A News Dissector Writes to a Young Journalist

Media Review


I was you once, once I was you

Across decades that now reside inside

Starting a journey with no destination

In times when we were sure we could prevail

Yes, we couldn’t fail, an armor of righteousness

Insured failure was not an option

We saw our words as our weapons, our idea as prophecies

Those were the days of our dominion

But, alas, those days are gone

We are still guardians of our truths

Having tasted a few victories alongside

So many disappointments

At least we hope we have

Lessons to share

and to learn anew…

A few weeks back, I was at a memorial service at a New York City church for one of the firebrands of the cultural resistance of the l960’s. His name: Tuli Kupferberg, a poet who went beyond poetry, praised as “the Voltaire of the Lower East Side,” a musician best known for his work with that one of a kind band, The Fugs, famous long ago for celebrating the anarchism of the Hippie/Yippie era, while speaking out against war and racism.

He was called the “iconic bohemian,” and co-founder of the 1960’s proto-punk counterculture. Alan Ginsberg cited him in one of America’s most defining poems, HOWL, for jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and surviving. He never lost his sense of humor and never even looked back. His personal slogan was “FAST FORWARD.”

When it was my time to say a few words, I compared him to the BP oil spill because his still surging and beneath the surface influence is still polluting the waters of conventional culture and could never be contained by any vessel.

I reminded the mourners that he was also a profound critic of journalism. One of his specialties was producing flyers called “Great Moments in the History of Journalism” (and another similarly titled series about Capitalism) in which he paid tribute to historic examples of media's endless complicity and collusion with the powers that be.

One of his funniest satires (and this was well before the Daily Show and The Onion) was a note written in the form of a formal correction in The New York Times in which the Times Company apologizes for one hundred years of distorting the news in the service of imperialism.

If Tuli’s outsider attitude doesn’t do it for you, pick up some of the memoirs and reflections by top anchormen and leading columnists who have gone into retirement; all tend to lament the failures of journalism and the media system to tell the truth and inform the public. Edward R.Murrow was among angriest. (My own memoir was titled The More You Watch The Less You Know [Seven Stories, 1998] and was written just before I moved out of network television into independent production.)

Despite my own extensive exposure to “big media” and the critique I brought into it that only deepened, I stuck with journalism because it is valuable work often dubbed “the oxygen of democracy,” even if many us are left choking when the air gets too thin.

Anyone with a pulse and a smidgeon of awareness knows how our media system merged newsbiz and showbiz, how it dumbs down important information and fails to offer context and background on important stories.

Still, and even perhaps because of a situation that’s also been labeled a crisis of democracy, I would still encourage you to get into journalism—not only for its sake—but your own.

The reasons are many: it at least gives those of you disposed to writing, videomaking and investigating a chance to ultimately tackle challenging issues and have soime impact, to merge your own values with work.

I would also encourage you, if you can, through internships or freelance assignments, to work in major media, not because you will subvert it from within—always a good idea but hard to achieve—but because it’s important to understand its debased if professional culture, with its disciples, compartmentalization, and hierarchies of control.

The idea is not to love it while trying to resist co-optation, but to learn from it. Yes it has built in biases and serves the needs of those in power, but it also has developed techniques and formulas that work in the battle every media person faces in building audience and having impact.

Once you master their techniques and that environment—like meeting deadlines, collaborating with all sorts of people, working in a professional organization—you can create some of your own. Young journalists can also get involved in media projects like ProPublica, Narco News Network, and the amazing Wikileaks.

I left mainstream media work because I wanted to cover issues that were being ignored, distorted, and marginalized. We called our company Globalvision because we believed it was important to take a global approach to issues in an age of globalization.

Our focus became reporting liberation struggles like the one against apartheid in South Africa because it raised issues of race and justice that resonated here. We launched the South Africa Now series to let the people there tell their own stories. It aired for three years, worldwide.

Our next major project, another TV series, was called “Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights” focused on human rights issues worldwide. We celebrated human rights heroes as well as exposing abuses.

We later covered global health challenges like AIDS and Malaria, as well as peace initiatives. I went on to make films about 9/11, voter fraud in Florida, and Weapons of Mass Deception (2004), a film about the manipulation of the news about Iraq. I also wrote books on all of these subjects. I have written eleven in all, and sometimes they feel like the best kept secret in publishing.

The point is not that what I have done was always successful—that’s always a struggle and not always easy to gauge—but doing nothing is never an alternative. If you are socially conscious, then you have a responsibility to your ideas and values. You have to find a way to express them, and to share what you know with others. Think of it as a duty of citizenship. Think of ways to make it engaging and even fun. Think of it also as a way of merging money and meaning and making a living, if you can.

Today, I am focused on the reporting about the financial crisis with my investigative film Plunder: The Crime of our Time (2010) and a companion book. It’s the second film and third book I have written about these issues, not to mention countless articles, commentaries and blogs.

Has my work stopped the crisis or even galvanized progressives to push for the prosecution of Wall Street criminals? I wish I could say yes, but I can’t. At the same time, I don’t think the work has been wasted. It has reached some and will reach others.

Often in history, ideas deemed controversial are at first refuted, then denounced. But ultimately, many are accepted as the conventional wisdom. No one ever said that seeking truth is easy. It’s a rocky road—and increasingly hard to make a living at—but it promises adventure and satisfaction in this world—and the next,

And as I finish this letter, another mentor of mine has moved on to that next world. His name was Daniel Schorr and he went from being one of Murrow’s boys at CBS to helping bring down Richard Nixon. He was still commenting on NPR into his nineties. I worked with him at CNN, but later learned that that Daniel and this one shared a deeper connection: he started his career, as did I, on the Clinton News, the high school paper at DeWitt Clinton H.S in the Bronx. He made it big, and so can you.

If you stay true to your self and your beliefs, there’s no place to go but up.

July 29, 2010

frontispiece: photo by Leo Redmond.

Editor's note: Listen to The Mantle's JK Fowler interview with Danny Schecter at Left Forum 2010 here.