The Responsibility Trap

David Nelson died last week. He was the last surviving cast member of television’s “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which ran from 1952 to 1966 and, for us Boomers, was the mother of all family sitcoms born in mid-century white suburbia–warm, prosperous, toothless, responsible.

In time the Nelson’s gave way to the mutant households–the Coneheads, the Bundys, the Simpsons–who in turn yielded to the ersatz domesticity of today’s reality TV, of Jersey Shore and the Jackass franchise, where David’s successors defy their parents and seek out spectacular indignity, and have a blast. Today’s TV generation isn’t watching responsible behavior.

I’m glad. With luck, some of them will become journalists. We can use them.

Why do I say that? Let’s start with news that the Society of Professional Journalists, the country’s premier order of newspeople, is furrowing its brow, a dangerous sign, and is weighing whether to kill off the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, which SPJ has given since 2000.

The problem is that Helen Thomas has crowned her own lifetime achievement as a pioneering female White House correspondent with some ridiculous remarks of late about Israel.

Now, Helen is not alone, and the world is full of people who have made ridiculous remarks about Israel, including no small number of Israelis.

No matter. She has made irresponsible utterances, and she must pay. She already lost her job, but now her legacy must be dismantled.

In fact, Helen Thomas remains a giant of 20th century U.S. journalism, who ignored her peers for decades by annoying every president since John Kennedy. She was a pest and a gadfly, insisting on the impertinent question, pushing the limits of the permissible. In an interview some years back, when Fidel Castro was asked how Cuba’s supposed democracy differed from ours, he replied: “I don’t have to answer questions from Helen Thomas.”

A few years ago I hosted Helen at a press ethics symposium, and I was astonished by the depth of affection, even adoration, from among the small-town community in central Virginia where I teach. She had built a career out of standing up when it counted, and people knew it.

Helen has earned the right to be wrong. Indeed, she stands firmly within a tradition of unpopular, wrong-headed, irresponsible expression that, once upon a time, journalism not only tolerated, but took pride in.

It’s the tradition of H. L. Mencken, extolled today as a master of acid prose, but in his time given to racism and a toxic contempt for ordinary people, a fan of the enigmatic Nietzsche decades before U.S. academics turned Nietzsche into a hippy. Even the immortal Voltaire, whom I praised in a column some years back for his brave journalism on behalf of a persecuted Protestant in pre-revolutionary France, he too, as a reader later upbraided me, was a racist and anti-semite.

But now we’re in the age of responsibility. Mainstream journalism doesn’t rock boats. Today’s curmudgeon isn’t Mencken, it’s Andy Rooney, fussing over why his corn flakes don’t come in a much smaller box, seeing how much the contents settle, know what I mean?

Or take WikiLeaks. A sobering article from McClatchy’s matchless D.C. bureau chronicles the way U.S. news media have scrambled to distance themselves from the most extraordinary worldwide assault on official secrecy ever.

Why? Why would newsfolk who should revel in chipping away at government deceit do anything but rejoice at the flood of authentic documentation that Wikileaks, withstanding enormous pressure, has directed to them—even deferring to their judgment as to what’s wise to publish?

It’s because for all their insurgent posturing, our news media fatally covet approval, the wider the better, and abhor the label of irresponsible.

And it’s a mistake. There is indeed true irresponsibility, behavior that harms, but it’s not the dark muttering of a grumpy 90-year-old woman in the twilight of a distinguished career. And it’s not insisting that the duty of the press is to ensure that publicly significant information be made public, even if secrecy claims must at times be ignored.

Real irresponsibility is when the press submits to the wisdom of the herd, by parroting official lies and enabling a deceitful administration to start a needless war, or by suddenly embracing, in unison, the notion that reining in public spending matters more than alleviating the suffering of millions of fellow-citizens.

Protecting unpopular expression instead of punishing it, defying authority instead of cuddling up to it, refusing to march in lockstep regardless of governmental or popular pressure, these are the actions not of an irresponsible press, but of one that’s doing its job.

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7 thoughts on “The Responsibility Trap

  1. A fine, thoughtful post. Only point I take some issue with is your description of Helen Thomas’ remarks about Israel. From what I understand and read, those remarks were captured from an impromptu interview and then presented without their full context by most of the “shocked” corporate media. Ms. Thomas was attempting to make the point about how Israel was created. American and European Jews, in her opinion and that of many, continue to not only ignore but in fact support the Israeli government’s ongoing apartheid-like oppression of Gaza and West Bank Palestinians. Her remarks, however poorly worded, were very much in her mode of asking pesky, difficult questions of authority and the powerful. Clearly the overall US media and political climate has long ago forsaken any consistent, legitimate questioning of Israeli government policies and actions. Voices opposing those actions and policies are rarely given space or airtime and are deftly framed as if opposing Israel’s existence. Thomas paid a price that far outweighed her actual statements.

  2. A wonderful post, both for your even-handed and ultimately supportive view of Helen Thomas and for your clear-eyed position on WikiLeaks. I grew up watching Cronkite and was a reporter for 12 years before leaving journalism for book publishing and then academe, and I’m probably an old fogey too but am appalled by the mainstream media environment. I cannot help but think that Americans will trust less and less media that are timid, intellectually bankrupt, and cravenly chasing profits and ratings in the name of news. The press always seems strikingly self serving when you leave it, but truly there seems to be additional deterioration going on at a fairly rapid rate.

  3. I read your “Nelson” article this AM in the Great Falls Tribune, and one thing struck me funny… truth being manipulated isn’t funny and prescribing that it be told when it is realized, is honorable. However, so many so called journalist in this era have subjugated their integrity for money or lead story, or going along with the boss (the Murdock’s) or the leadership (the Bush’s);and this rag tag group of tea party nuts pressing themselves as being righteous reformers.
    The point is, is that we have no truth as long as the media suppresses information about the predatory war machine that we have become, and the predatory economics we practice on our own people. We (our press, politicians) cater to the rich who dictate who hears what, and who gets what. The death sentences handed out in AZ by denying health insurance to people in need is an example of things to come. By the press’s inability to print the truth upfront and being reduced to being historians manipulating the truth during and after the incident is not a way for an enlighten society to evolve. The press is the problem right now, because people want to believe what you write. We need more “scribe warriors” who deliver the truth regardless. I hope for more truth, fewer secrets and a rebuilding of the trust we give to the press.

  4. Without credibility, journalism loses much of its impact. News organizations need to maintain credibility to maintain an audience.

    Journalism is most credible when it is based on verifiable evidence and facts. Yes, interpretation is part of journalism but when clearly biased exagerations come from a journalist, like Helen Thomas, nobody will trust her again. What she said was detatched from reality, and thus she loses her ability to be an effective professional journalist.

    Let her join talk radio and be an entertainer like Rush Limbaugh. SPJ did the right thing as Helen Thomas is not a model for anybody, no matter what barriers she broke in her time. Awards should be named after role modules, as we celebrate what we should emulate, and Helen Thomas is not it.

  5. Thanks so much, Mr. Wasserman, for this wonderful post. I agree with many of your sentiments. This former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists is sad to say that the organization she loves has made a bad decision. I have written my take in a column that ran in The Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_17160580

  6. Helen Thomas was spot on about Israel.. H.L. Mencken was never a racist
    and didn’t hold contempt for the “Ordinaries” ,, He held contempt for stupid
    people.. (Read his essays on cops and prize fighters).. As for me, I have
    a book autographed to Edward Wasserman by H. L…This Wasserman
    was Jewish a scion of a banking family (d.1960), as was Knopf & Natrhan
    of Mencking

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