Maybe I just don’t get out often, but I was amazed the other day, at the end of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce lunch, when the crowd of 100 or so business people stood up and applauded Comcast cable news host Lynn Doyle at the end of her speech.
It was a nice speech, one in which Doyle recounted her great moments in media, most of which occurred while she was sitting at home watching television, just like the rest of us. Translating that “just one of us” touch from the living room to the television studio or the podium is an art, of course, and Doyle has it mastered. And at one point she hit what I thought was the rhetorical home run: Commenting on the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, she asked the question that many people in the room may have been asking:
How was it that reporters and camera crews had managed to get into the stricken areas not just hours but days before federal relief organizations were able to do so?
Clearly there was a passion driving the journalists — a passion captured by Lynn Doyle in her speech — that was missing in the government leadership. Maybe that passion earned the standing ovation.
Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. A few days later I got a chance to speak about my own “great moments,” and see for myself if the public, post-Katrina, has a renewed faith in the media. The occasion was the monthly meeting of the “Prime Time Women” of the United Jewish Federation, which asked me to address the question: How is the role of the media in society changing.
The media’s role hasn’t changed nearly as much as society has changed, I argued.
Long before Hurricane Katrina, journalists risked life and limb to cover the front lines of wars and disasters — where did the History Channel get all that World War I film footage? While I have spent most of my career on the editing sidelines, I have had a few chances to be an eyewitness: Covering the takeover of a building at Princeton in 1967, riding the Robert Kennedy funeral train a year later, reporting from Lincoln Park in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention, and standing fast at the site of the Three Mile Island near-meltdown in 1979.
Standing fast was an accomplishment back then, when late on a Saturday night some reporters fled in panic at a rumor of a disastrous turn in the situation. My photographer and I were pretty confident: We had just scheduled a brief interview at 7 the next morning with the man who commanded the federal operation: Harold Denton. “Dr. Denton,” it turned out, was no political hack appointed by then President Carter. He was the director of nuclear reactor regulation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — an object lesson for the Katrina era.
But before the public thanks the media, the media ought to thank the public, which has to endure our worst moments as we pursue our craft. We in the media can be intrusive: Imagine getting a knock on your door at home at night from Woodward and Bernstein. We can hurt people’s feelings: The women at my talk wondered why the media had gone along with the Bush administration’s orders not to show the coffins of American soldiers returning from Iraq. Sooner or later someone will, and some family will be crushed by the publicity.
And the media can be disgustingly overbearing. Last Saturday night my remote wondered from one college football game or another and ended up at the Fox network, with a commentator beginning to interview a man in a plaid shirt who had won a court case against the “under God” phrase in the pledge of allegiance. My first reaction was that the plaid shirt was a useless whiner — if you don’t like God just don’t say the phrase or pledge allegiance. Give the rest of us a break. But I thought I would at least hear him out.
I was never able to. His “questioner,” former Ohio Congressman turned TV commentator John Kasich, taunted the plaid shirt every time he attempted to express the reasons behind his views. Amazingly the plaid shirt never lost his composure. At the end Kasich thanked him for coming. The plaid shirt — his name is Michael Newdow — said he would be happy to return. But the next time, he said, “perhaps it would be easier to just hold up a photograph of me — since you’re never going to let me speak anyhow.” The useless whiner turned out to be the smug man from the media, not the guy in the plaid shirt.
The Prime Time Women of the Jewish Federation offered me some warm applause (but no standing ovation) and some good questions. Why wasn’t the media being more aggressive in covering the casualties in Iraq? Is it true that most media businesses are controlled by conservative business people? And did I share their concern that people who read and consider the news are being replaced by those who watch the news as a form of entertainment?
I suggested that the media might be able to use something other than photos of coffins to show the cost of the Iraq war. I disagreed that the media has a conservative bias (Fox News notwithstanding). And I shared their concern about news getting lost in the ratings game. How that could be accomplished I had no idea. But maybe I need to get out more often.