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Friday, April 18, 2008

Bill Moyers: Journalists As Truth Tellers

Another quickie link, but as always, Bill Moyers is worth the read. Here are some excerpts from his speech in Washington, DC, April 3, 2008, at the fifth annual Ridenhour Prize awards ceremony, sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation:

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.

Unless you are willing to fight and re-fight the same battles until you go blue in the face, drive the people you work with nuts going over every last detail to make certain you've got it right, and then take all of the slings and arrows directed at you by the powers that be - corporate and political and sometimes journalistic - there is no use even trying. You have to love it and I do. I.F. Stone once said, after years of catching the government's lies and contradictions, "I have so much fun, I ought to be arrested." Journalism 101.

...

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.

Please read the whole speech. And...if you've never read any A.J. Liebling, I would recommend it. He wrote hilarious essays about his times in Paris. Many of his works are out of print, but if you can find a compilation of his writings that include his Paris essays, grab it and you'll be taken through a glorious turn through Champagne and oysters on the half shell, all told in great humor.

1 comments:

Hungry Mother said...

You can always count on Bill Moyers to tell it as it is. Thanks for the link.