Journalists suck. We journalism majors are painfully aware of this fact, mostly because it has been drilled into our brains by the crusty old newspeople who are our professors. They remember a time before Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore were the most trusted names in objective reporting, before gossip columns were front page material, before presidential addresses were interrupted by car chases, and those memories must drive them nuts.
Normally, such complaints would sound like the nostalgic ramblings of aging baby boomers who swear everything was better before you were born. But you don’t have to be bitter and balding to realize just how degraded the profession of journalism has become. Turn on one of those 24-hour cable news stations, and there’s some nerd in a bow tie yelling at another guy in a cheap suit who calls it “a fair and balanced debate.” Switch over to the networks, and there’s Dan Rather intoning about forged memos. Open a newspaper, and there are at least five fake stories in there.
And to think, I chose to study this discipline in high school because I wanted to bring about some change in this world: uncover corruption, stop injustice, and maybe even bring down a president. (Okay, not really. I mainly just wanted to write about rock bands. But my point is still valid.)
Two things got me thinking about the poor state of journalism recently. One was the image of a deer trying to leap through the window of a cabin during a snowstorm.
Perhaps that requires an explanation. One night, I declined to change the channel after watching a rerun of “Seinfeld,” and inadvertently caught the beginning of a UPN newscast. Their lead stories were the leaked transcripts of grand jury testimony in the Michael Jackson molestation trial, the discovery of mysterious paw prints in the mud out near the Ronald Reagan Library, and something having to do with a deer getting trapped inside a cabin somewhere. Never mind this was the same day President Bush announced the new director of national intelligence, as that story was probably buried somewhere after the hard-hitting report on the owner of a particularly cute bunny rabbit in Chatsworth.
No one has ever accused UPN or any other local newscast of being a bastion of journalistic integrity. But they are the kind of news programs that most average Americans are likely to watch, and not just because the anchormen look like pop stars and the women are increasingly, um, “well-endowed.” They’re the easiest for people to digest right before bed (or right after watching “Seinfeld”), yet they’re full of information that has no bearing on viewers’ real lives.
The other thing that got me depressed about my chosen career, and life in general, was the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson. To many, he was a living cartoon character, thanks to Johnny Depp and Bill Murray’s over-the-top cinematic portrayals of him, and to the “Doonesbury” comic strip, which literally turned him into a cartoon character named Uncle Duke.
But to me, Thompson represented the unfulfilled promise of “new journalism,” the movement that elevated reporting to the level of literary art.
His most famous book was the drug-addled “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” which blurred the lines between fact, fiction and chemically distorted reality.
From a journalistic standpoint, however, his greatest achievement was probably “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” a collection of dispatches from the 1972 presidential race. In it, he incinerated all the rules of conventional political reporting, ignoring policy issues and lobbing scathing comments at both sides. He wasn’t exactly “objective,” but he was fair. He thought Richard Nixon was the devil incarnate and the Democrats running for the nomination against him were spineless, and as it turns out, he was also right. Nixon betrayed the country’s trust and was forced to resign, forever alienating the public from politics, and the Dems are still a bunch of wimps.
His style was called “gonzo,” but it was really the truest form of journalism. He was a keen observer of the world around him, and he documented all that he saw through his acid-washed eyes. What he saw in 1972 was a country emerging from the haze of the ’60s to find the utopia they dreamed about had turned into hell. And he wasn’t afraid to say so.
No one can hope to write like Thompson, but as journalism students will undoubtedly revisit his work in the wake of his death, the thing to take from him is his fearlessness. Ultimately, that’s what it will take to revive this once prestigious profession: the audacity to say what needs to be said.
The only people that seem to have that sort of backbone are those who would vehemently reject the “journalist” tag, comedians like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart.
Maybe it’s time we redefined what constitutes a “journalist.” Sure, Stewart is a satirist and a pretend anchorman, but his ambush of Tucker Carlson on CNN’s screaming talking head show “Crossfire” in October — during which he pleaded with the hosts to “stop hurting America” with their empty rhetoric–was a greater act of journalistic bravery than I’ve seen from a “real” journalist in quite a while.
Believe me, it was better than watching a deer try to climb through a cabin window in a snowstorm.