Those who love the work of Federico Fellini must envy anyone who sees La Dolce Vita for the first time. But today such a viewer, however overwhelmed by the lavish cinematic feast laid before his eyes, will wonder if giving the intrusive tabloid photographer friend of Marcello Mastroianni’s protagonist the name “Paparazzo” isn’t a bit on the nose. Unlike La Dolce Vita‘s first audiences in 1960, we’ve been hearing about real-life paparazzi throughout most all of our lives, and thus may not realize that the word itself originally derives from Fellini’s masterpiece. Each time we refer to the paparazzi, we pay tribute to Paparazzo.
In the video essay above, Evan Puschak (better known as the Nerdwriter) traces the origins of paparazzi: not just the word, but the often bothersome professionals denoted by the word. The story begins with the dictator Benito Mussolini, an “avid movie fan and fanboy of film stars” who wrote “more than 100 fawning letters to American actress Anita Page, including several marriage proposals.” Knowing full well “the emotional power of cinema as a tool for propaganda and building cultural prestige,” Mussolini commissioned the construction of Rome’s Cinecittà, the largest film-studio complex in Europe when it opened in 1937 — six years before his fall from power.
During the Second World War, Cinecittà became a vast refugee camp. When peacetime returned, with “the studio space being used and Mussolini’s thumb removed, a new wave of filmmakers took to the streets of Rome to make movies about real life in postwar Italy.” Thus began the age of Italian Neorealism, which brought forth such now-classic pictures as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In the nineteen-fifties, major American productions started coming to Rome: Quo Vadis, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra. (It was this era, surely, that inspired an eleven-year-old named Martin Scorsese to storyboard a Roman epic of his own.) All of this created an era known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.”
For a few years, says Puschak, “the Via Veneto was the coolest place in the world.” Yet “while the glitterati cavorted in chic bars and clubs, thousands of others struggled to find their place in the postwar economy.” Some turned to tourist photography, and “soon found they could make even more money snapping photos of celebrities.” It was the most notorious of these, the “Volpe di via Veneto” Tazio Secchiaroli, to whom Fellini reached out asking for stories he could include in the film that would become La Dolce Vita. The newly christened paparazzi were soon seen as the only ones who could bring “the gods of our culture down to the messy earth.” These six decades later, of course, celebrities do it to themselves, social media having turned each of us — famous or otherwise — into our own Paparazzo.
Before it set itself on fire, HBO’s Game of Thrones resonated deeply with contemporary morality, becoming the most meme-worthy of shows, for good or ill, online. Few scenes in the show’s run — perhaps not even the Red Wedding or the nauseating finale — elicited as much gut-level reaction as Cersei Lannister’s naked walk of shame in the Season 5 finale, a scene all the more resonant as it happened to be based on real events.
In 1483, one of King Edward IV’s many mistresses, Jane Shore, was marched through London’s streets by his brother Richard III, “while crowds of people watched, yelling and shaming her. She wasn’t totally naked,” notes Mental Floss, “but by the standards of the day, she might as well have been,” wearing nothing but a kirtle, a “thin shift of linen meant to be worn only as an undergarment.”
What are the standards of our day? And what is the punishment for violating them? Sarah Brand seemed to be asking these questions when she posted “Red Dress,” a music video showcasing her less than stellar singing talents inside Oxford’s North Gate Church. In less than a month, the video has garnered well over half a million views, “impressive for a musician with hardly any social media footprint or fan base,” Kate Fowler writes at Newsweek.
“It takes only a few seconds,” Fowler generously remarks, “to realize that Brand may not have the voice of an angel.” Or, as one clever commenter put it, “She is actually hitting all the notes… only of other songs. And at random.” Is she ludicrously un-self-aware, an heiress with delusions of grandeur, a sad casualty of celebrity culture, forcing herself into a role that doesn’t fit? Or does she know exactly what she’s doing…
The judgments of medieval mobs have nothing on the internet, Brand suggests. “Red Dress” presents what she calls “a cinematic, holistic portrayal of judgment,” one that includes internet shaming in its calculations. Given the amount of online rancor and ridicule her video provoked, it “did what it set out to do,” she tells the BBC. And given that Brand is currently completing a master’s degree in sociology at Oxford University, many wonder if the project is a sociological experiment for credit. She isn’t saying.
