Thursday, May 1, 2008

A trade for all America, this Journalism

I heard now-retired newspaper columnist William Raspberry talk about Journalism once – as a trade – reporting being as vital and hands-on as plumbing or wiring. For graduates (and acknowledging Hall of Fame baseball announcer Ernie Harwell) here’s a salute to Journalism.

Journalism is reporters teasing President Bush at a White House dinner and a child reading the funnies with a mom in White Hall, Ill. It’s the infamous newsroom bums such as Jason Blair and Stephen Glass, sure, but it’s also Sy Hersh, Helen Thomas and many others who keep finding truth and sharing it.

A quiet guy clipping a friend’s obituary – that’s Journalism. So is the pair of young Washington reporters churning out story after story until a President is shamed into resigning.

It’s America, Journalism; an epic poem, a play, a nation’s portrait – remade every day. It’s the New York Times and a community weekly. The color comics on Sunday, a small-town paper’s uptown web site, USA Today’s sports section, and the births and deaths in countless newspapers of record from coast to coast. And ink made from soybeans and newsprint that can soak up spills or be recycled, almost anywhere.

There’s a man in Moline who remembers a story he read by a courthouse newswoman or a kid in Morton who clipped a human-interest piece by a man who took risks for readers. That’s Journalism. So is the subscriber calling for extra copies of the paper with something about a neighbor in the Food or Arts section.

It’s a retired teacher phoning the newsroom with complaints about a typo on page C-6. And a grinning photojournalist giving a high-five to a violinist or gymnast after a first solo or balance-beam routine.

Journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” it’s said, a spirited sprint to record facts and feelings. It’s also an art and a craft to seize moments. Many are noticed – heroism or failure is seen, cheered or booed, and hopefully understood. Some become numbers; others memories.
In Journalism, democracy grows. The only race that should matter is the race to deadline. The creed is the AP Stylebook. Color is something distinguishing a feature story or photo.

Journalism is a foreign visitor asking about the late, great Carl Rowan or Molly Ivins, Hunter S. Thompson or Ruben Salazar. How could America produce and relish the likes of Randy Shilts and I.F. Stone, Vincent Chin and Margaret Bourke-White? Or the First Amendment itself, or SPJ or the Newspaper Guild.

It’s Herblock cranking out classic editorial cartoons and Henry Stanley exploring Africa in search of Dr. Livingstone. It’s a race to a radio for an immediate report from a scene, or someone standing in a hurricane for a weather forecast. Journalism also is the critic lecturing a painter about perspective, and a scientist trying to write a 600-word op-ed piece due tomorrow.

Journalism is jazz without music. Math without grades. Video games without violence.
A woman out West can’t tell you the color of her husband’s eyes but she knows the Dow Jones or the Consumer Price Index or her favorite CD is up or down. That’s Journalism. So is the corporate-minded Newseum in Washington, D.C. And the ex-reporter, still writing while circling the drain teaching at a college somewhere.

Journalism is continuity. A tip, then a source to verify. Desk to deadline to press time. Download, upload, podcast and blog. Idea to illustration. Pictures and stories to audiences’ eyes.

It’s rain soaking the stoop where the paper lies dry in plastic. And lightning making the radio crackle and the TV crawl with warnings. And the flash of email alerts and RSS feeds from keyboards in distant lands, humming like an huge engine fueled by and driving information.

Journalism is a sleepy carrier or a smart-aleck copy editor. The old-timer whose scoops increase every time he remembers the past. A woman celebrating a conviction of a crook or profits at a local factory or good prices for crops by throwing the paper in the air.

Journalism is the cool, clear eyes of Ida Tarbell or Ida B. Wells, the flashing brilliance of Mike Royko, and the daring exploits of adventurers as varied as Nelly Bly and Richard Harding Davis, Marguerite Higgins and Floyd Gibbons.

Journalism, just a job? It’s work, but more. As complex as the American spirit from which it benefits, it’s a trade, a business and, sometimes, even a faith.

Journalism is Tradition written in skinny notebooks. And Shame in missing a story. It is Courage in exposing the lousy treatment of veterans. It is Humor in Dave Barry making us laugh out loud. It’s Amusement in all the crossword puzzles, horoscopes and supplementary flavors that help the hard news go down. And it’s Emotion, going with what you got and working on a follow-up for tomorrow.

Names are Journalism, too. The Hawk Eye, High-Country News and Herald-Whig, the Picayune, Porcupine and Pantagraph; Pulitzer, Scripps and Hearst.

Journalism is a noisy, frantic newsroom where hopes and feelings run as rampant as relay teams or political candidates. It’s a corner pressroom with coffee-stained desks. It’s the endless lists of names in race results – from tracks or voting booths.

The griper and grumbler is Journalism, too. He wants to finish a novel or go on the radio or be on cable TV; nothing’s ever good enough; “whaddaya got today?” And he wants decent wages – and deserves them. Journalism is the newbie, too – the recent grad who goes from the Midwest to Texas on spec, just for an interview or tryout.

His Girl Friday and The Paper, The Daily Planet and the Daily Bugle, Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers, CBS’s Edward R. Murrow on the radio or TV and the Guild’s Heywood Broun on picket lines or beneath headlines. Journalism is interns – with experience no bigger than the lumps in their throats – trying to begin a dream. It’s veteran scribes, too – tired old hands of 45, knees gone, praying to stay with the work they love.

Every week, day, hour – minutes now – Journalism is the story of David and Goliath, of Sinbad, Paul Bunyan, of Jackie Robinson and the Lord of the Rings.

It’s H.L. Mencken covering the Scopes trial, William Allen White writing a heart-breaking obit of his daughter, Grantland Rice describing the Army-Notre Dame game with the Four Horsemen – “Outlined against a blue, gray October sky …” – Ernie Pyle filing from World War II’s “worm’s eye view,” and John Hersey reporting from the ruins of Hiroshima.

Journalism is not a job description, it’s said. It’s a diagnosis.

This diagnosis is a trade for democracy, for America, this Journalism.

Through the centuries, Journalism has extended from James Boswell and Ambrose Bierce, plus the many nameless reporters at innumerable statehouses, cop shops and press boxes, through Marvel Cooke, Joe Galloway, Gene Roberts, Pete Hamill and Amy Goodman. Journalism is Reuters and Rolling Stone, Clarence Page and the AP, Red Smith and Daniel Pearl.

Sacrifices were made, lives given for Journalism. Don’t disgrace it; celebrate.