 comment:

Terence Hofstad said...

I found David Carr's article interesting because it highlights some of the aspects about journalism that I find to be the most appealing. Specifically, Carr talks about how being a journalist, especially in this economy, offers little in the way of benefits or security, but it also allows one to be constantly on the pulse of what's happening, both locally and on a larger scale. It also affords you the opportunity to define yourself through your work, rather than struggling to work your way up the corporate structure, which I can atestify from personal experiencce, is often a thankless and soul-crushing experience which stifles creativity. I was inspired by Moran's choice to return to the profession he loved, despite all the risks involved.