Jane Shore’s walk ended with years locked in prison. Brand offered herself up for the scorn and hatred of the mobs. No one is pointing a pike at her back. She paid for the privilege of having people laugh at her, and she’s especially enjoying “some very, very witty comments” (like those above). She’s also very much aware that she is “no professional singer.”
The style in which I sing the song was important because it reflected the story. The vocals don’t seem to quite fit, they seem out of place and they make people uncomfortable… and the video is this outsider doing things differently and causing discomfort and eliciting all this judgement.
All of this is voluntary performance art, in a sense, though Brand has shown previous aspirations on social media to become a singer, and perhaps faced similar ridicule involuntarily. “Part of what this project deals with,” she says, is judgment “overall as a central theme.” She credits herself as the director, producer, choreographer, and editor and made every creative decision, to the bemusement of the actors, crew, and studio musicians. Yet choosing to endure the gauntlet does not make the gauntlet less real, she suggests.
The shame rained down on Shore was part misogyny, part pent-up rage over injustice directed at a hated better. When anyone can pretend (or pretend to pretend) to be a celebrity with a few hundred bucks for cinematography and audio production, the boundaries between our “betters” and ourselves get fuzzy. When young women are expected to become brands, to live up to celebrity levels of online polish for social recognition, self-expression, or employment, the lines between choice and compulsion blur. With whom do we identify in scenes of public shaming?
Brand is coy in her summation. “Judgmental behavior does hurt the world,” she says, “and that is what I’m trying to bring to light with this project.” Judge for yourself in the video above and the … interesting… lyrics to “Red Dress” below.
Came to church to praise all love Sitting, coming for someone else It didn’t stew well for me But I said it was a lover’s deed
Didn’t trust my own feels Let someone else behind my wheel Said it was love driving me But the only one who should steer is me
Cuz what they saw
They see me in a red dress Hopping on the devil fest Thinking of lust As they judge in disgust What are you doing here?
They see me in a red dress Hopping on the devil fest Thinking of lust As I judge in disgust What am I doing here?
Lettin’ someone else steer
I saw a love, precious and fine Thought I should do anything for time Time to change the hearts and minds Of people not like me in break or stride
Shouldn’t be me, trying to change Thought I’d be something if I remained It just ain’t me singing of sins Watching exclusion getting its wins
Cuz what they saw
They see me in a red dress Hopping on the devil fest Thinking of lust As they judge in disgust What are you doing here?
They see me in a red dress Hopping on the devil fest Thinking of lust As I judge in disgust What am I doing here?
Lettin’ someone else steer
Came to church To praise love Coming for Someone else
But all the eyes Judging in disguise They don’t see me Just the lies
They see me in a red dress No different from the rest Starting to trust As they join in a rush What are we doing here?
They see me in a red dress No different from the rest Starting to trust As I lose my disgust What am I doing here?
In November 1965, after some hondling between the Carnegie Corporation and the Ford Foundation, a senior executive from Carnegie called former president of MIT James Killian with an invitation. Would Killian be interested in assembling a commission to study educational television with an eye toward strengthening the American system of learning on screen, and could he start right away? Killian jumped; a commission was formed; and two years, eight meetings, 225 interviews, and 92 site visits later, the Carnegie Commission’s report comes out, a bill gets written, the bill becomes law, and President Johnson is signing the 1967 Public Television Act to create public television and radio.
At the signing ceremony, Johnson said, “Today, we rededicate a part of the airwaves – which belong to all the people – and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people. We must consider,” he said, “new ways to build a great network for knowledge – not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and storing information that the individual can use.”
Heady stuff. But it gets even better:
Think of the lives that this would change:
The student in a small college could tap the resources of a great university. [. . .]
The country doctor getting help from a distant laboratory or a teaching hospital;
A scholar in Atlanta might draw instantly on a library in New York;
A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspirations into some far-off classroom, so that no child need be neglected.
Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank.
And such a system could involve other nations, too – it could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.
A wild and visionary idea? Not at all. Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s headlines and change is getting swifter every moment.
I have already asked my advisers to begin to explore the possibility of a network for knowledge – and then to draw up a suggested blueprint for it.
The system he was signing into law, Johnson said, “will be free, and it will be independent – and it will belong to all of our people.”
A new network for knowledge.
