Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Journalist's Mission: To Discover Hidden Truth

I like Bill Moyers. Have always liked him. He strikes me as one of those rare voices of unalloyed integrity in American journalism, voices increasingly rare in an age of sound-bytes and commercial control of the media.

For that reason, I was delighted to learn early in April that Bill Moyers was awarded this year’s Ridenhour Courage prize to honor his commitment to costly truth-telling in journalism. Today’s Alternet website publishes Bill Moyers’ acceptance speech when he received the Ridenhour award on 3 April.

Some noteworthy comments from his speech:

We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news, but our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.

And yes, I believe journalism has a mission.

But I also tell them [i.e., youth considering a journalistic vocation] there is something more important than journalism, and that is the truth. They aren't necessarily one and the same because the truth is often obscured in the news.

Journalists have a mission. That mission is to seek and tell the truth at all cost, even when the powerful of the world try to silence your voice—as they will certainly seek to do.

As do the citizen journalists of Japan, about whom I blogged yesterday, Bill Moyers believes that “you will learn more about who wins and who loses in the real business of politics, which is governance, from the public interest truth-tellers of Washington than you will from an established press tethered to official sources . . . and from whistleblowers of all sorts who never went to journalism school, never flashed a press pass, and never attended a gridiron dinner.”

My view of what journalism is meant to be and can be at its best will forever be shaped by the memory of how one of my statewide daily newspapers, the Arkansas Gazette, met the challenge of the Central High integration crisis in 1957.

When Governor Faubus sought to close the school rather than allow it to be integrated, and President Eisenhower sent federal troops to assure that integration took place, any media outlet in Arkansas that defended integration paid a high price. The prevailing cultural climate of overwhelming racism assured that even the most moderate statement in favor of integration would be received as inflammatory—as beyond the pale.

It took courage to speak truth to power in that cultural climate. Though today business and church leaders of my state would like to take credit for having resisted ugly racism in the past, the truth is clear for anyone who cares to read our history: most white churches and almost all business leaders resisted integration, defended segregation, and justified our culture of racism.

It is easy to repent in retrospect, when we pay no price for doing so. It’s easy to cast ourselves in the role of the merciful when it costs us nothing to be merciful—nothing by way of taking sides in the battle of justice against injustice.

In that battle, the Arkansas Gazette did take sides: against the governor, against the business leaders of our state and most church leaders, against racism, hatred, and segregation. This statewide newspaper paid a price for choosing the path of costly grace. They lost subscribers. They were lambasted on all sides by powerful citizens of our state.

But they gave witness to the real craft and calling of journalism in an exemplary and unforgettable way. When newspapers in the South were poked, prodded, and pulled to tell stories that we all knew—stories of endemic oppression of people of color across our part of the United States—and when they had the courage to publish pictures of incidents we had all seen, we Southerners, of African Americans being turned away from lunch counters because of the color of their skin, the cultural tide began to shift in the whole nation.

It took courage to tell these stories, to print these pictures. It took courage to give a voice to an outside group—African Americans—who had previously been marginalized, objectified, denied a voice or any integrity at all by mainstream culture and the mainstream media. Those journalists who exhibited the rare courage demanded by the times will always be remembered as exemplars of their vocation. The others, the many, many apologists for the status quo—their names and faces have begun to fade into the history of the past century.

Why bring all of this up now, as Bill Moyers receives the Ridenhour prize? In the first place, I do so because what Moyers says in his acceptance speech echoes a point I have been stressing in this blog, in posting after posting.

This is that the truth is not just out there to be plucked like a ripe apple from a tree. It is not out there to be received in a handout of official soundbytes at a press-club luncheon.

The truth has to be sought, struggled for. In a climate in which the powerful always try to keep inconvenient truth hidden, in which the powerful can easily distort the truth and manipulate our consciousness such that we believe untruth, finding and telling the truth involves us in a battle. Those who seek and wish to tell truth are always engaged in an ongoing battle against lies, distortions, and manipulations designed to justify the cruelty and injustice of the status quo.

There are, of course, many aspects of the truth that we must battle today to discover—if we care about the truth at all; if we want to leave a better world for the next generation; if we want to build a healthier democracy in which more people have voice and access to power and privilege; if we wish to bind up wounds inflicted by the unjust. It is a battle to discover and publicize the American government’s use and approval of torture. It takes courage to pursue that shocking story, when so many powerful interest groups collude to keep the contours of the story hidden.

