Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Journalists can be upsetting to many, but their job is important

I recently saw one of those “freedom” lists, which lists all the reasons why we should be grateful to those who serve in the military.

Every list explains that we’re free because of a soldier, not because of a journalist. In a way, they’re right. Soldiers have fought and sacrificed for our freedom, and I appreciate that effort; indeed, for a very brief period in my life I had a very small (and I mean a very, very, very tiny) part in that effort.

So it’s easy for most folks to dismiss journalists as just a bunch of jerks looking to find out the latest dirt on a celebrity or beloved elected official, using methods that are not ethical and exposing to the glaring spotlight innocent people who just want to be left alone.

I can understand many people’s frustrations. I am a pretty private person, myself, and don’t like the idea of “putting my business on the street.” Yet I have worked as a reporter, though my main job is as a copy editor at a newspaper, taking others’ stories and presenting them for readers both online and in the printed product.

Despite it all, I’m proud of what I do. When a headline I write gets the attention of readers, it makes me happy. I’m doing what I went to college to do, and I hope I’m making a small difference.

The best journalism of all is the journalism about the military, about those who are serving. I recently read a story about a World War II B-24 flight crew that literally brought tears to my eyes. It was in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and told about how two men – a radio operator and a tail gunner – hadn’t seen each other since a terrible day in 1944 when their plane was crashing because of a mechanical failure, and both men bailed out. They had no idea they lived near each other in the Sarasota area, and the story brought them together for a brief time.

Those stories, sometimes called “brights,” make it all worthwhile. Yes, we in the news business have to report that things aren’t always what they seem to be and that there are bad people out there, but when you sit at the desk and present the story, as I recently did, of a 97-year-old retired teacher and her world travels, it just restores your faith in humanity.
Yes, it’s easy to become jaded in journalism, and frustrated with some. Two people vying for a political office recently began “going negative” on each other, and it played out in the newspaper. You might think that this is terrible, and a sign of the end of democracy, but it’s just the competition that goes on when two people (or more) want one office.

Sure, soldiers have fought for the right to have the kind of government where two people fight tooth and nail for a seat in the Legislature, but journalists get the story out.

It’s a hackneyed phrase, but we do report, and you do decide.

Day of Diana
Seventeen years ago this week, I got a pretty wild introduction to the wonders of the news business. It was a Saturday night, Aug, 30, 1997, and I was working the copy desk at the Boca Raton News.

Things seemed pretty routine, and as the copy desk chief as well as the business copy editor, I had a lot to do. Managing editor John Futch was there to provide leadership and guidance, and help out on the pages. I liked John, even though he made us watch golf on the newsroom TVs. Just kidding. I appreciated his effort to get us through the night.

Our main story was, I recall, about the challenges nursing homes faced in keeping their residents from wandering off and getting into misadventures, and my front page was pretty much set at around 9 p.m.

Well, John pretty much ruined my night when he suddenly announced, “Uh, oh, Princess Diana was in a car crash in Paris.”

At the time, we used Macintoshes running QuarkXpress to lay out our pages, and we had a program that brought us the Associated Press wire right to the same desktop. John had alerts set up to jump in front of everything, and that’s how he knew.

All over the United States and the world, newsrooms suddenly snapped to attention. This was big news, and all over the United States and the world, newsroom TVs switched to CNN, which began wall-to-wall coverage of the Diana situation.

For us in the newspaper business, the question was how to cover a fluid situation. We didn’t have much of a website at the time, and didn’t post national and world news on it. We needed to focus on the print product and make sure we had the most accurate and latest story.

At this point, all we knew was that Diana had been injured in the crash. How bad, no one knew.

Reports came in quickly, and space was set aside on the top of the front page for our Diana story. The story didn’t “jump,” as I recall, to an inside page, so it had to be short.

Eventually, we had two stories ready and two “black plates” set up. One was if Diana had been injured in the crash but as of press time there was no further information on her condition, The other was if she had died.

As it turned out, shortly before press deadline, CNN reported that Diana had died, and we soon had that plate on the press and ready to go. In the following days, we ran more news, of course, and I felt like I had gone through my first big story.

