Journalism: Short Form Historians and the Art of Documenting Paint Dry
|June 23, 2013||Posted by admin under Journalism, Musings||
Watching “Long Distance Revolutionary” was humbling. On one hand, it was inspiring and on the other, it was a reminder that if you weren’t a teenage writing prodigy, don’t have a freedom fighting resume, haven’t been shot, wrongly imprisoned and locked up on death row for decades while continuing a prolific journalistic output, then you’re probably not going to become the greatest journalist ever.
Ironically, Mumia is celebrated for displaying one of the biggest “taboos” in the journalism industry, having an opinion. He dared to tell stories from the perspective of people that weren’t the police, elected officials and business leaders. His work challenged the idea that we are no more than short form historians.
Often times I wonder if my journalism job is nothing more than a glorified name for documenting paint dry. We’re constantly reminded that we aren’t paid for our opinion. We are simply here to “tell the story.”
It’s an exercise in watching history repeat itself; watching people screw up over and over again. It’s not just police, politicians and business leaders either. You constantly see well-meaning, change-oriented people recycling the same rhetoric and reactionary tactics. After a while, you just want to grab people, shake them and yell, “Stop it! I see this every day. I know how the movie ends.”
But of course, that’s not my job.
When I really began looking at journalism as a career, I wanted to be like Mumia. I thought I could bring about change through controlling the news.
The reality is that most of what I write serves more importance for being a part of historical record than it ever will for spurring people towards action. People don’t read (especially if the story isn’t sensationalized). If you get a scoop that pulls the veil off of what’s really going on and somehow manage to avoid getting your story deleted and/or edited because sponsors, donors, or other interests pull your boss’s card, then chances aren’t it won’t be recognized until weeks, months, and sometimes even years after it has been published. The whipping you’ll receive in the meantime will have you questioning whether it was even worth it.
For that matter, is the battle for news worth it? With the wealth of information, is it really possible to keep everyone up on everything?
I can try to keep up with Mumia and Noam Chomsky but what kind of effect does trying to stay that informed have on my health and interaction with others? What does it profit it me to stay up on all the latest police murders of Blacks (an extrajudicial murder of a Black person occurs every 36 hours according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement) when I’ve missed yet another Keaton Otis rally?
How much power do you really have if you manage to get inside the system? Does it matter if you’re doing the devil’s work with a conscience? At what point do you become what you never wanted to be?
You get tired of posting CNN Wire stories and writing snarky subheads or posting Facebook commentary to let anyone who is reading know you have a soul.
At some point, you begin to hate people. One moment, they’re castigating you for being a tool of the power structure and the next, they’re thanking you for your service.
We look down on our competitors for reprinting press releases and somehow think we’re better because we don’t attach our names when we commit the same sins.
Then, when readers criticize us for our press release stories, we remind them that we only have three reporters trying to cover the whole city. We remind them that many people feel too powerless to speak to the press or don’t trust it so what choice do we have?
People tell you that you should go out on your own and distance yourself from the baggage of your owner.
That’s fine but many of the people who granted the interviews your readers loved will no longer talk to you without the guarantee of an established audience. Your lack of so-called official press credentials will prevent you access to many buildings, functions and general scoops that mainstream reporters often misuse when they could be telling the real story.
When it comes down to it, how many banks would I have to rob and/or how many bright-eyed kids would I have to pimp out of pay to make the dream of a sustainable, independent press business come true?
In a sick and twisted way, Mumia is actually the freest a journalist can possibly be. He is able to be prolific at his craft without compromising his voice. His daily doses of hell fuel the passion and urgency of his work. As a friend once told me, great people either do horrible things or have horrible things happen to them.
Meanwhile, admirers like me wonder what we can do. Is the patience that being a short form historian requires worth it? What is the end game for journalists who do their job well?
For example, look at Michael Hastings. He worked to become a celebrated investigative reporter while being seen as no less than an enemy of Washington, the military and their loyal press corp. What was his reward? He died in a suspicious (to say the least) car crash, only for seemingly no one to care while the top story of the week was the death of Tony Soprano.