Fifty years later, totally (seemingly) unrelated, then MIT president Charles Vest went on to speak of something else, something that became MIT Open Courseware. Together with new foundations – this time the Hewlett Foundation and the Mellon Foundation led the way – Vest envisioned “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced:”
A meta-university that will enable, not replace, residential campuses, that will bring cost efficiencies to institutions through the shared development of educational materials. That will be adaptive, not prescriptive. It will serve teachers and learners in both structured and informal contexts. It will speed the propagation of high-quality education and scholarship. It will build bridges across cultures and political boundaries. And it will be particularly important to the developing world.
Today, in our time of severe truth decay, our great epistemic crisis, it might be time again to envision another intervention, formative and transformational as the establishment of public broadcasting, imaginative and daring as the launch of open courseware and the open education movement. Indeed, something as breathtaking as the events above, and their own vital forbear over a century ago – the founding of a network of public libraries across America and other parts of the world (which also happened with Andrew Carnegie’s financial support).
The original Enlightenment brought us Newton’s physics, Rousseau’s political philosophy, Linnaeus’s taxonomies, Montesquieu’s laws, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man – it was the Age of Reason. Its founders – as we noted in [Parts 1 and II on] Open Culture – comprised between themselves what became known as the great Republic of Letters. They were all men, though; and they all were white; while they had access to their own means and to the mean of media production, and they delivered new systems of thinking much of the modern world is based on today, their circles were limited; their imaginations were not our imaginations.
Today we have a chance to do more – to take advantage of the cultures and communities that have arisen in the centuries and from the struggles since that time, to launch a new Enlightenment, and to realize perhaps in bolder and more secure ways this new network for knowledge. Video, more than text now, has taken over the internet; video is a new key to our networked world. The company Cisco Systems – which makes many of the devices that connect us – deploys a forecasting tool it calls the Visual Networking Index (VNI). The latest VNI tells us that there were 3.4 billion Internet users on the planet in 2017, almost half of the planet’s current population of 7.7 billion people. By 2022, there will be 4.8 billion Internet users: 60 percent of the planet, and more people in the world will be connected to the Internet than not. By 2022, more than 28 billion “devices and connections” will be online. And – here’s the kicker – video will make up 82 percent of global Internet traffic. Video is dominant already. During peak evening hours in the Americas, Netflix can account for as much as 40 percent of downstream Internet traffic, and Netflix – Netflix alone – constitutes 15 percent of Internet traffic worldwide. All this forecasting was completed before the pandemic; before 125 million cases of Corona virus; before 3 million deaths worldwide; before the explosion of Zoom.
We are living in a video age. What will be our next media intervention? How do knowledge institutions secure their deservedly central place in search and on the web? We need to look over our rights vis-à-vis the government and the giant companies that increasingly control our Internet; we need to look at the growing power we have to contribute to access to knowledge and share our wealth especially in the online Commons; we need to make sure that the public record, especially video (and especially video of all the lies and crimes, and of all the outrageous falsehoods leaders circulate about COVID) is all archived and preserved. We need to strengthen how much of the network we own and control.
What’s important is that we have begun to reach toward the point where there is equity in the leadership of our knowledge institutions. No longer are white men and only white men in charge of the Library of Congress, for example, or the Smithsonian Institution, or, and thus by extension, of our new Enlightenment. New and diverse study and action groups are being formed specifically to address our information disorder. But many more of our leading knowledge institutions – and, critically, foundations and funding agencies again – need to lead this work. This is a 20th-anniversary year for MIT Open CourseWare, for Wikipedia, and for Creative Commons; indeed, MIT OCW starts to celebrate its birthday this month. Many other like-minded progressive institutions and their supporters are on the move. That network for knowledge is coming again: this time, our new Enlightenment moment will belong to all of us.
When the ideas that matter most to us – liberals, democrats, progressives, republicans, all in the original sense of the words – were first put forward in society in order to change society, they were advanced foremost in print. The new rules, new definitions, and new codicils of human and civil rights that undergird many of the freedoms we value today had as their heart text and its main delivery mechanism, the printing press.
In that sense the first Enlightenment was based upon the foundation of the printed word. And of the 18th century’s contributions to knowledge and society – Newton’s physics, Montesquieu’s laws, Linnaeus’s taxonomies, Rousseau’s political philosophy, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man – there was perhaps no greater printed offering than the 22-million-word Encyclopédie that the French Enlightenment philosophers starting writing, compiling, and offering to the public in 1750.