One thing that was interesting was the reaction of some people to the behavior of the media. In fact, in the middle of everything a newsroom phone rang and I answered it. It was a person who said he had noticed that Diana and her boyfriend were “being chased by the media” and implying that the media had caused the crash.

Like everyone else in journalism, I knew about the existence of the “paparazzi” who chased celebrities looking for photos to sell to magazines. I didn’t think that the working press was in that category. I told the caller we in the media were just doing our jobs tonight, and thanked him for his comments.

‘The press killed Diana’
In the days and weeks that followed, there was much criticism leveled at the news media. I recall that at a trial of a doctor accused of sexual assault, a local newspaper photographer was beaten up and there were shouts that photographers like the one at the small paper had killed “the people’s princess.”

Many people were grief-stricken by the crash, and the rumors that flew in the days following seemed to indict the news media. Even today, members of the news media live with the consequences of the “pack mentality” that journalists sometimes engage in as they pursue a story, especially about a celebrity.

Killing the messenger
In the recent wars in the Middle East, soldiers from several countries have paid the price of the continued unrest and irresponsibility of leaders who cannot reach agreements.

Journalists have been there, too, reporting on what’s happening and also dying in the cause.

Recently, an American reporter being held hostage was beheaded. Another was released from captivity. More are waiting and their families are hoping that they will be released, too.

Here at home, the profession of journalism scores so low in the estimation of people it’s embarrassing. Across the nation, we have a free press that can report on anything and everything that’s going on, that is a watchdog on our government, that tells us what is happening in our communities and on the committees and commissions that run our towns, cities, counties, states and more.

And people view those who go out there and do the grunt work as less reliable, less honest and less of everything than the sleaziest and lowest people in our society. We’re like Bernie Madoff, you might say, only less likeable.

Oddly, most folks have never met a working journalist. One time, when I was moving from Vero Beach to Sarasota, one of the young movers was intrigued. He didn’t follow the news that much, but said he thought what I did was fascinating. I don’t cover the news, of course, but put together a newspaper (and very occasionally help with the website), but he admitted he had never met a member of the press before.

During my times when I was laid off and working as a freelance reporter as well as a reporter for The Bradenton Times, of course I got to see the other side of journalism and worked hard to get stories correct. Sources might have been puzzled to see me holding an audio recorder and taking notes, but my true goal was to quote people accurately, and the recorder was just a backup to make sure I got things right.

That level of commitment to “getting it right” may not be noticed unless someone “gets it wrong.” We’ve seen journalistic scandals of all sorts, from community newspapers whose columnists commit plagiarism or simply make up stories to those at the highest levels, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The New Republic, whose fabricated stories damaged their reputations and all those who associated with those publications. I have always said that the news business is one where, if we are wrong, we have to take our lumps and admit our errors, then move on and re-earn the trust we need to be faithful watchdogs in the community.

It’s not an easy job, and there are many who’d prefer that journalism and news media outlets just go away. But we’re going to be at it until the last edition rolls of the press.

A world without news
Author Lawrence Wright is one of my personal favorites in the realm of journalism. His efforts to help readers to understand the Middle East have enlightened me on the forces that move events in that area of the world.

As a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, he has opened the doors to Scientology and al-Qaida in his magazine articles and books.

His work on al-Qaida has been spectacular, and his 2006 book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” won the Pulitzer Prize.

In the Jan. 5, 2004, issue of The New Yorker, Wright had a very long piece titled “The Kingdom of Silence,” in which he described the forces at work in Saudi Arabia. (Extract here. The story is behind the paywall.)

In his article, Wright describes three months as a consultant for an English-language newspaper, the Saudi Gazette, which is aimed at the millions of expatriate workers in the kingdom. The journalism practiced there is under the tight control of the government, and stories that make top leaders look bad are discouraged. The reporters, all young Saudis, are fearful of causing trouble, Wright finds, and even when raw sewage backs up in the streets and cholera breaks out, among other diseases, the reporting has to be very careful because a powerful prince owns the sewage treatment facility.

