about the Rolling Stone cover

Over the past ten years, print journalism has suffered badly. One of the remaining bright spots in reporting and writing over this period has been Rolling Stone. This is evidenced by Matt Taibbi, who has been an extremely positive force in a very weak pool of reporters in this decade. He has written extraordinary pieces on the financial crisis, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many contemporary social issues.

So, when Rolling Stone decides to feature Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, I had to believe that it was for purely journalistic reasons. You see, in my mind, journalism not only seeks to tell the truth, but it tells the truth so well that it helps us to think.

I am so disappointed with the backlash over the Tsarnaev cover, with some news stands even pulling the issue from their racks. 

The editors at Rolling Stone didn’t try to make Tsarnaev look like a rock star. They merely printed a picture of a young man who – without our knowledge of what evil he is capable of – happens to look like the typical teen. Who happens to look like he wants to be a rock star.

And that is the very point. 

It is very troubling to me that there is expressed outrage over what this young man looks like on this cover. You see, we have been conditioned to believe that there is a certain way  a terrorist should look. He certainly shouldn’t look Americanized. He certainly shouldn’t look like a rock star. And he certainly shouldn’t look like he belongs on the cover of a rock magazine.

Except for the fact that we are talking about a magazine with exceptional journalistic practices and principles.

Further, had any of these detractors bothered to read the article before decrying the editorial decision, they might have realized exactly what Rolling Stone was trying to say.

There is no “other” in the war on terrorism. There is no easy way to identify a terrorist. And sometimes, there is no way to “Americanize” a child enough. 

the bad: on writing

I have a journalism degree. Print journalism, to be exact. I got it right before print journalism disappeared from the face of the earth.

I will always remember one of the first writing courses I took at the Annenberg School for Journalism. My paper came back with the words: Don’t be cute. Too many words. written across the top.

What followed was a certifiable stripping of my writing. My language. Flowery description was eliminated completely. Get the facts. Get them right. And get them down. And for the love of God, don’t forget where to put the commas.

Writing like that is simple for me. Ridiculously simple. Give me a topic and a number of words and say GO, and I have no problem at all.

Then came this desire to write a book. Actually, it’s always been a desire. Since I was in about fourth grade. So, last year I sat down, wrote an outline and then proceeded to write the draft of a novel.

With absolutely no description.

I knew what was going to happen. Who was going to do what. Who was going to say what. And, it was absolutely easy. Just write the story was my theory. And it was good for me. Just to know that I could be disciplined enough to do it and get that amount of words on paper was very liberating.

But I hated it. Hate it.

So, I took a class. Two, now. And I was basically told to slow down. Write a story. Paint a picture. Something I actually used to do. Not well, but I definitely used to include description.

And the teachers encouraged this writing with lots of words. Writing with ridiculous attention to detail.

It’s definitely not great. But it’s a whole lot better.

 

Journalism vs. Social Media

It’s so strange. Just a couple of days ago, I said to a friend the problem with social media is that all of these new organizations and reporters and politicians use it. It was a problem in my mind, as I said to her. because it blurs the reality of these things with the fiction of social media.

In my head, journalism is something that is held apart, to a higher standard. There are rules for it. There are Stylebooks. There are strategies. There are ethics.

When I began studying print journalism at the University of Southern California in 2000, newspapers were just beginning to put content online. I clearly remember one professor saying that she would never read the news online because it wasn’t “real.” She held newspaper reporting to a higher standard. It had to be thoroughly researched and carefully edited so it could be trusted. She felt that live streams, even on television, were a bit suspect. That is what I learned, and, quite frankly, it was what I believed long before I took her class. My father watched CNN, but it was the Los Angeles Times that was the true journalism.

During my last year (in 2004), USC began an online journalism degree. It was a great debate in the school. The expert journalists (who held Pulitzer prizes and had covered Vietnam and major moments in US history) felt that it was a totally different realm of writing and reporting. In some ways, it was journalism in progress, to satiate people’s hunger for news until a full newspaper article could be written.

For four years, I would buy a copy of the Los Angeles Times on my way to classes. I would carry it around and read most of the sections rather carefully. The only ones I tossed aside were the classified, the occasional auto sections, and when I was really busy the calendar section. I had an online subscription to the New York Times that I would read on computers in libraries between classes. When I left college, I began teaching and would leave my home at 6:30 in the morning. I was no longer afforded the luxury of reading an entire newspaper, so I was thrilled when content was put online. I read the Los Angeles Times and New York Times every morning as I had always done, only now it was on my computer instead of my bag.

Now, five years after that, I followed a historical presidential election solely online and through the nightly broadcast of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann. The campaign of now-President Obama also utlized Facebook and Twitter and a variety of other things, but I didn’t take them seriously, only as a means to spread the New York Times articles I was reading.

Today, I sadly cannot pick up the Los Angeles Times save for the sports section. It has been completely destroyed by the Tribune Co., and it pains me to read because it is simply a shadow of the great newspaper it used to be. I read the New York Times daily with the same subscription I started nine years ago. But, now, I have a host of news sources. I signed up for Twitter, and my first 50 “friends” were all news feeds. I follow reporters and CNN and MSNBC and bloggers. I scan my Facebook home page for news stories. All the while, I just assumed these social media sites were simply avenues for finding information, and they serve that purpose very well. They disseminate information faster than almost any other means.