The Encyclopédie was monumental. Not just from a content-assembly perspective – an effort to gather all the world’s knowledge and to print and publish it – but also from a sociopolitical one, given the powerful forces suppressing knowledge that such an effort would provoke. The Encyclopédie found the state and the church banning at one time or another almost every one of its 72,000 articles, 18,000 pages, and 28 volumes and invoking a hundred ways to forbid its distribution.
The encyclopedia’s entire approach to collecting and presenting knowledge was radical. The articles presented truths – some heretical, some blasphemous – that astonished contemporary readers. And its innovative approach to the verification its own content, to proving what could be proved, which was really its nuclear core, rocked the Western world.
The Encyclopédie smote 18th-century orthodoxy with ink-and-paper sledgehammers. The article on “RAISON,” or “REASON,” for example, told every reader who for centuries had been steeped in church doctrine and the divine rights of royals that:
No proposition can be accepted as divine revelation if it contradicts what is known to us, either by immediate intuition, as in the case of self-evident propositions, or by obvious deductions of reason, as in demonstrations. It would be ridiculous to give preference to such revelations, because the evidence that causes us to adopt them cannot surpass the certainty of our intuitive or demonstrative knowledge…
Clerics and kings, needless to say, were not fans. Articles on religion, philosophy, and politics and society challenged the government and the church even as the censors watched. Direct swipes at the monarchy and the church appeared even where you might not expect – in articles on CONSCIENCE, LIBERTÉ DE; CROISADES; FANATISME; TOLÉRANCE; etc. The entry for FORTUNE spotlighted the gross inequalities of wealth already evident in 18th-century Europe. And a zinging condemnation of slavery in the article on the SLAVE TRADE made few friends among any who had a hand anywhere in the business.
Slave trade is the purchase of Negroes made by Europeans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfortunate men as slaves in their colonies. This purchase of Negroes to reduce them into slavery [. . .] violates all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights.
The Encyclopédistes announced from day one that this new work would be, as we would say today, fact-based. There would be an underlying and overarching commitment on the part of all contributors and the work as a whole to the verification of all of its source materials. Verification is potentially “a long and painful process,” Diderot wrote in his introduction to the whole enterprise – the famous “Preliminary Discourse” that these philosophers used to sell in the whole project:
We have tried as much as possible to avoid this inconvenience by citing directly, in the body of the articles, the authors on whose evidence we have relied and by quoting their own text when it is necessary.
We have everywhere compared opinions, weighed reasons, and proposed means of doubting or of escaping from doubt; at times we have even settled contested matters. . . . Facts are cited, experiments compared, and methods elaborated . . . in order to excite genius to open unknown routes, and to advance onward to new discoveries, using the place where great men have ended their careers as the first step.
What this meant in practice was revolutionary. There would be no accepted truths but for those that could be proven and cited. Fact-based versus faith- and belief-based: the start and spark of the Enlightenment. One of Diderot’s biographers explains that approximately 23,000 articles had at least one cross-reference to another article in one of the encyclopedia’s 28 volumes. “The total number of links – some articles had five or six – reached almost 62,000.” And all while retaining a sly sense of humor. The article on CANNIBALS ended with “the mischievous cross-reference,” as another historian would later describe it: “See Eucharist, Communion, Altar, etc.”
That commitment to reference citation continues in the Enlightenment’s most important successor project – Wikipedia, founded by Jimmy Wales and colleagues 20 years ago this year. It’s the foundation of what today’s Wikipedia terms verifiability, and in many key ways it’s the foundation for truth in knowledge and society today:
“Verifiability” . . . mean[s] that material added to Wikipedia must have been published previously by a reliable source. Editors may not add their own views to articles simply because they believe them to be correct, and may not remove sources’ views from articles simply because they disagree with them.
[V]erifiability is a necessary condition (a minimum requirement) for the inclusion of material, though it is not a sufficient condition (it may not be enough).
In 1999, free-software activist Richard M. Stallman called for this universal online encyclopedia covering all areas of knowledge, along with a complete library of instructional courses – and, equally important, a movement to develop it, “much as the Free Software Movement gave us the free operating system GNU/Linux.” That call (reproduced in full as the appendix in my book) is credited by Wikipedia as the origins of the work that is now the largest knowledge resource in history.
The free encyclopedia will provide an alternative to the restricted ones that media corporations will write.
Stallman published a list of what that the encyclopedia would need to do, what sort of freedoms it would need to give to the public, and how it could get started.
An encyclopedia located everywhere.
An encyclopedia open to anyone—but, most promisingly, to teachers and students.
An encyclopedia built of small steps.
