MAXWELL:  Once again, the messenger takes a pounding

10/21/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I make my living in and derive the most personal pleasure from a profession ranked beneath used car salesman in terms of popularity. I am a journalist. And worse, perhaps, an opinion columnist.

Each time the nation or a particular place experiences disaster or scandal, the very definition and purpose of journalism are tested, current times no exception.

Too often, the messenger _ journalism _ is transmogrified into the message. Government officials, from the Bush in Washington to the Bush in Tallahassee, have always disliked the press. Many other powerful people, who have reason to play in shadowy corners, share this contempt for the fourth estate.

Sometimes, we deserve what we get. In too many other cases, however, arrogant movers and shakers and a naive public misunderstand the basic role of the press and, as a result, make it a scapegoat for what ails society at large.

In Florida, for example, Tom Feeney, our speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, will not talk to certain reporters, including those at the St. Petersburg Times, because we see him for what he is: the epitome of arrogance and a threat to free expression. He wants to silence us. But we will not let him.

Minnesota has a more serious problem. Its governor, fake wrestler Jesse Ventura, seems to be suffering from the debilitating effects of too many head butts. He will not speak with reporters who have tape recorders, and he has announced that he will keep his schedule of public appearances semisecret.

What politicians and the public do not realize is, for better for worse, the media are our second-by-second recorders of history. In fact, we write instant history every day.

As such, we sometimes step on toes, stake out yards, chase cars, stick microphones in the faces of survivors of catastrophe, question the veracity of elected officials, disbelieve preachers.

We sometimes get it wrong, but more often than not, we get it right _ or at least half right.

Often, we make all the difference, especially when our photographs, videos, tape recordings and notebooks are the only record of events. Often, our work saves lives and serves as blueprints for needed legislation and as the warning signals that other legislation should be changed.

Unfortunately, in times of tragedy, the media are most misunderstood and castigated. I recall watching television during the first hours following the World Trade Center implosion. Amid the smoke and ash, a firefighter ran toward the rubble. A TV cameraman ran alongside, but the firefighter, thinking himself doing the right thing, tried to shoo the cameraman. I remember the firefighter’s expression. It was one of contempt for the journalist. It said the journalist did not belong there. Other emergency workers did the same, waving off writers and photographers, treating them as if they were the enemy for doing their jobs.

Days later, the nation and the world learned that some of the most graphic images of the tragedy were taken by a cameraman who died in the inferno. His camera left behind a candid record _ a few incredible minutes _ of our nation’s worst acts of terrorism.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of the heroism surrounding the Trade Center tragedy need only turn to the nearest newspaper or magazine. There, you can witness still shots of firefighters, paramedics, doctors and ordinary citizens trying to comfort and treat the injured.

One black and white photograph in a newspaper touched me profoundly. It was the image of a male paramedic who had lost a comrade a few minutes earlier. He sat on the ground, his head bowed. A fellow paramedic reached down to him, suggesting that even with their loss, they still had a job to do.

I was glad that one of my colleagues had recorded this moment for posterity.

Each morning, I read my newspapers for more than political reporting. I also read for depictions of, say, daily life in Afghanistan and Pakistan during this time of crisis. I applaud those unarmed foreign correspondents who have the courage to march toward danger that would send non-journalists the other way.

Their stories tell us about a world _ essential, mundane existence _ that goes forward despite smart bombs, despite state-level visits, despite the high-tone rhetoric of prime ministers and presidents.

Yes, journalism has its Gary Condit and Bill Clinton moments. But, more often than not, we have those shining moments that show our readers and viewers the ash-covered faces and the bloody uniforms of heroes.

In these and other such efforts, journalists can take pride. The passage of time, after historians and others have sorted through the debris, is the best judge of our work.