Even through all of that, until this morning, I still would have said it wasn’t real journalism. This very morning I was on the New York Times home page strongly considering a weekend subscription so I could savor each section leisurely and absorb all of the weekend sections.

It wasn’t until something caught my eye on Twitter about noon today that I realized how different our world is today. There was a post about rioting in Tehran. I immediately went to the New York Times site and read the short story they had posted on their homepage. I also turned on MSNBC and flipped instantly to CNN. Neither station was covering the outbreak of protests in Tehran.

So, I went back to Twitter. I pulled up the tag #iranelection and a host of Tweets showed up on the page, detailing the violence and sharing links to photographs. I even found a Flickr stream of photographs of Tehran that had been updated within the hour.

It was that moment today that I realized that this social media is reality. The blur of real and fiction and truth and misrepresentation is so far faded that there’s nothing we can do now. When major news entities are giving very little information about major world news, it lies in the hands of the people to inform. And they have. What this means, I don’t entirely know. I do know that there has been a shift. It is a shift that allows me to write this and my endless ramblings on baseball and life. It gives every person the space to share their own truth.

As always, my admiration for the field of journalism is that at its very core it is a fundamental desire to tell the truth. Whether that truth occurs in a 500-world column that has been edited twice and researched thoroughly or in the 50 snapshots uploaded to a social media site so the entire world can see, I feel very fortunate to have seen this evolution. For as much as I would like to say the integrity is destroyed “when anyone can do it”, the true value of journalism as a conductor of the truth is only achieved when it is shared by all.

Filter-Free News

Politico featured a great story about how President Obama is “seek[ing] filter free news.” The idea behind it is that some people aren’t news junkies (they aren’t?!?) and could potentially miss out on news that is important to our politics and our society.

The concept behind it is an interesting one to me. It seems that the idea is to communicate constantly to an array of people in an array of mediums. This includes tv, radio, internet, print, traditional, nontraditional, bloggers, twitter-ers. You name it, and I’m sure it’s covered in one way or another.

Even with all of this and my relative faith in Obama, I still have to wonder what is exactly that we don’t know. I mean we are working on a backwards trajectory in some cases. A lot of what Obama has to talk about regarding wars and economics is rooted deeply in an administration that is not his and did not value the constant stream of communication with the general public.

I’d like to say that President Bush spoke just as much as President Obama does and that I just wasn’t paying attention, but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that it genuinely is not true. I know for sure that it didn’t filter into any of my liberal news sources. You would think, at the very least, I would have read and heard a wealth of criticism.

When I began studying journalism 9 years ago, the internet was a relatively new phenomenon in the journalism world. It was new, and it was mostly untrusted by the veteran reporters I was privileged to call professors. At the time, I could completely understand why an “online journalism” emphasis was not given much credence by these writers who could count the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times amongst their employers. The internet, to them, was diluted. It was something that “anyone could do.”

And it is. It’s something that anyone can do. Anyone can sign up for a blog just like this one and write. Anyone could start up an online magazine, newspaper or (heaven forbid!) a blog.

I can see the positives and negatives. The biggest negative for me is that there is no editor for an online blog such as mine. Presumably, I could make up just about anything and publish it. I wouldn’t do that, of course, but who’s to say it doesn’t happen? The positives though? There are many from my vantage point. Online writing gives someone like me a medium to express myself. It provides yet another layer of that “watchdog” quality that journalism is known for. All of these bloggers and online reporters can instantly post their work and disseminate information much faster than any print newspaper could. I think that’s pretty cool. I think it also gives people (i.e. elected officials) less leeway to lie. Tell a lie? It’s all over the internet pretty much instantly. I think people my age and younger pick up on these things within seconds, and seconds later you have a viral situation going on where millions of people not only know what President Obama said in his news conference this evening, but millions of opinions have already been posted.

For me, that’s the best part of all. One of the lessons that I have carried with me from my journalism education was one taught by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist of the New York Times. He covered the Vietnam war in Vietnam for several years. When he left for Vietnam, he asked his significant other to collect copies of the Times with his articles in them so he could have an archive of his work upon his return to the U.S.

In class, he described to us some of the most horrific firsthand descriptions of war that I have ever heard. Strangely, the most disturbing part of his story was that upon his return he read each and every article printed in the Times with his byline only to find that they had been edited, altered, “cleaned” up, sanitized and otherwise violated.

“I didn’t write for 12 years after that,” he told us. Thinking about it right now, I still want to cry. I bought his book on Vietnam when I was a junior in college. He signed it for me, and I still have it on my bookshelf. It took him 30 years to be able to write that book, and it is a very moving and very true tale of what it was like to be a reporter during one of the darkest periods of our recent history.

When I think about that story, I always think about Iraq and how little we really know. What makes me even sadder is that the little we know is probably much more than people knew in the 60’s. Even with the advent of the instant “news” online, I think in some ways we’re still pretty censored, even if it is self-censoring.

It just gives me a little comfort to know that we are making strides. The more often that news is disseminated to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible, we are finally making headway on a problem that genuinely plagues this country.