It is a battle to know what is happening in the war in Iraq, when we are not even allowed to see photographs of those who come home in coffins and body bags. It is an ongoing struggle to find out the truth about all those who are benefiting economically from this war. The channels through which money flows in our society are murky and hidden, particularly when the money is dirty. Anyone who tries to trace those channels will quickly find herself up against some powerful and ruthless interest groups who will use every dirty tactic in the book to keep the truth from coming out.

All these stories need to be told. On this blog, I keep maintaining that another story which also demands a hearing is the story of how our culture (and churches) treat gay and lesbian persons.

Because I grew up in the American South during the Civil Rights movement, I am always critically aware of the numerous, clear parallels between what was previously done to African Americans by my people, and what is done today to gay and lesbian persons. Just as African Americans and African-American stories could not obtain a hearing in the mainstream media, stories of the real, everyday lives of gay and lesbian persons are shut out of the media today. The mainstream media relegates “gay stories” to “the gay media,” thus assuring the continued marginalization of gay people and our stories, and assuring that our lives and stories remain hidden from people in the mainstream.

Just as anyone who challenged the prevailing cultural racism of the past, so today, anyone within mainstream culture who speaks out courageously on behalf of gay and lesbian human beings will pay a price. Church leaders who spoke out in the midst of the civil rights struggle lost donations; their church Sunday collections suffered. They received midnight visits and calls from rich members of their congregation who told them to cool it, to stop preaching a social gospel and concentrate instead on the “real” gospel of individual redemption.

Those midnight calls and visits continue today, when any mainstream church leader—especially in the American South—dares to raise her voice against oppression of gay and lesbian human beings. The threats to withhold donations go on today, just as they did in the past.

Grace is as costly today for churches that witness to Jesus’s redeeming mercy for all human beings by combating ugly injustice against some human beings, gay and lesbian ones, as it was in the past, if churches witnessed to Jesus’s redeeming mercy for all human beings by combating ugly injustice against people of color. It is just as difficult today to find, claim, and speak forth the truth about the real lives of gay human beings, in a church context, as it was for the churches of the past to find, claim, and speak forth the truth about the real lives of people of color.

The distortion of information, the machines that churn out a positive sewer of lies on a daily basis, is just as powerful today, regarding gay and lesbian human beings in our culture, as it was in the past, regarding African-American persons. Today, when I read what a Peter LaBarbera or an Elaine Donnelly or a Sally Kern says about me, about people I know, I can think only of the lurid flyers with which some kind Christian groups papered my high school in Arkansas in the late 1960s, when we finally integrated.

The flyers showed African-American men, lips accentuated, skin made as black as night, dancing with blond Southern girls. The text accompanying the pictures asked if this is what we really wanted Christian civilization, the civilization we had struggled so hard to build in the South, to come to.

Just as the LaBarberas, Donnellys, and Kerns of the world ask us today: is this what you really want Christian civilization to come to? Dirty, disease-ridden homosexuals showering with the flower of American manhood in military showers? Infectious, promiscuous homosexuals teaching your children, preying on them, converting them to their unhealthy lifestyle?

The tactics have not changed. The attempt to spread misinformation has not changed. The lies remain virtually the same, though the picture accompanying the lurid flyers telling us to fear forces that will cause the decay of Christian civilization shift, as it becomes convenient to target a different group: Jews, Muslims, people of color, women, gays.

And the price of seeking and speaking truth remains the same. Challenge the dissemination of misinformation, ask people to think, to talk respectfully with each other, to provide evidence for their “facts,” and you will meet fierce opposition.

You will be subject to slander, exclusion, misrepresentation. Your integrity will be questioned. You will be called a liar, even by those spreading ludicrous lies about you. You will be called a liar even when you value telling the truth far above precious jewels, and have a lifelong history of being a truth-teller.

This is the price any of us who are gay and lesbian, and who try to speak truth to power, pay. Sadly, we often pay that price right within the church context, right within Christian communities, within the churches where some of us continue to try to find a spiritual home and a welcoming Christian family.

If this is how those of us who are gay and lesbian are treated by many of our fellow Christians, if we ask for respectful dialogue based on truth and not on lies, is it any wonder that anyone who walks along with us pays a similar price? It takes courage to speak the truth, when many forces collude to keep the truth at bay.

For Christians who wish to be in solidarity today with gay and lesbian human beings, learning and speaking the truth about the real human lives of gay persons will continue to demand costly grace. My hat is off to you: thank you for your courage, your decency, your humanity.

No comments: