Sunday, June 05, 2005

Essay dedicated to the mainstream press: "Don't it leave you on the empty side?"

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Quagmire. There we said it. Did you grimace? Did you toss out some nonsense about how long it took to rebuild a country after WWII? Are you still so scared of making the comparison to the Vietnam conflict?

The nation's turning against this illegal war. Every day, another new detail emerges. The mainstream press, if it addresses it, does so fleetingly. But the people are making the connections the press refuses to make.

You've got a press collectively pulling a hard for the glory days of the Watergate coverage all week. And then they go back to . . . talking about Tom Cruise. Hey, we understand Christian Slater may have been charged with something. Surely you can continue to do your j-schools proud by easing out of the Michael Jackson coverage and into that.

As Ruth pointed out a few editions back, it's easy to look back and think that the press was once just doing one hard hitting story after another. That they were actively and unanimously exposing the lies of Vietnam. But that's not the case. Then, as now, the public had to turn against the war. Only then did the press start to do its job.

We're guessing their collective eyes were on the media circus that has been the Michael Jackson trial and so they missed what's happening in your town or your city, what's happening all across the nation.

As low as we've gone
Now the ocean is calm,
And here comes the turn of the tide.
It's time to be heard,
It's time to decide.
Here comes the turn of the tide.

The tide is turning and has been for awhile. But apparently word on the street doesn't reach the lofty offices of The New York Times.

This week, we heard a great deal about the power of the press. We heard a great deal about how that power was supposed to be used. Were those just empty words? Was anyone listening or just reciting?

The New York Times followed up some strong reporting by Tim Golden recently with an in depth look at the torture jets used by the CIA. Golden and Scott Shane's story on the jets were front page stories. This could be a time for reinvention, for dedicating themselves to the core mission of their profession. But this morning's New York Times front page, sadly, busies itself telling you that Bill the kitty killer Frist says he'll prevail in the long run.

Wow. Color us informed.

After the rush when you come back down
You're always disappointed
Nothing seems to keep you high
Drive your bargain
Push your papers
With your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don't it leave you on the empty side
When you come back down

So the shine on of last week, that's all it was? All the talk about the power of the press, just empty, self-congratulatory words? Bill Keller frets over circle jerks, what was this week long masturbation?

I've been waiting for something to happen
For a week or a month or a year
With the blood in the ink of the headlines
And the sound of the crowd in my ear
You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you've seen it before
Where a government lies a people
And a country is drifiting to war

What does it take to remember? For the press, apparently, the end to a three decades old parlor game. But what you gonna' do now?

Or maybe you're perfectly happy to live in the reflected glory of Woodward & Bernstein? Possibly, that competative drive only kicks in when it comes to your social calenders?

The news is meant to inform. As it stands now, the public is ahead of the press. Is this the stuff of the dreams that drove you through school? Did you tell yourself, "I'm going to bust my ass for this degree so that one day, somehow, some way, I can be mediocre."

If that's what you were shooting for, congratulations on the low expectations because you've succeeded. Possibly even beyond your wildest dreams.

But we're left to wonder where the one small voice will come from in the mainstream. You know the one small voice we mean, right?

So you walk away and say
Isn't he divine
Don't those clothes look fine
On the emperor
And as you take your leave
You wonder why you're feelin so ill at ease
Don't you know --
Lies -- take your soul
You can't hide from your self
Lies -- take their toll on you and everyone else
One small voice
Speakin' out in honesty
Silenced but not for long
One small voice
Speakin' with the values we were taught as children
Tell the truth
You can change the world but you better be strong.

You actually, many of you, went toe to toe with the Bully Boy and his administration for the past two weeks over the Newsweek controversy. You showed a spine when most of us assumed you'd been deboned shortly around the time he stole the first election.

Sure you were just covering your own asses, circling the wagons, looking out for number one, but did you notice what happened? Did the public storm the waiting rooms of the Washington Post? No.

Were you surprised to discover that in the end, the public didn't fall for the lines from the administration?

Could it maybe serve as a lesson to you?

Dare we suggest that perhaps that perhaps your problem isn't "media critics" or "bloggers," but the fact that you've abdicated your role for too long?

Might Bill Keller target some of the energy he's storing up to go to war with the bloggers instead on ensuring that his paper is leading the way with stories on the Downing St. Memo?

In the days of Watergate and immediately after, the press got one wet kiss from Hollywood after another as they were portrayed as dedicated to their jobs as watchdogs. Mary Richards went to jail to protect a source, for goodness sake. Jane Fonda twice played reporters breaking important stories (China Syndrome and The Electric Horseman). Robert Redford played Woody and Dustin Hoffman played Carl Bernstein. There were a few snags along the way (Absence of Malice which starred Sally Field as an incompetent reporter who put into print whatever she was told -- hey, maybe Judy Miller trying to project Sally Field wasn't so much of a stretch!) but by mid-decade in the eighties, a Broadcast News could still be made.

If trust has vanished in the press, it's because we're so aware of the repeated failures. And it's not as though these failures are the result of trying, they're the products of denying.

Publicisits are in the business of bait and switch, of spin. Reporters shouldn't be.

In a column this week, Alessandra Stanley made a big to do about how for all the talk of the electronic media's dominance, the unveiling of Deep Throat occurred in print while the electronic media only amplified that. We're not going to split hairs with Alessandra. Two of us are fans of her work (Ava and C.I.) but we will point out an obvious fact, one that we'll be most readers of The New York Times had pop into their heads as they read the column: The New York Times didn't break the story.

No, they were beaten to the punch by Vanity Fair, a sometimes solid magazine, but one not that far removed from Town & Country. Exactly what does that say about our daily press?

Songs quoted above, listed in order below:

"The Times They Are A Changing" written by Bob Dylan, from the album The Times They Are A-Changing.
"Turn of the Tide" words and music by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman, available on her boxed set Clouds in My Coffee.
"Woman of Heart and Mind" words and music by Joni Mitchell, from the album For the Roses.
"Lives in the Balance" words and music by Jackson Browne, title track from the album of the same name.
"One Small Voice" words and music by Carole King, from the album Speeding Time.
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