I like to joke that a journalist’s conversion to public relations – becoming a spokesperson for The Man, whatever form he takes – is like going to the Dark Side. Many give in to the temptations of better hours and pay and reputation among the general public. What losers, right? We might need to consult with our Dark Side brethren, though, because journalists these days aren’t doing very well in the public relations arena.
Presidential candidates one after another score points by bashing reporters’ questions and motives. Facebook and Twitter commenters every day lament that only a dozen or two dozen real journalists are left in the whole country. Activists in Columbia, Missouri, pushed reporters away from public and freely available spaces on Monday. And at the Veterans Day parade in Fayetteville this weekend, a Vietnam veteran speaker called it unfortunate that correspondents were embedded with the troops during that war. They sapped the United States’ will to beat its enemy, he said, by broadcasting photos of girls burned by napalm and men about to be executed or by reporting massacres.
Journalists have slunk into undisclosed bias and have made mistakes, some of them fairly huge. We all absolutely should examine and criticize the news media and what they do and why, and I’m not grasping for sympathy. I’m not personally involved with any of those examples above and don’t know everything about them. The past few weeks just have been challenging and stimulating for me, a local newspaper reporter, to watch.
Here in town, Sunday’s parade was different from all of the others I’ve seen in the square – smaller, quieter, shorter. At least a hundred or so people came to show their support for veterans past and present. The light was slanted and sharp. The crowd cheered for a little lady who wore a red, white and blue knitted hat and served in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands during World War II. The high school marching band marched in and made me nostalgic for my trombone days.
That speaker Sunday raised a significant point about how war has changed under the media’s watch. Around 4,500 Americans have died in Iraq in the last 12 years. About the same number of Allied troops died in a single day of WWII. I don’t know if we will ever again accept that kind of loss, and I dislike trying to imagine what it would take for us to lower our bar.
Our new conflict calculus seems at least partly to come from how we see every one of those deaths in photo and video and print and on the nightly news. There’s room for improvement in how we take care of veterans at home and how much attention we pay to other countries’ losses, but in the battle itself, there are few abstractions left. We learn about our men and women’s lives and loves and hopes. We see a little more of war’s cost.
Journalists don’t have a right to everything, but I like to think seeing and discussing where we as a people are going is worth our poking around. It’s an interesting coincidence that as reporters take so much flak, a movie showing what the job is all about comes out and earns critical acclaim. The best journalists are there to find and show what a war really means, and to ask where public figures came from, and to explore why people say and do the things they say and do. Reporters do important work every day. I hope we can prove it. I hope others can see it. Otherwise we reporters might all end up in PR.