A Message to Independent Journalists
Our image of the journalist, especially the independent journalist, is the stand-alone, arms-across-chest guy with the cocked hat, grubby coat and tattered notebook in his hand. That’s not my reality.
Carolyn Forché, the wonderful anti-war poet of the ‘70s and ‘80s, has a new memoir out, in which she describes her origin story. A man shows up at her door, a stranger, who has driven three days from Central America with his two young daughters in his car to invite her to come to his country and see for herself what is happening in El Salvador. She goes.
I think of the way I’ve been invited to do the journalism that I do. I’ve been lucky to have some great inviters—women, mostly, in Northern Ireland, Haiti, Central America. I’ve had some great mentors, too—people who gave me space to grow and trust to do the work I do: Jeff Cohen, when he was at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; Samori Marksman at WBAI, who let me get on the air, no training whatsoever; Vivian Stromberg of the organization MADRE who said, “Come, you take the pictures; I’ll pay your way.” I traveled with Vivian, photographing MADRE’S work in Central America, Palestine, Iraq, and later Lebanon and Rwanda; June Jordan, who invited me to meet her Poetry for the People poets and invited me to smile; Eve Ensler. The list is very long.
I think of independent journalism less as a matter of independence and more as a matter of ingenuity. (Can you figure out how to get where you want to go in a way that pays your bills?) But more important even than ingenuity is inquisitiveness, curiosity and being willing to take up invitations.
Journalism, to me, is an exchange of generosities. Someone is trusting you with their story, you are paying attention. The exchange is an exchange of trust and faith. If there were any journalist’s pose, it’s not the pose of standing alone, it’s the pose of paying attention, of listening in.
A lot has changed in thirty years, but a lot has stayed very much the same. One of the things that is the same is that it is still, very largely, white, straight men who decide what is newsworthy—and who is worthy of making and reporting the news. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that journalists love to talk about themselves and their beleaguered field. We’ve heard a lot, especially in the last two years, about the “crisis” in journalism.
I humbly suggest that if we had reported as much on the small towns across America that have lost their local paper as we have reported on the loss of local papers, we would have a much better sense of what is happening in this country.
It’s true, journalism across America is in a turbulent state. Newsroom employment has dropped by nearly a quarter in less than ten years. A third of large newspapers have seen layoffs in the last year alone. But these crises are related to others. The richest Americans now live on average 15 years longer than the poorest. While billions of dollars have stacked up in a few households, 36 states have seen cuts in school funding over the last decade, even as student enrollment has risen. Hospitals close at a rate of 30 a year, and over 27 million people are uninsured. In the wealthiest country in the world, access to healthy food and economic opportunity is seeping away from millions of Americans.
We are not the crisis. Journalists are not the casualties of this moment. The journalism that moves history has never depended on the largesse of the economy, the beneficence of those in power, or the insiders with their paychecks and string-laden scoops. American history has advanced alarm bell by alarm bell, outsider by outsider, thanks to people who often had no resources, who were barred from “access” to the halls of power by law or by practice: muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells. They were not privileged, their lives were not unprecarious.
Our Tom Paines have been people at the margins—reporters on a mission to tell the uncomfortable, unfamiliar, uncommon truth, which is to say, the unfunded kind. Today you hear a lot about making journalism “great” again. I’m of the camp that believes mainstream journalism was never great, but maybe it could be, and maybe now is our opportunity to remake it and remake it “greater” if we spent more time, not less, on the margins.
Independence sounds nice, but, really, there’s no such thing. There’s only who you are dependent on. However, you can make choices about who you’re independent from. Thirty years ago, when I was working at FAIR, it was easy to figure out who we were independent from. We were independent from networks owned by GE, Westinghouse and Disney and publishers like Rupert Murdoch. Today, it’s a bit more complicated. The biggest threat we face, I think, is what I call the conventional bore. Not the one we see nightly on TV, but the worm of conventional thinking that gets into your brain and urges you to believe all sorts of things you know are not true. Things like: people with enormous amounts of money, who have created the system of inequality we endure, will also help us cure it.
I grew up with Audre Lorde writing that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Now there’s a loud chorus saying, “but what if they might?” After all, now we have this new technology; maybe metrics around scale and sustainability and impact and volume, maybe those are good metrics to run your independent media outlet by? Today, the challenge is to remain independent from that kind of thinking. Now, it’s not just outside forces that are saying you have to abide by the protocols of the market, it’s the voice inside your head, because now you have your own operation, your own platform, your own social media presence and so on, and you are supposed to do this all yourself: run a business, do the journalism, obey the protocols of the market and survive.
Again, I go back to the idea that the survival of journalism is not the point. And maybe our job is not to achieve scale, but to tip the scale on a whole way of thinking about the economy and productivity and justice.
Maybe our job is to introduce people to each other and to thoughts they might never have had. Maybe our job is to give a little air time to people who never get any air time and just might have something different to say. Maybe our job is not to worry too much about our own sustainability, and instead remember the belief and trust and faith that the source had when they drove to your door or told you about the violence committed against them or the wrong that they’re facing, or the conditions they are living in that maybe they’re embarrassed by. If we owe those people anything, it’s that we show the same trust in the universe that they had in us. The truth may not set us free, but it’s worth telling and that’s enough.
I want to end with a story that ran in The New York Times and moved me. I’m sure there’s more to it than just what appeared on the front page, but it’s about a public school in Akron, OH. A school funded, in part, by LeBron James. Erica L. Green writes:
The students paraded through hugs and high-fives from staff, who danced as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” blared through the hallways. They were showered with compliments as they walked through a buffet of breakfast foods.
The scene might be expected on a special occasion at any other public school. At LeBron James’s I Promise School, it was just Monday. Every day, they are celebrated for walking through the door.
The story continues, reporting that these kids, who had been among the most poorly performing, most at risk, most assumed to have serious learning problems, given this kind of celebration (along with sufficient money for additional tools and teachers), are now meeting and exceeding individual growth goals, and outperforming ninety percent of their peers.
Who are the people that we’re not celebrating as they come through the door? Who are the people that we’re not greeting as they dare to put their heads above the parapet and make some suggestions, or ask some new questions—not just, for example, about how sad things are, but about the systems that make things so sad; not just how bad things are, but how did they get to be so bad, and how could they be different?
What if we celebrated those questions every day and paid maybe just a little less attention to our own precious welfare as journalists? I think that kind of risk-taking, that kind of trust, that kind of generosity of time and attention is the very least we owe those who bring us their stories.
And so, in the interests of all of those people, and in honoring all of those stories, I want to thank you for helping to make it possible for all of us to do the reporting we do, and I want each of you to consider yourself a reporter. What are you hearing, what are you seeing? Who or what do you want to celebrate today? What do you want to change?