An encyclopedia built on the long view: “If it takes twenty years to complete the free encyclopedia, that will be but an instant in the history of literature and civilization.”
An encyclopedia containing one or more articles for any topic you would expect to find in another encyclopedia – “for example, bird watchers might eventually contribute an article on each species of bird, along with pictures and recordings of its calls” – and “courses for all academic subjects.”
1999, and it sounds familiar. Wikipedia, of course, is one of the world’s most popular websites (the world’s most popular noncommercial one) now and an irreplaceable source of verifiable information – open to any and all. Its processes are transparent, and thanks to hackers affiliated with the project, you now can watch and listen to its edits live online:
Communities that work with Wikipedia are likely to benefit from this commitment to citation, and new collaborations that take effect around it are likely to benefit society. The Internet Archive is working with Wikipedia now, digitizing books so that links to sources in Wikipedia link all the way through to the books themselves – and render images and text on the cited pages. The reference link to a biography by Taylor Branch at the bottom of a Wikipedia article on Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, now hotlinks to the readable book online at Archive.org. That work is essential. “Only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them” – as Princeton historian Anthony Grafton writes – “makes it possible to resist the efforts of modern governments, tyrannical and democratic alike, to conceal the compromises they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tortures they or their allies have inflicted. . . . Only the use of footnotes enables historians to make their texts not monologues but conversations, in which modern scholars, their predecessors, and their subjects all take part.”
Can we take verifiability further now, especially as our epistemic crisis deepens? Can we improve citation for the medium that’s beginning to overtake us all, which is video? Can we make resources on the web – also a new thing – verifiable? What is a citation like in a . . . podcast?
The great historian of the Encyclopédie, Robert Darnton, tells us in his new book, “When the printed word appeared in France in 1470, the state did not know what to make of it.” So, 700 years from now, what will tomorrow’s historians say about us? Further thoughts about how we can start more consciously collaborating with one another and producing – but immediately – for our burgeoning knowledge networks: next week.
Editor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kaufman has published The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, a book that takes a historical look at the powerful forces that have purposely crippled our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the coming days, Peter will be making his book available through Open Culture by publishing three short essays along with links to corresponding sections of his book. Today, you can find his short essay “The Monsterverse” below, and meanwhile read/download the first chapter of his book here. You can purchase the entire book online.
The Monsterverse – what exactly is it? Like Sauron and his minions from Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, like Sheev Palpatine and the armies of the Galactic empire from Star Wars, like Lord Voldemort and his henchmen the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, it’s the collective force of evil, one that strives to shut down human progress, freedom, justice, the spread of knowledge –the dissemination of (let us just say it) open culture. It’s the subject of the first chapter of my book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge – and its incarnations have been with us for thousands of years.
In 1536, which is when the book begins, it found its embodiment in Jacobus Latomus, who oversaw the trial and execution – by strangling and burning at the stake – of a translator and a priest named William Tyndale. Latomus, who himself was overseen by Thomas More, who himself was overseen by Henry VIII (with Pope Clement VII in a supporting role), choreographed Tyndale’s formal degradation, such that a couple dozen apostolic inquisitors and theologians, university rectors and faculty, lawyers and privy councilors – “heresy-hunters,” as his biographer calls them – led him out of his prison cell in public and in his priestly raiment to a high platform outdoors where oils of anointment were scraped symbolically from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist situated next to him and then just as quickly removed, and then his vestments “ceremonially stripped away,” so that he would find himself, and all would see him as, no longer a priest. Death came next. This scholar and polymath to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shakespeare for our language, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emperor – his initial strangling did not go well, so that when he was subsequently lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burning alive in front of the crowd of religious leaders and so-called justices (some seventeen trial commissioners) who had so summarily sent Tyndale to his death and gathered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Another: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”
What did Tyndale do? He believed that the structure of communication during his time was broken and unfair, and with a core, unwavering focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowledge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unparalleled act of coding (not for nothing do we speak of computer programming “languages”), working through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Testaments to bring all of its good books – from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22—into English for everyday readers. He is reported to have said, in response to a question from a priest who had challenged his work, a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” And he worked with the distribution technologies of his time – the YouTubes, websites, and Twitters back then – by connecting personally with book designers, paper suppliers, printers, boat captains, and horsemen across sixteenth-century Europe to bring the knowledge and the book that contained it into the hands of the people.
