Monday, January 19, 2009

Caution: Commentary Coming

Journalistic Freedom

Freedom! Exhilaration! Effervescence! Ever-loving freedom. That’s what I feel tonight while watching reports from the mall in Washington D.C. on the eve of the inauguration of a new President of the United States, Barack Obama. Does that marvelous feeling of freedom mar a journalist’s image of objectivity? Does expressing joy in that freedom reveal latent bias? Actually, I don’t think so. I don’t think loving freedom is a journalistic or partisan issue.

I’ll say it: For more than the past decade, most of which while I was a working journalist, I’ve been bummed by what I’ve seen and heard from this outgoing administration in Washington. I kept it to myself when George W. Bush was governor, but I said to friends, “He couldn’t run a baseball team, I don’t think he can run a state.” Then, eight years ago, Mr. Bush somehow became President. For the first four years of the administration, I was, well, angry. When the country somehow re-elected him, I decided to let it go.

As a working journalist, I had a professional responsibility to be unbiased and balanced in my coverage decisions. It was work, but that’s OK. It’s part of the job.

The Poynter Institute is a professional journalism think-tank and training center. I don’t know if it was coincidence or in concert, but today two writers at Poynter produced pieces on similar issues. One summed it up: “Journalists’ Facebook Pages Reveal Struggle with Neutrality, Free Speech”. The other suggests guidelines for journalists using Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

The former, posted by Steve Myers, did an admittedly nonscientific assessment of journalists’ Facebook Pages. “What I found was a disconnect between what these journalists said and what they did. Most agreed that journalists should accept some limitation on free speech so they don’t undermine their position as fair brokers of information,” Myers writes. But, what they posted online was a different matter. While they wouldn’t put a candidate’s sign in their yard, they might express themselves more freely online, even if they attempted to restrict access.

Well, he’s right. When I was in “The Business”, I was circumspect. No signs in the yard; no bumper stickers on the truck.

By 2001 I needed an outlet. I began to pour my feelings about the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq and the so-called Patriot Act into songs. A visitor to my music web site might not detect what I just wrote unless they played the right portions of the right song clips on iTunes,, or I was like two persons. At the TV station it was all business. At home I was myself. While working at my last station, I peeled off the candidate bumper sticker, but I left the “peace sign”. That peace sign was part of me.

You see, I was in high school and college in the 1960s, graduating from undergraduate school in 1969. I also started doing broadcast news in the late ‘60s. But to borrow a phrase, you can take the boy out of the ‘60s, but you can’t take the ‘60s out of the boy. I was in high school in Dallas when President Kennedy died there. I was in college when Martin Luther King, Junior and Bob Kennedy were also assassinated. I was radicalized and galvanized in 1968 before I started doing TV news in 1969. How do you purge those memories fraught with meaning? Should I forget the “dream”? Should I blot out, “Some see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” I think not. These memories, these experiences made me who I am today for good or ill. But, I cannot and should not suppress pure joy with this year’s turn of political events.

I envy Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and brave, mainly print columnists who speak plainly about the damage done by the departing administration. Olbermann and especially Maddow should be considered “journalists” even though they are free with their opinions. Why? You know when they are poking fun and when they aren’t. Their reporting is factual. They tell the truth, even if some people don’t like it. Stories they report are on the front page or network TV news the next day.

For local journalists, however, there are few, if any, ways of doing what they do, unless they do what I did—retire!!! Now, because I have a blog, I tell you about freedom. We have “freedom of the press” in this country, true enough. But, for the individuals who make up the press, they give up some of their freedom for the sake of the profession. I had a news director once who refused to vote in the primary elections because he would have to commit to a party. I’ll be honest. I never, ever gave up my vote.

Now, I don’t have to worry whether someone might challenge me. So, just like on the night when Barack Obama accepted his party’s nomination for President of the United States, I’ll watch his inauguration with tears of joy. It’s a darned good thing I don’t have to cover the event.

By the way, my song “Yes We Can”, is playing on my web site

© Jim McNabb, January 19, 2009

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