April 14, 2010

Imagine Life Without Those Frustrating Journalists

I’ve been thinking about the state of traditional, professional journalism a lot lately and can’t help but wonder where it’s headed. As newspapers, magazines and TV networks struggle and cut staffing in the newsroom, will they eventually fail to carry out their most important function – watchdog of government and other institutions that have such a tremendous impact on our way of life? Many observers already are worried that investigative journalism is dying.

I’m sure many of our chapter members have had their fair share of frustration with reporters, editors and various media outlets. The media can make you want to pull out your hair! Nevertheless, we should be happy we have a free press, warts and all. We should all be concerned that true journalism (as compared to Twitter, Facebook and blog “news”) is deeply challenged. I guarantee none of us would like the alternative.

Many years ago when I was a journalism student at the University of Missouri, I had the opportunity to observe the alternative up close and personal. This goes back to the days of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. But the lessons I learned then are still pertinent today. We don’t lack for repressive societies on our planet. I went on a student tour of Europe, and we spent quite a few days behind the Iron Curtain. Let’s see if the way of life I saw is your cup of tea.

My first glimpse of a repressed society (one lacking a free press) was in Prague. Today, Prague is one of Europe’s jewels. When I was there, it was dark, dank and dirty. Every building I saw was in need of repair. The dominant color was gray. The streets were patrolled by Soviet soldiers armed with submachine guns. Everywhere you went, there they were. We visited a tavern one evening and the place was packed with locals – none of whom were smiling or laughing. But they were drinking plenty. I got in the habit of watching people as we walked around town and witnessed no smiles or laughter anywhere, except for the crazy Americans.

The next shock came in the parking lot of a World War II concentration camp in East Germany. Our bus parked alongside another bus full of East German elementary-age students. We waited at least half an hour to get permission to enter the camp and we were told to stay on the bus until we got the all clear. OK, we stayed, but we also partied like a bunch of juveniles. Meanwhile, the real juveniles in the bus next to us sat ramrod straight and unmoving in their seats. They didn’t look around or talk among themselves. They didn’t even glance at the idiots in the next bus. Of course, no smiles. They were like statues. When was the last time you saw a bunch of youngsters behave like that?

Later, on our way to Berlin, we saw a tall wire fence running through the countryside in the middle of nowhere. Our guide said it was the rural section of the Berlin Wall. Approaching Berlin, we saw the fence extend into a lake. The beach on the East German side of the fence was vacant; the West German beach was jammed with folks. Crossing into West Berlin, we saw plenty of barbed wire, guard dogs and gun towers – all Soviet.

The next morning, we visited East Berlin where I was shocked by an incident that occurred at the end of the day. While we waited in a line of vehicles to cross to Checkpoint Charlie, our East German guide stayed on our bus as long as she could. She asked about happenings in West Berlin because she had family there that she hadn’t seen since the Wall went up. We offered her an old Newsweek that Soviet guards had missed when our bus was searched earlier in the day. Although we could see that she wanted more than anything to have that magazine, she was terrified to take it. No, no, no, she said, her eyes wide with fear. We insisted again and again. Finally, she glanced out the windows and quickly stuffed the Newsweek in her shirt. Shortly thereafter, the time came for her to get off the bus. I looked out and saw her watching us pull away, tears streaming down her face. We could cross over, but she couldn’t.

What amazing lessons for a young journalism student! This is what happens when a country lacks a free press to keep the right people accountable. This is no way to live. This is why we need our frustrating, professional journalism industry to find a way to both survive and play its most important role.

The next time you want to pull out your hair, just be glad that reporter or editor is even there to ruin your day.

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