Friday, February 13, 2015

The Real Reporters

Kind of a weird, unsettling confluence of events related to the reporting of news and journalism this week.

Much revered television correspondent Bob Simon died Wednesday in a car accident at the age of 73. Best known for his regular contributions on 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II, Simon had a long, storied career reaching back to reporting on the Vietnam conflict and including covering the Persian Gulf War in in 1991, the latter assignment having involved him being imprisoned with his crew for nearly seven weeks. Read more about his incredible life and career over at CBS here.

Then yesterday New York Times columnist and author David Carr died suddenly at age 58, collapsing in the office not long after having just moderated a panel discussion earlier in the day about Edward Snowden. During his career Carr produced a lot of insightful commentary about the media and popular culture (including social media), and among the tributes being written today is a good, detailed one over at the NYT.

Just this past Monday, Carr was writing about Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who found himself in an imbroglio after revelations came to light over his having misrepresented details of a story regarding his reporting on the 2003 Iraq War. Carr was highly critical of Williams in the piece, although expressed some sympathy for his plight as a 21st-century network anchor-slash-celebrity.

“We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy,” concluded Carr, summarizing points he had made about Williams and his purported role. “It’s a job description that no one can match.” (Williams, as you’ve probably heard, has been suspended by NBC for six months, a move many think will serve as a means to remove him entirely as the network’s lead anchor.)

Also on Monday came Jon Stewart’s announcement of his intention to leave The Daily Show at some point later this year, the “fake news” show he has hosted since 1999. There was a point somewhere during the mid-2000s -- right around the time or just after the much-misreported Iraq invasion, I believe -- that you began to hear statistics reporting how more Americans were getting their news from Stewart’s satirical program than from “straight” news shows and networks.

I’m fascinated (and at times awed) by journalism and journalists, an interest that has been further fueled by all of the political reporting from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that I’ve immersed myself in as I nurture my fixation with Richard Nixon (and JFK and LBJ). There is so much that is good to read -- and to watch, too, as practically everything you might be curious about when it comes to presidents, politics, and reporting on both is readily available online.

The work of those who helped chronicle those decades first-hand -- from whom I’m gathering information and knowledge and a true education -- is incredibly valuable. As is the work of those serving similar roles today.

While I’ve had many chances to play “reporter” over the years -- both in poker and in other contexts -- I’ve never considered myself a journalist per se, even if whenever I write for an audience I earnestly endeavor to adhere to standards recognized by actual journalists.

Being a journalist -- a good one, that is -- requires such a difficult balance of effort, energy, honesty, integrity, creativity, imagination, and intelligence. It also requires a kind of instinctive selflessness that helps one to know how a story is supposed to be reported (that is, what is correct and needful as defined by one’s audience) as well as how one can report a story (that is, what one’s own limits are, defined both personally and in terms of audience).

There are other ethics -- a whole, detailed “code” -- when it comes to journalism with which many aren’t necessarily familiar, the details of which I also find fascinating to contemplate sometimes as I read and respond to others’ reporting. The more I do -- and the more I am exposed to genuinely excellent reporting -- the clearer it becomes how those who become good, solid, actual journalists have not just made a commitment, they’ve chosen a particular way of life.

“If you want to be loved, journalism is a poor career choice,” tweeted Simon about a year-and-a-half ago, perhaps representing that sentiment somewhat. It’s a line that carries a faint irony in retrospect, given the love for his work many have expressed in the wake of his passing. It’s also one that reminds me that as much as I admire the real reporters, they’ve made a choice I have not.

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