Saturday, January 14, 2017

Those Natty Ole Reporters

Photographers make photographs for Memory.  We want to remember a place, a person, a moment, whether it’s warm, wonderful and uplifting, or something horrible on the other end of the human scale.  For while we may not always change many opinions, there is certainly nothing to be gained by the willful disrgarding of history, of the past, or even what happened yesterday.  This year has been full of what seemed like “one of…” moments. I was watching TV live the day that Donald Trump said of John McCain that he preferred heroes who hadn’t been captured.  At that moment I was convinced that his campaign was over, finished, unable to recover from yet another crazy comment.  But, of course, as we all learned, his campaign might have been the called the campaign of “one of’ moments: they just kept coming for the whole 18 months. And each time you would recoil, or laugh in disbelief. 

But what bothered me most was the way he took aim with a verbal  blunderbus, inherently inaccurate, at the Press.   I grew up in the 60s.  Most of what was consumed was in print in those days, with TV trying to get a grip on just how much time to devote to ‘news’ and how to present it.  I remember the oft repeated phrase that TV “came of age” on the weekend of November 22, 1963 with early reports of JFK’s assassination, and later that weekend, live and in living black & white from the Dallas perp walk, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.  For those of us who had the special privledge of seeing JFK being sworn in during Mr Laursen’s gym class just two and a half years prior on a 14” fuzzy B/W TV, it was part of our understanding of the power of TV and, if you insist, the “media.”   But for me, being a Press Photographer, whether for a weekly paper of 25,000 circulation, or TIME Magazine with 6 million copies (and 20 million readers, as they counted those people in dentists’ offices and barber shops over the next year) it was the Press.  

The group who followed the President was called the White House Press Corps.  When you needed to boogie in a rice paddy with the 1st Air Cav, you talked with a Press Liaison officer.   It was only in the 80s that Media became the phrase of choice.   I suppose CNN had something to do with that, since 24 hour news was at the time,  a strange new thing. And I had the silly notion that CNN would be that great outlet for long form TV work, those great documentaries which had been a rare bird at the broadcast networks (think NBC “White Paper….”)  But of course I was wrong, and CNN became 95% about what is happening  “NOW,” often with incomplete background explanation.  But it was clear, the news was becoming about “breaking News…”    I, for one, had never thought the News was broken.  Amongst the people I worked with (mostly at Time Inc. publications) there were some who had an eye on playing their expense accounts, others who couldn’t resist the “me-me-I-I” sense of self importance, but in large part, it was people’d by a terrific set of reporters and writers.  There was very little agenda. They wanted to report what they saw, not mold their reports to any particular brand of political thought.  When I first started working in France in the mid 1970s, I was astonished to find that each  newspaper was more or less aligned with a poitical party:  l’Humanité  was the Communist paper, Liberation was the more liberal Socialist paper, France-Soir the rightist Gaullist paper.  I actually remember asking one of my friends, incredulous as I was, “Why can’t they just report the news?”  and being tsk-tsk’d as a youthful naif, to which I suppose I would have pled guilty.  In the last 20 years in this country we seem in many ways to have adopted that model.  Find a TV network which serves up what you want to hear, and keep hearing it.  TV is far worse (and with their advertising so much more based on demographics, they try playing to an assured audience) than print, I think.  It is still possible to find something which passes for “reporters” writing about the “news.”  No one is perfect, but where you have a corps of journalists who embody those basic J-school techniques, at least the news has a chance of being reported. 

What scares me about President-Elect Trumps continuing vilification of the Press is that it can truly poison whatever little respect the public might have for the 4th Estate.  At Trump rallies all year, when he talks about the “lying, dishonest” Media in the back of the room, it has created one of the most frightening ongoing situations where rally attendees feel a need to add their two cents worth, and though as far as I know there have been no physical attacks yet, the atmosphere is far closer to the extreme political parties which I experienced in both Eastern and Western Europe in the 70s and 80s.  There is a sense that everyone with a Press badge is a target, someone who is obviously unfriendly to the candidate (to the -elect…) and yet there seems to be no comprehension that before there was a 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, there was a 1st Amendment. 

One can only hope that as he ascends to the Oval office, the President-Elect will raise his own bar of behaviour, though of course we all wonder, amid the flurry of Tweets, whether that will happen.  It is something we are going to live through, all of us, even members of the White House Press Corps.    

This picture was shot in 1976 at a Gerald Ford (you remember him, one of the last Presidents - along with Bush 41- who actually liked photographers…) rally.  Typically in the pre-computer, pre-cellphone, pre-Wifi world, when the President (or candidate) would arrive at a speaking venue, the Advance staff would have put together a “Press Filing Area” which had a number of AT&T land lines installed, each paid for dearly (a couple of hundred 1976 dollars per line, for one or perhaps two quick ‘update’ calls) by the press organizations. The Wires (AP, UPI)  The Times, the Post, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, etc., all had their lines installed, usually on  picnic tables (as if imply that “boy, this event is some picnic!”) and whatever news went down that day would be reported back to the ‘desk’ by those stalwart, ill-barbered, badly dressed, set of Burberry-wearing reporters. Flanked by their ever present Olivetti typewriters, it was as if you felt demonstrably less elegantly dressed simply by passing among them (rather like hanging out with Pig-Pen in Peanuts.)  But there was something sincere, honest, and and forthright about that crew of motley scribes.  They understood that while they may have all been trying to scoop their colleagues, the greater interest was keeping the public well informed, and that it was as much a duty as it was a job.   They weren’t simply “the dishonest media, the roomful of liars”  as they have been labelled.  Sadly, those who find his screeds uplifting have no idea what they about to lose if the Press continues to be beaten down in the public eye.  Ronald Reagan is oft quoted as saying  the 9 most terrifying words you’ll ever hear are “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”    Just try dealing with those 9 words when there is no one around to report about it. We're just sayin'... David

1 comment:

Libby said...

David, it's the constant stream of Paid Pundits that have destroyed what is now perceived by the mainstream public as "news." It's easier for the networks to hire the Pundits and pay the booking fee rather than keep someone on staff and pay them a living wage plus benefits. The majority of these pundits wouldn't know an Olivetti if you threw it at them. It sometimes takes weeks to develop a story as you know. Our Instant Gratification mindset will no longer allow for that. The race for Breaking News, that race to be first, has now only become a race to the bottom.

Continued success David. I have always enjoyed your work.