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Media Courage?


“To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental… Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of “dissenting” bravery.”


-Christopher Hitchens,
Slate.com, on Michael Moore


Well, that’s rich, isn’t it? Christopher Hitchens crawling out of a bottle long enough to denounce Michael Moore as a coward. I can’t imagine anything more uplifting, except maybe a zoo baboon humping the foot of a medical school cadaver.


All journalists are cowards. Hitchens knows it, I know it, everybody in this business knows it. If there were any justice at all, every last goddamn one of us would be lowered, head-first, into a wood-chipper. Over Arizona. Shoot a nice red mist over the whole state, make it arable for a year or two. A year’s worth of fava beans and endive for the children of Bangladesh: I dare anyone in our business to say that that wouldn’t represent a better use of our rotting bodies than the actual fruits of our labor.


No one among us is going to throw that first stone, though. Not even Chris Hitchens, a man who makes a neat living completing advanced Highlights for Children exercises like the following: “Denounce a like-minded colleague, using the words ‘Lugubrious’ and ‘Semienvious.’” Such is the pretense of modern journalism, that we are to be lectured on courage by a man who has had his intellectual face lifted so many times, he can’t close his eyes without opening his mouth. By a man who, if the Soviets had won the Cold War, would be writing breathless features on Eduard Shevardnadze for three bucks a word in Komsomolskaya Vanity Fair (“Georgia on His Mind: Edik Speaks Out.” Photos by Annie Liebowitz…).


Which is fine, good luck to him, mazel tov. Everybody’s got to make a living. But let’s not leave people confused out there. The idea that anyone in today’s media is either courageous or cowardly on the basis of what they write or broadcast is ridiculous.


Hitchens, like me and everyone else out there publishing, lives in a professional world where the idea of courage is submitting nice words about George Bush to the Nation, or maybe a “Rethinking Welfare Reform” piece to the Wall Street Journal. What Hitchens calls courage is really a willingness to offend one’s intellectual constituency, and what he really means by that is honesty-something very different from courage. It’s a nice quality, honesty, and the pundit out there who has it and still manages to make a living is, I guess, to be applauded. But again, let’s not confuse that with courage.


Courage is a willingness to face real risks-your neck, or at the very least, your job. The journalist with courage would have threatened to resign rather than repeat George Bush’s justifications for invasion before it began. I don’t remember anyone resigning last winter. The journalist with courage would threaten to quit rather than do a magazine piece about an advertiser’s product, his fad diet book or his magic-bullet baldness cure. It happens every day, and nobody ever quits over it.


If journalists had courage, they would form unions and refuse to work for any company that made decisions about editorial content based on the bottom line, on profit. Are there individual instances of reporters who quit over this issue? Sure, there are a few. Lowell Bergman walked out on 60 Minutes over this one. And there were those Fox TV reporters in Tampa, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, who famously (and expensively, as it turned out) fell on their swords rather than broadcast a bunch of cuddly bullshit about the Monsanto corporation.


Yes, there are a few isolated vertebrates out there in our business. But it wasn’t like the whole staff of WTVT in Tampa walked out in support of Akre and Wilson. Janitors stick up for each other. Steelworkers stick up for each other. Even camera operators and soundmen stick up for each other. But journalists just sit still in their cubicles with their eyebrows raised, waiting for it all to blow over, in those very rare instances when a colleague walks the plank.


I’ve been around journalists my entire life, since I was a little kid, and I haven’t met more than five in three-plus decades who wouldn’t literally shit from shame before daring to say that their job had anything to do with truth or informing the public. Everyone in the commercial media, and that includes Hitchens, knows what his real job is: feeding the monkey. We are professional space-fillers, frivolously tossing content-pebbles in an ever-widening canyon of demand, cranking out one silly pack-mule after another for toothpaste and sneaker ads to ride on straight into the brains of the stupefied public.


One friend I know describes working in the media as shoveling coal for Satan. That’s about right. A worker in a tampon factory has dignity: He just uses his sweat to make a product, a useful product at that, and doesn’t lie to himself about what he does. In this business we make commodities for sale and, for the benefit of our consciences and our egos, we call them ideas and truth. And then we go on the lecture circuit. But in 99 cases out of 100, the public has more to learn about humanity from the guy who makes tampons.


I’m off on this tangent because I’m enraged by the numerous attempts at verbose, pseudoliterary, “nuanced” criticism of Moore this week by the learned priests of our business. (And no, I’m not overlooking this newspaper.) Michael Moore may be an ass, and impossible to like as a public figure, and a little loose with the facts, and greedy, and a shameless panderer. But he wouldn’t be necessary if even one percent of the rest of us had any balls at all.


If even one reporter had stood up during a pre-Iraq Bush press conference last year and shouted, “Bullshit!” it might have made a difference.


If even one network, instead of cheerily re-broadcasting Pentagon-generated aerial bomb footage, had risked its access to the government by saying to the Bush administration, “We’re not covering the war unless we can shoot anything we want, without restrictions,” that might have made a difference. It might have made this war look like what it is-pointless death and carnage that would have scared away every advertiser in the country-rather than a big fucking football game that you can sell Coke and Pepsi and Scott’s Fertilizer to.


Where are the articles about the cowardice of those people? Hitchens in his piece accuses Moore of errors by omission: How come he isn’t writing about the CNN producers who every day show us gung-ho Army desert rats instead of legless malcontents in the early stages of a lifelong morphine addiction?


Yeah, well, we don’t write about those people, because they’re just doing their jobs, whatever that means. For some reason, we in the media can forgive that. We just can’t forgive it when someone does our jobs for us. Say what you want about Moore, but he picked himself up and did something, something approximating the role journalism is supposed to play. The rest of us-let’s face it-are just souped-up shoe salesmen with lit degrees. Who should shut their mouths in the presence of real people.


 


 



 

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