November 11, 2003

Voices of the Dead

I read two things this morning that made me think about the nature - and the power - of journalism.

The first was Jay Rosen's evisceration of Washington Post editor Leonard Downie for his comments in the Columbia Journalism Review about the process of journalism, which Downie, to simplify, characterizes as primarily stenographic, recording information the public needs and passing it along via the printed page.

Downie's expression of journalistic decision-making is either nave or calculated. I'm on a big deadline today and don't have time for much elaboration. For now, think about Downie's comments in the context of the principles of journalism outlined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in "The Elements of Journalism":

1. Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to its citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Any one of these definitions requires more than stenography to put into practice. Taken together, journalism requires more than, as Downie defines it, "an organic process of responding to the information we're finding, and responding to events in society."

The second thing I read this morning caused me to add a tenth principle to the Kovach-Rosenstiel list:

10. Journalism must give voice to the voiceless.

This morning, the New York Times gave voice to the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq by printing excerpts from letters they had written home. Read them.

Some are simple, like that of Sgt. Kevin Morehead, who wrote to his wife in hopeful sentences, telling her not "to worry about how we are going to make it after I get out."

Others reflect a stoic bravery, or maybe just an acceptance of the horrific conditions of war, like that of 19-year-old Rachel Bosveld, who told her mother that, yes, "I did get into a sort of accident" and then described how her truck was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and her "hearing in general isn't good at all anymore."

One is terribly sad, that of 34-year-old Jesse Givens, who wrote a letter to his wife and two children (one of them born 28 days after he died) with the intention it only be read if he were killed. He wrote:

"I never thought that I would be writing a letter like this. I really don't know where to start. I've been getting bad feelings, though and, well, if you are reading this. . . .

"The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy's laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. You saved me from loneliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed.

" I will always be there with you, Melissa. ... Do me a favor, after you tuck the children in. Give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside and look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile."

This is the power of journalism - to portray life, to share the experience of death, to convey emotion, to carry the voice of a dead soldier from a dirty riverbed in Iraq to Manhattan to my home in California and make me mourn that soldier's death and grieve for his family.

And, it can do all this simply by printing letters. Imagine what journalism can do with initiative and direction.

If Leonard Downie truly believes journalism is nothing more than the construction of a sterile connection between event and reader or government and public, then he is wrong.

Journalism's first obligation is to the truth - and the truth is complicated and messy and elusive. Pursuing it is not a job for a stenographer.

Links
 New York Times The Things They Wrote
 PressThink We Just Don't Think About It: The Strange Press Mind of Leonard Downie
 Columbia Journalism Review A Tyranny of Symbols

Posted by Tim Porter at November 11, 2003 09:06 AM
Comments

Wonderful post, Tim.

Posted by: Ryan on November 11, 2003 12:13 PM

Tim...These are beautiful thoughts and totally true. You have described the feeling I get every day in some way, sometimes small and sometimes big, as I go through my NYT every page, every day.

Posted by: d rabin on November 12, 2003 05:12 PM

Tim

You are a legend!

Posted by: Jozef on November 16, 2003 03:36 AM
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