There is so much silence in Saudi Arabia and the media is muzzled because the leaders want it that way. As Wright later noted in his one-man stage play, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” the people of Saudi Arabia exist in a nether world of sorts, where the deal is that you don’t concern yourself with what’s going on, and the government will take care of you. If you decide that some aspect of the government is your business, well, the government will take care of you, all right.

As The New York Times noted in its review of Wright’s performance:

“What exactly does a hypnotized chicken have to do with Osama bin Laden? A more freakish juxtaposition of images you could hardly invent. But in “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” his engaging theatrical seminar on the rise of Islamic terrorism, Lawrence Wright draws a connection between the fanciful symbol and the frightful man with persuasive simplicity.” ….

“That hypnotized chicken is Mr. Wright’s bizarre metaphor for Saudi Arabia itself. When he was a kid in Oklahoma, a cousin entertained him by getting dizzied chickens to stand like statues. ‘Sometimes the existence in the modern world of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reminds me of that hypnotized chicken,’ he says with a wry smile. ‘It’s unlikely, it’s improbable, it’s unnatural — but there it is.’

“He is referring to the economic polarities and the extreme repression. The latter is illustrated wrenchingly in anecdotes about a tragic fire at a girls’ school (the students were not properly dressed, so they were allowed to burn alive) and how he watched helplessly as a woman reckless enough to expose her face in public was chased down the street by a member of the religious police. (Mr. Wright adds the macabre detail that many of these enforcers of Islam’s strict moral codes are ex-convicts who memorized the Koran in prison.)

“Despite the lack of economic options for its people and a government that steals a hefty percentage of the national income from oil, rebellion has never come to call. Why? Fear of the alternative, Mr. Wright suggests. ‘Change does not equal progress in the Middle East,’ he says.”

“Encounters with frustrated young Saudis raise the disturbing notion that the Saudi rulers quietly support the jihad as a convenient way to occupy — and destroy — generations of dissatisfied young men itching for something to do. Recounting a conversation with a group of Bedouins, some of whom have been tempted to fight in Iraq, he says, ‘They all agree there is a plot on the part of the clergy and their government to eliminate them, the unhappy, unemployed Saudi young men.'”

At one point, Wright notes that in the absence of politics and an open discussion about what’s going on, Saudis go shopping. The opening of a new Ikea store left a man dead, trampled in the mob rushing in.

Is that what we want in our communities? A news-less society? Where rumor runs rampant? Where those who once reported the news and prepared it for presentation mix coffee drinks for Starbucks and remember that once upon a time, they used a computer to write clever headlines, check the AP wires, tell the readers about something that was wrong and needed to be fixed, ate bad lunches in the breakroom and whined about the health care plan or the lack of raises.

Where the government does what it wants, spends money on boondoggles and ignores those who have served it?

I mentioned that there is an argument that we are free because of our soldiers, and not our reporters. Consider this: When those who have served and sacrificed for our nation were mistreated, and their efforts to fix things from within had no effect, they turned to reporters. Though much was made of The Washington Post’s series “The Other Walter Reed,” about the atrocities committed against wounded troops at the Army’s showplace hospital, Salon.com had been reporting for years on how wounded troops were being warehoused in remote bases around the country.

I remember when that story hit the AP wire. I was working the copy desk and I read the multi-part article, which was embargoed. I was so enraged, I had to walk alone outside the Herald-Tribune building. I was enraged as a veteran of the military and as an American that this was going on.

But I was proud. Proud that we live in a nation built on the soldiers’ sacrifices, and that journalists could tell their story.

The outrage from the Post series reverberated through the media. Not enough high-ranking officers were broken and sent to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, not enough rank was taken from those who inflicted this torment on the injured troops and their families, and I’m sure that there are still abuses going on, but some officers were cashiered from the military for knowing about it and not doing anything about it, and even the secretary of the Army, who lied about knowing about it, paid the price with his job.

But the journalists made sure that the soldiers got their due. And we’ll always make sure of that. We may not be liked, appreciated, recognized or even rewarded, but so long as ink is slapped onto paper or websites do news, reporters and editors will do their thing.

You might not like what we do, but we do it for you and those who want to know what’s going on.

Just getting it done is enough.

– 30 –

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August 27, 2014 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Politics, The news business | , , , , , , , ,

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