Thursday, February 24, 2011

Medred: Writing should be easy work -- and other thoughts from a long-time journalist

Thanks to Craig Medred, our February featured author, for this final guest-post.

Writing should be easy work. Most of the time, you do it from a comfortable chair inside a warm building. You don't have to worry about hitting your thumb with a hammer or sleet freezing in your eyes.

There is a little danger of falling off a second story and breaking your neck, or grabbing the wrong wires and electrocuting yourself, or crashing the plane and killing a bunch of folk.

Journalism should be even easier work. Writers struggle to create characters and plots. Journalists merely record life for later playback, or at least that's what the best of them do. Any number of journalists now have become little more than stenographers. They write down what those in authority say, never questioning, and then publish it -- in whatever form -- as the news of the day.

Democracy is not particularly well served by the stenographers, but it is an easier way to make a living than real journalism. Stenography is simple to defend in what has become the war zone of American public opinion: "Look, I only wrote down what this guy said. Don't blame me.It's not my fault. He said it!”

Journalism, real journalism, takes a curious mind, a willingness to challenge authority and, God forbid, a little passion. The latter might be the hardest thing to sustain. Journalism is a form of combat thankfully free of bullets most of the time, but always heavy with battle fatigue. Most of the best journalists I know have moved on. Howard Weaver at the Anchorage Daily News was at one time among the best columnists in America. He drank too much. He partied too much. Eventually he decided it would be wiser, and easier, to manage people than to write every day. He rose to great heights on the business side of journalism before he quit to become a Twitter fiend.

Maybe Twitter is the future of journalism. Maybe Howard is one giant step ahead of us in the devolution of news. There are newspaper and now online editors who have been chasing the holy grail of ever shorter stories for decades. Journalism, they contend, needs to shrink to bite size (like junk food) to stay in step with the shrinking attention spans of consumers in the wired world.

All the news that's fit to print really should fit in one sentence, shouldn't it?
Whatever.

Against this backdrop, if you do this particular form of writing known as journalism, as I have done for a long time now, it is easy to get disheartened. The sound bite rules a good part of news these days, and what it doesn't rule is largely owned by people who do the "public relations." I once contemplated going to back to university to write a master’s thesis about them: "The New Real Journalism: How PR Stole the Show.”

A lot of the people who work in the big machine of public relations are essentially what journalists used to be -- beat reporters. They know their beats, too, know them exceptionally well. Many of the people who write the PR were reporters who got out to go somewhere they could learn a lot about something instead of being expected to know a little about everything, and then write about it as if they knew a lot.
Most of these ex-journalists appear comfortable and happy in the PR world. They are well paid, much more so than any of us on this side. They are surrounded by their people. They work for a unified team. If the world doesn't like what they do, it doesn't matter so much. They're still part of the team.

Journalists -- those damn members of what Sarah Palin likes to call the “lamestream media” -- are increasingly out there alone or in shrinking tribes trying to defend what they do against a society divided against itself. The questions reporters most often face these days aren't about the substance of what journalism does, but "Are you a conservative or a liberal?"

Sometimes it's almost funny. Because I work for an organization --AlaskaDispatch.com -- that raised questions about the ethical lapses of U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller, a self-proclaimed conservative with a history of collecting government benefits, I ran into people who refused to be interviewed because "you're a damn liberal.” And the truth is that ever since self-proclaimed "common-sense conservative" Gov. Sarah Palin led a tax assault on the state's oil industry that netted the state billions of dollars but might have jeopardized Alaska long-term economic future, I'm not at all sure where the lines are drawn between liberal and conservative in this state anymore.

By and large, it shouldn't matter either. Good journalism doesn't worry about such things. It focuses on rooting around with a flashlight in the dark corners of politics and government. It recognizes the need to rattle the towers of power because in this country there aren't supposed to be towers of power, because in this country the power is supposed to remain with the citizenry.

As a young journalist, these were easy things to believe. It was easy to maintain that passion about American democracy and the role of journalism in it, and the passion, when you get down to it, is the essence of any good writing. The problem is that as one gets older, it gets more difficult to keep burning the fire in the belly.

It's not so much that the writing gets any harder; it's that the living does. If you are good at what you do, you end up pissing off not just your enemies but a lot of your friends because the world is not a simple place with issues always painted in black and white.

There are a lot of grays. People can get as angry when the grays mess up their perfect black-and-white vision as they can when you wash away all the grays to expose the underlying black and white. The result is a lot of blowback. There has always been blowback in journalism. There seems now, though, more than ever. It makes this particular kind of writing known as journalism increasingly hard.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,”' Nobel prize winner Ernest Hemingway once wrote. "But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.”

Hemingway was one of the greatest of American writers and a pretty decent journalist at times. He eventually put a shotgun to his head and killed himself. Writing might be easy work, but it's dangerous nonetheless.

Good writers spend too much time inside their own heads. Good journalists -- those writers who aren't imaginative enough to be real writers -- are only slightly better off. They spend too much time thinking and questioning, always questioning. It is the essence of what they do, and the real danger in the job. It is the contemplation not the stenography that makes the easy job of writing journalism damn hard work.

But it is nice to work in a warm, well-lighted place. There is that.

Craig Medred is the author of "Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." He was the outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News for 20 years and now writes for the online publication AlaskaDispatch.com.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I am so grateful to journalists who keep the flame of integrity and truth burning, no matter what side of the political spectrum they're on.

As I watch the news these days I find an increasing appreciation for journalists like Christiane Amanpour who asks questions of substance and does not insert an attitude into the equation.

The level of discourse in America and the world looks more like a playground run amok.

I'm grateful to all journalists who work to maintain civil communications in a world where doing that gets harder every day.

Maybe its time to remember to teach our children the art of logic and debate in our schools. An uninformed populace can't run a democracy or distinguish good journalism from bad.

Eventually they won't even know when freedom has been taken away or why keeping it mattered.

Those are the folks who'll be running things when we're too old to matter anymore. It ain't lookin' pretty down the line.

Ralph Jordan said...

I just happened to stumble on this site and saw Craig's article. Didn't know what had happened to him after the ADN days. Glad you are still out there penning good works, Craig.