Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works - Virginia Woolf
image by: Jackie
We journalists have done a lousy job of explaining how we do our jobs, how we practice our craft, to the people we serve. I'm of the opinion, in fact, that our low ranking in public opinion polls -- somewhere down close to politicians -- is because we don't even try to tell the people who we are, what we believe in, what we do and why we do it.
So allow me to try.
It took me 10 years, three continents, two newspapers and two television newsrooms before I figured out that journalism is far more than just a job. When I finally understood, I was already a hot-shot television reporter and documentary producer at ABC News, New York.
My epiphany came when I produced a documentary on the revolutionary Marxist, often violent, Black Panthers. Shooting was easy because I had reported on them in the past and they trusted me.
Post-production was a nightmare because my bosses didn't trust me. They just wanted Panther violence and threats of violence, while I insisted on including Panther programs of breakfasts for slum kids and some insight into their radical Black Power philosophy. The eventual documentary, after endless fights with "The Dirty Dozen" of executive producers, lawyers, PR people etc., was a watered-down compromise which told something less than the truth but, even so, got me fired.
That was the wakeup call. That was when I finally realized that there were a whole lot of vested interests -- even in my own craft -- fighting honest journalism.
I moved to NBC which fired me twice, partly because I refused to bend stories to executive producers' dictates. Years and other newsrooms went by and I ended up in Canada as executive producer, CBC Television Journalism Training.
We taught the usual storytelling, writing, interviewing and performance, of course. But I insisted that -- running like a golden thread under every workshop -- must be the highest possible ethical standards guiding the rigorous seeking and telling of truth.
We taught that within the limits of the law, journalism is either free or not free. It can't be three quarters free. Or two thirds free. But there are legions of vested interests out there ready, willing and eager to tamper with, and thus lessen, journalistic freedom. Such people understand that information -- the currency of democracy -- is power...
Politicians, the military, police and religions are joined in this struggle to try to control journalistic media by whole armies of people with vested interests. (Think bankers, businesspeople, financiers, entertainers, professional athletes, landlords, developers [formerly known as speculators], unions, pimps, people with money and even some newspaper, magazine, TV and radio station owners.) And never, ever forget lawyers.
Since the concept of free journalism was born, powerful forces like these have worked hard to keep journalists in their place, which is out of the affairs of their betters. They have -- it is the very nature of capitalism -- selfish causes to serve. They fear -- it is the very nature of business -- the honest, disinterested audit.
They would all be a lot more comfortable if probing, questioning journalists had less freedom; if journalists were prohibited from delving into their records and casting a too-critical eye on their methods; if journalists were told to mind our own goddamn business and show some respect for the comfortable institutions that make capitalism so great.
But professional journalists are in the business of social justice, so the nature, health and well-being of society is our business. And without us, there will be nobody trained, qualified and capable left behind to conduct that business in an ethical, disinterested manner.
If it wasn't from such an obviously religious source, I would recommend that famous adage from the King James version of the bible as journalism's motto: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Source: Tim Knight, Excerpt from Watching the Watchdog: Why Journalists Do What We Do, The Blog, Huff Post, November 15, 2013.