The Tossed Shoe Award

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

“Businesses exist to serve the general welfare. Profit is the means, not the end. It is the reward a business receives for serving the general welfare. When a business fails to serve the general welfare, it forfeits its right to exist.”

Do Adam Smith’s famously forgotten words of caution for capitalists apply to journalism? Is this why, when I go to the newsstand these days, I see my city’s two great newspapers sitting there like twin anorexics, panhandling (I mean pandering) for quarters?

Taking my inspiration from University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, who has written a manifesto challenging J-schools to become relevant again, I see that the time has come to engage in the envisioning of the future of my beloved, gasping profession.

What kind of newspapers will, or should, rise from the wreckage of today’s collapsing empires? What principles should they embody that incorporate the best of the old tradition — fairness, accuracy, jargon-free language, fearlessness in seeking the truth wherever it may lead — and at the same time move beyond that tradition and establish crucial, indeed, spiritual relevance to today’s far more dangerous and complex world?

No small task — moving these great entities away from their cynical certainties and commitment to the special interests of money and power. How do newspapers begin serving the general welfare more effectively than they do now? It will take courage from journalists at every level: beat reporters, editors, executives.

“The best traditions of journalism are based in resistance to the illegitimate structures of authority at the heart of our problems,” Jensen writes at Common Dreams (“Can Journalism Schools Be Relevant in a World on the Brink?”). “. . . the most revered journalists have had the courage to take a stand for ordinary people and against arrogant concentrations of power.”

And the Tossed Shoe Award goes to . . .

Jensen’s words made me think immediately of Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the reporter for Al-Baghdadiya TV who threw his shoes at George Bush at a press conference during the president’s final visit to Iraq last December. Al-Zeidi, released from prison a few days ago, declared: “Here I am, free, but my country remains captive.”

I guess, technically, hurled shoes don’t count as journalism, but they set a standard for courage in speaking truth to power. Men and women of the press, go out and do that with your laptops and your cameras! Those flying shoes certainly stand in contrast to the timidity of mainstream reporters over here on the power side of the war equation, who, with a few notable exceptions, exercised no independence from the Bush White House and the lies that made the war on terror, and the ensuing suffering of Afghans and Iraqis, a done deal.

But courage and passion are only the starting place if we are to rebuild — re-envision — the media. Here are a few more principles that I believe are crucial for a revitalized media to embrace:

1. As Jensen notes, journalism’s great heroes and role models took a stand for ordinary people. I would push this thought further: This is not merely a political matter, a demand for justice or redress. To take a stand for “ordinary people” means, first of all, to listen to them — to dig, in one’s reporting, for the soul of their hopes — and to celebrate their lives. When I began my career as a reporter, my first big surprise was the rush of gratitude I felt from people simply because I had listened to them.

2. A re-envisioned media must learn how to tell complex stories, simply and compellingly. This requires a reorientation toward truth and away from lowest-common-denominator journalism: fear-mongering, celebrity fawning and other forms of know-nothingism that have only gotten worse in recent years, as the reeling media empires grow ever more desperate for quick, cheap profits.

3. The media must grow up. Reporters must stop flailing the good-vs.-evil, winner-vs.-loser narrative, which explains nothing, justifies everything and only fuels the moneyed status quo. My friend Jake Lynch, an Australian journalist and director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, talks about “peace journalism”: journalism that looks at all sides of a conflict, examines all consequences of military violence, and pursues the “why” of a story beyond the official sources (usually anonymous) who turn most war reportage into propaganda.

4. The media must expand their horizons and find an intelligence independent of the “experts” they so often quote to avoid saying anything. They must try to understand and learn to write about the real news people crave, sometimes unknowingly. This is the news about social and environmental healing. Right now, the media doesn’t even recognize healing as news, yet without it we have no future.