Perspective can be a funny thing. Looking at something from one point gives you only a single view. But time, or a change of stance, can open an entire vista to new shades of meaning and shadows. This photo of Summersville Lake takes me back to my childhood — I had family within driving distance from there, and I spent a lot of hot summer days splashing in the lake and flipping watermelon seeds at my cousins from across a crowded picnic table.
But the girl I was back then has seen a lot of water rush under the dam…and a whole lot of difficulties and shades of gray that I could never have imagined as the naive, idealist that I was as a child when I fundamentally believed that every person had some good in them.
Alas, I have had that disproved more than once in my lifetime. And no, you don’t want to know the details, but trust me on this. There is evil, and it walks the earth. Sometimes in as fine a guise as you could behold, sneaking up and dragging you into the shadows from whence you may never emerge…but then, you get that glimpse of sunlight, blazing through, and realize that there is hope.
Where there is sunshine, there is always hope.
Today, I want to talk a bit about those who ought to take their obligation to provide much needed sunlight all the more seriously in times of shadow and obfuscation. And I want to begin by quoting Bill Moyers:
…After my government experience, it took me a while to get my footing back in journalism. I had to learn all over again that what is important for the journalist is not how close you are to power, but how close you are to reality. Over the last forty years, I would find that reality in assignment after assignment, from covering famine in Africa and war in Central America to inner-city families trapped in urban ghettos and middle-class families struggling to survive in an era of downsizing across the heartland. I also had to learn one of journalism’s basic lessons. The job of trying to tell the truth about people whose job it is to hide the truth is almost as complicated and difficult as trying to hide it in the first place. We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news, but our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden….
The quintessential lesson of my life came from another Texan named John Henry Faulk. He was a graduate, as am I, of the University of Texas. He served in the Merchant Marines, the American Red Cross and the U.S. Army during World War II, and came home to become a celebrated raconteur and popular national radio host whose career was shattered when right-wingers inspired by Joseph McCarthy smeared him as a communist. He lost his sponsors and was fired. But he fought back with a lawsuit that lasted five years and cost him every penny he owned. Financial help from Edward R. Murrow and a few others helped him to hang on. In the end, John Henry Faulk won, and his courage helped to end the Hollywood era of blacklisting. You should read his book, Fear on Trial, and see the movie starring George C. Scott. John Henry’s courage was contagious.
Before his death I produced a documentary about him, and during our interview he told me the story of how he and his friend, Boots Cooper, were playing in the chicken house there in central Texas when they were about twelve years old. They spotted a chicken snake in the top tier of the nest, so close it looked like a boa constrictor. As John Henry told it, "All of our frontier courage drained out of our heels. Actually, it trickled down our overall legs. And Boots and I made a new door through the hen house." His momma came out to see what all of the fuss was about, and she said to Boots and John Henry, "Don’t you know chicken snakes are harmless? They can’t hurt you." Rubbing his forehead and his behind at the same time, Boots said, "Yes, Mrs. Faulk, I know, but they can scare you so bad you’ll hurt yourself."
John Henry Faulk never forgot that lesson. I’m always ashamed when I do. Temptation to co-option is the original sin of journalism, and we’re always finding fig leaves to cover it: economics, ideology, awe of authority, secrecy, the claims of empire. In the buildup to the invasion of Iraq we were reminded of what the late great reporter A.J. Liebling meant when he said the press is "the weak slat under the bed of democracy." The slat broke after the invasion and some strange bedfellows fell to the floor: establishment journalists, neo-con polemicists, beltway pundits, right-wing warmongers flying the skull and bones of the "balanced and fair brigade," administration flacks whose classified leaks were manufactured lies–all romping on the same mattress in the foreplay to disaster.
Five years, thousands of casualties, and hundreds of billion dollars later, most of the media co-conspirators caught in flagrante delicto are still prominent, still celebrated, and still holding forth with no more contrition than a weathercaster who made a wrong prediction as to the next day’s temperature. The biblical injunction, "Go and sin no more," is the one we most frequently forget in the press. Collectively, we don’t seem to learn that all it takes to transform an ordinary politician and a braying ass into the modern incarnation of Zeus and the oracle of Delphi is an oath on the Bible, a flag in the lapel, and the invocation of national security….
The entire speech is extraordinary, so do yourself a favor and read it in its entirety. (I have been hoping the folks from TBA would put the Moyers introduction of Norman Lear on YouTube, for it was a masterpiece, but alas, not yet.) If in the course of my lifetime, I should be able to turn a phrase half as well as Bill Moyers, I shall die happy. In the meantime, his point on the need for exposure of complicity and some measure of self-awareness and transparency are well-taken, and something we’ve discussed any number of times.
But they are worth pointing out in a personal context, and for that, I give you Elizabeth Edwards:
"Who got to decide this?" she asked about the media’s anointment of certain candidates worthy of attention over others. "Whoever decided this probably also decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate for president." (Again, Mrs. Edwards faulted the media for hyping Mr. Thompson’s presidential prospects in the months before his Republican campaign collapsed.)
Mrs. Edwards didn’t just focus on the media coverage of political candidates; like many others who crave policy discussions on National Public Radio or in documentary-style formats, she pleaded for less Britney Spears (oh, she lamented, on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly she was last month), and more dissection of critical issues like health policy.
Amen. I am forever taking out bits and pieces that I have written and wondering if I emphasized something at the expense of something far more important, trying to figure out how I missed an important mark, or dived so far into the shallow end when I ought to have waded far deeper. Would that I were confident that any number of professional journalists were doing the same about their own work…or lack thereof. They could try reading more Froomkin for a good start.
Let us all strive to be more, to do more with the lives that we have. So that, some day in our dotage when we look back at what we have tried to accomplish, we can smile and think about all those battles, won and lost, in which we carried forth. No one wants to think "if only," and certainly not "damn that morning crumpet at the St. Regis." So, go forth…and ask a lot of impertinent questions. Pull up a chair…