Friday, June 18, 2004

Some rules for you, other rules for me

A little story at the Chicago Reader, found via a post by Jesse Taylor at Pandagon, about a TV reporter covering a display of Reagan memorabilia in the state capitol ofSpringfield, IL, coinciding with his funeral. After shooting her story, she decided to sign the condolence book, didn't like what the person before her wrote about Reagan's decision to ignore AIDS during much of his administration, contacted security, then got into an argument with the guy. As Jesse asks in the post, entitled "This Is What It Sound Like When Idiots Squeal":
She contends that the camera was off, and although she'd just finished reporting, she was there as a private citizen. I'm just surprised that a reporter would run to a police officer and tattle on him, screaming in a public place about a person expressing his opinion in a public place, no matter how distasteful the pro-Reagan reporter might find it.

And, ah...considering that she'd just been there as a reporter, shouldn't she still be a bit careful about how she represents herself? What are the rules of journalistic propriety, especially on a story you just finished covering minutes earlier?

Volumes could be written about this. On the one hand, yes, reporters are citizens, just like everyone else, and are entitled to express their opinions when the camera or microphone is switched off or when their stories have been filed and printed. But while a print reporter can probably assume an anonymous persona that allows him or her to slip back among the civilians, a TV reporter is another thing. If this woman was still dressed and made up for TV, and with her crew following her around to boot, then it's as though she's straddling two worlds. When she goes to security, is she acting as a private citizen expressing her displeasure? As a reporter seeking information? As an advocate on behalf of the public interest? As a celebrity of certain note that believes she's entitled to a certain treatment? That camera becomes a threat, because all she has to do is ask for it to be switched on and she has a potential platform that the poor security guard doesn't.

This also brings to mind an old post by Slacktivist Fred Clark (back when he was still using Blogspot like the rest of us slobs). He referred to a piece of nasty mail that Josh Marshall had recieved in the run up to start of the Iraq war last year and quoted a small portion of it:
This may be the most critical time in the history of the modern world much less of our country; and it is my fervent hope that the American People will remember and appropriately reward those, like you, who have chosen to use this opportunity to forward a political cause, and not incidentally their own careers, by attempting to sabotage an honorable effort to make the world a safer, better place.

To which Mr. Clark quite eloquently replies:
"All flesh is grass," the prophet Isaiah said, and "the grass withereth." This guy, understandably, doth not want to wither. He wants his life to matter, to mean something. He wants to be remembered after he is gone.

He has given this war a metaphysical, religious significance. For him, the war isn't about oil, or "liberating" Iraq, or overthrowing an evil dictator. It's grander than that -- grander even than the dreams of empire that seem to be motivating Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz. This war is an attempt to give his life meaning by turning our times into "the most critical time in the history of the modern world." If our times are meaningful, he hopes (fervently), then our lives must also be meaningful.

The writer gives his life meaning by taking a part in this great, epochal, transcendent struggle.

And note how easy, how undemanding of sacrifice, it is for him to play a role in this epochal, historic event. All he has to do is watch Fox News and fire-off the occasional sophomoric e-mail -- maybe even wave a flag, attend a corporate-radio rally, or rename some snack food.

So the thing with this reporter, and perhaps the reason why she's still in Springfield and not the bigger media market of Chicago, is that she's confusing herself with the story she's reporting. She can be a supporter of Reagan from way back, that's neither here nor there. What's troubling is that she's covering a story -- the memorabilia display and the condolence book -- when she decides that she's going to insert herself into the event, so much the better to change it into something that she'd prefer it to be. It is, after all, a Very Important Story.

And that, by extension, makes you important, too. You were alive to witness the greatness that was Ronald Reagan. You were alive to witness the greatness that was the triumph of good over evil. You were alive!, it screams. If important things were going on while you were alive, you must have been important, too!

There’s a strange intercourse in this when reporters are involved. If nothing is going on, then there’s nothing to report, which means that you’re useless. If something is going on, you get to tell people about it, which makes you useful. It might even make you, you guessed it, important. But here’s the irony: Sometimes people don’t care about important things. Your importance might be diminished, even negated. So if you want to be seen as useful and important, you need to find out what people want to hear about, and tell them what they want to hear. They, just like you, want to be important. So, by being important and telling them about something that makes them important, too (although not as important as you!), then everybody wins!

I always think about this whenever I see “All the President’s Men.” I imagine all sorts of young men and women watching the movie when it came out and saying, “I want to do that.” What we thought was that they were inspired by the tenacious reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, rooting out the bigger story behind the seemingly insignificant one of the break-in, refusing to back down and doing their jobs in the face of angry men who weren’t doing theirs. But no, those young men and women were thinking, “I want to be famous and have a movie made about me, too.”

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