You can call me one of Woodstein’s children.
That was the name for American kids growing up during the Watergate era who, watching Washington Post Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring the Nixon Administration to justice, decided they wanted to be journalists. It seemed the most exciting thing in the world. Working as an investigative reporter offered the chance to be Superman, Sherlock Holmes and Gandhi all at the same time. Scrapping my ambitions to become the next Che Guevera (which had replaced my earlier dream of playing in the NBA), I began thinking of myself as a writer.
I recall this now, less because of recent revelations about the identity of the key source in the Watergate story, and more because of a play I recently saw. The Guthrie Theatre here in Minneapolis staged a rollicking performance of John Guare’s “His Girl Friday”, a slapstick comedy (based upon the classic Hollywood movie, which itself was based upon a classic Broadway play) about newspaper reporters starring film actress Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance of Law and Order TV fame. The portrayal of journalists in this story, set in Chicago of the 1930s, was anything but heroic. They were a hardened gang of cynics who couldn’t care less about the corrupt cops, judges, and politicians around them, unless there was a juicy bit of news for the front page.
After several decades of working in the press, I can vouch that the images of journalists as bold crusaders for a social change and as wise-cracking guardians of the status quo are both accurate. Some of my colleagues in the Fourth Estate have done stories that saved lives or set the stage for important social reforms. Others have enjoyed a steady paycheck by using their talents to flatter and bolster the powers that be. I realize now there is no more intrinsic honour to this job than in being a good pastry chef.
But one thing does set journalism apart from other lines of work. We live today in a media-saturated world where most of what even the best-informed citizens know on any subject—from the Middle East to new health treatments—comes from what they hear over the airwaves and read in print. Journalists are among the lucky few who get to explore what’s happening in the world first-hand. I think that’s a great privilege, which is accompanied by a great responsibility. As journalists we were taught in school and on the job that it’s our duty to report the news fairly—to get the facts right and tell more than one side of a story. I surely agree. But our duty doesn’t end there. I believe those who report and record the events of our era have an obligation to search not just for news but for ideas that might serve as solutions for problems large and small.
That’s surprisingly controversial to many journalists. A few years back when New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen floated the idea of “Civic Journalism”—the eminently sensible principle that local newspapers and broadcast stations commit themselves to improving life in their own communities—he was immediately attacked from some quarters for trying to destroy the American media’s sacred code of objectivity. You can just imagine how Ode’s mission of promoting positive developments across the entire planet sounds to these people.
As a journalist, however, I am happy an increasing number of my colleagues are eagerly engaged in spreading hope as part of their jobs. And as a user of the media, I am delighted to see how blogs, ‘zines, webzines and other emerging forms of media are broadening the definition of who is a journalist, offering us the chance to hear from a far greater number of voices. Indeed, you might call this new breed of reporters Woodstein’s grandchildren.