Grumpy Old Man: Journos under fire

The profession has long been taking hits. The question is, might the latest be fatal for non-partisan, mainstream news?

Palestinians hurl stones during clashes with Israeli police in east Jerusalem's Wadi al-Joz neighbourhood [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians hurl stones during clashes with Israeli police in east Jerusalem's Wadi al-Joz neighbourhood [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was early 1988, the infancy of the first intifada. Dozens of shabiba, their faces obscured by keffiyehs, were gathered on a road in Jelazoun, a couple of kilometers north of Ramallah, hurling rocks and other detritus at a phalanx of Israeli troops standing just out of range.
I was a radio reporter for a US network.
To radio people, sound is everything, so I had a shotgun microphone, a tube-like affair mounted at the end of a telescopic boom that was sensitive enough to pick up sounds from well beyond the range of normal mics.
I was close enough to the soldiers to be able to record the crackling of their radios and the occasional orders barked by their commander. Through my headphones I could even hear the cold metallic click of one soldier’s teargas gun as the canister was locked into the chamber, and then not only the kaboom, but the whoosh as it was fired in the direction of the rock throwers.
The youths were some 80 meters away. Aside from the occasional full-throated epithet, the sound quality from their side was poor. So, intrepid war correspondent that I was, I jogged in a sweeping pattern that kept me out of their line of sight until I reached a cinder-block structure perhaps 10 meters from where they were standing.
I inched toward the corner, took a peek and extended my shotgun mic.
Terrific sound! It would go over well on the report I’d be preparing back in the studio for the morning drive-time broadcasts on the East Coast, a genuine “You are there” moment so highly prized in the profession.
Except that the shabiba quickly noticed me and the strange contraption in my hands. Their rocks flew past the corner of the structure, and as they moved a few steps forward for a clearer trajectory, the rocks started hitting home – one smacking me directly upside the head.
Thankfully, it was over in a few seconds, for the soldiers charged, firing rubber bullets and more tear gas.
One came over to look at my head, which wasn’t bleeding but was beginning to sprout a pronounced lump.
He told me that he and the others had been about to make their move when I showed up.
“Don’t think we did it for you,” he said.
“And by the way, that was pretty dumb.”
It was. But I had my sound.
EVERY WORD of this tale is true. The only thing I can’t remember for sure is whether it was January or February, for the intifada went on and on, virtually 24/7 for months on end, and then into the following year and even the year after that, although not with such consistent ferocity.
A lot of my lesser experiences from those days are now little more than a blur, so if I talk about them, there’s always the caveat: It was a long time ago.
But not the day in Jelazoun. An episode like this you remember. Almost every bit. One of the rock throwers was wearing a bright blue sweatshirt with a Road Runner appliqué. The soldier who came to look me over had a mustache.
Journalism, though, is now coming under heavy fire for what appear to be embellishments and even outright lies in some of the professed exploits of NBC’s Brian Williams.
Williams has long come across as smart and professional, the type who goes after a story – on all fours if necessary – and then tells you what he knows. If he doesn’t know, he tells you that, too, and then branches off onto several avenues of speculation, perhaps with an expert or two, to try to tie up the loose ends.
Of course, some of his and others’ newscasts lately have taken on the feel of infotainment. Also, he and other top journalists can often be seen trading quips with late-night talk show hosts or even appearing as themselves in TV episodes or films, further blurring the line between news and everything else.
But the Williams Affair is much more. In fact, it’s more than a case of Jayson Blair, the young, hotshot New York Times reporter shamed in 2003 for widespread plagiarism. It’s more than Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter awarded a Pulitzer in 1981 for a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict that was later found to have been the fruit of her imagination.
It’s even more than Dan Rather.
As a correspondent for CBS News’s highly prestigious 60 Minutes investigative program, Rather relied on faulty information provided by a less-than-stellar source for a segment scrutinizing the military record of then-president George W. Bush. Of course, as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, he also blew the network’s eternal ratings lead and was dogged by a weirdness factor, perhaps most notably his on-air sweaters, a wiggy attempt to establish a signature sign-off (“Courage”) and a 1986 mugging by an assailant who repeatedly demanded to know, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” By contrast, Williams’s smooth , authoritative delivery led the pack in terms of viewership. Well over nine million people would watch him on any given weekday evening, far more than those who tuned in to his competitors over at CBS and ABC, never mind the much more sparsely viewed evening news programs on cable.
When you’re a journalist without the in-your-face political spin of people like the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly or MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, numbers like that speak for themselves, and a lot of people over the years, perhaps with a scoche of over-indulgence, considered Williams the Walter Cronkite and even Edward R. Murrow of our age.
NOW THAT he has been called out for possible fabrications regarding hazardous helicopter rides in the skies of Iraq, and encounters with floating bodies, dysentery and roving gangs in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, there’s a dark cloud hovering over not just Williams, but the entire profession.
O’Reilly, too, is coming under scrutiny for certain claims he’s made regarding his coverage of unrest in Buenos Aires during the 1982 Falklands War. Be ready now for other media figures to be manhandled under microscopes in the search for dirty, lying journos seeking to burnish their swagger.
It’s one thing when a journalist steals someone else’s material – strict deadlines and plain laziness have been known to tempt people to take the easy way out. And it’s one thing when a journalist ignores facts or even whole stories while emphasizing others so as to obfuscate or promote a certain agenda – editorializing, to my great sorrow, has long crept into what should be straight news reporting.
But it’s something else entirely when a journalist of Williams’s caliber and stature makes things up. It’s the day citizens begin to question their trust in a sector that is supposed to keep the high and the mighty honest through a relentless quest for truth and transparency.
It’s the day people give up sensible beliefs in favor of conspiracy theories, rationalizing that if people like this can lie, perhaps some of the loonier tunes are really true.
And it’s the day everyone abandons what’s supposed to be mainline journalism in favor of the partisans and the side-takers, figuring that if it’s all lies, why not the lies I want to hear? If we journalists cannot be considered credible, we have lost it all. You might as well just line us up, call out the shabiba and get it over with.