It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings had decreed, out of concern for keeping their power, that the Bible could exist and be read and distributed “only in the assembly of Latin translations” that had been completed by the monk Saint Jerome in approximately 400 CE. The penalties for challenging the law were among the most severe imaginable, for such violations represented a panoply of civil transgressions and an entire complexity of heresies. In taking on the church and the king – in his effort simply and solely to translate and then distribute the Bible in English – Tyndale confronted “the greatest power[s] in the Western world.” As he “was translating and printing his New Testament in Worms,” his leading biographer reminds us, “a young man in Norwich was burned alive for the crime of owning a piece of paper on which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.” The Bible had been inaccessible in Latin for a thousand years, this biographer writes, and “to translate it for the people became heresy, punishable by a solitary lingering death as a heretic; or, as had happened to the Cathars in southern France, or the Hussites in Bohemia and Lollards in England, official and bloody attempts to exterminate the species.”
Yuckadoo, the Monsterverse, but very much still with us. The strangleholds are real. And Tyndale’s successors in the fight to free knowledge include many freedom fighters and revolutionaries – going up against the forces that seek to constrain our growth as a society. Were Tyndale alive today, he would wonder about the state of copyright law and its overreach; the pervasive estate of surveillance capitalism; the sweeping powers of government to see and interfere in our communication. And he would wonder why the seemingly progressive forces on the side of freedom today – universities, museums, libraries, archives – don’t fight more against information oppression. Tyndale would recognize that the health pandemic, the economic crisis, the political violence we face today, are all the result of an information disorder, one that relies on squelching knowledge and promoting the darkest forms of ignorance for its success. How we come to grips with that challenge is the number-one question for our time. Discovering new paths to defeating it – overcoming the Dark Lords, destroying the Horcruxes, finally harnessing the Force – is the subject of the next two articles, and of the rest of the book.
Is news entertainment? To what extent has local news consumption decreased given the alternatives? Deion is an on-air reporter for NBC Montana who was recently memified for fleeing amusingly from some bison. He joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss what we might be missing out on, the uses and abuses of news coverage, reality vs. media portrayals, and the current status of “trusted news reporter” in our collective consciousness.
In 1988, stalwart PBS news anchor, writer, and longtime presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer was accused of being too soft on the candidates. He snapped back, “If somebody wants to be entertained, they ought to go to the circus.” The folksy quote sums up the Texan journalist’s philosophy succinctly. The news was a serious business. But Lehrer, who passed away last Thursday, witnessed the distinction between political journalism and the circus collapse, with the spread of cable infotainment, and corporate domination of the Internet and radio.
Kottke remarks that Lehrer seemed “like one of the last of a breed of journalist who took seriously the integrity of informing the American public about important events.” He continually refused offers from the major networks, hosting PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour with cohost Robert MacNeil until 1995, then his own in-depth news hour until his retirement in 2011. “I have an old-fashioned view that news is not a commodity,” he said. “News is information that’s required in a democratic society… That sounds corny, but I don’t care whether it sounds corny or not. It’s the truth.”
Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.*
Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.*
Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.*
Assume the same about all people on whom I report.*
Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story mandates otherwise.*
Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label them as such.*
Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.*
Do not broadcast profanity or the end result of violence unless it is an integral and necessary part of the story and/or crucial to understanding the story.
Acknowledge that objectivity may be impossible but fairness never is.
Journalists who are reckless with facts and reputations should be disciplined by their employers.
My viewers have a right to know what principles guide my work and the process I use in their practice.
I am not in the entertainment business.*
In a 2006 Harvard commencement address (at the top), Lehrer reduced the list to only the nine rules marked by asterisks above by Kottke, who goes on to explain in short why these guidelines are so routinely cast aside—“this shit takes time! And time is money.” It’s easier to patch together stories in rapid-fire order when you don’t cite or check sources or do investigative reporting, and face no serious consequences for it.
Lehrer’s adherence to professional ethics may have been unique in any era, but his attention to detail and obsession with accessing multiple points of view came from an older media. He “saw himself as ‘a print/word person at heart’ and his program as a kind of newspaper for television,” writes Robert McFadden in his New York Times obituary. He was also “an oasis of civility in a news media that thrived on excited headlines, gotcha questions and noisy confrontations.”
Lehrer understood that civility is meaningless in the absence of truth, or of kindness and humility. His longtime cohost’s list of journalistic guidelines also appears in the Aspen Institute report. “The values which Jim Lehrer and I observed,” MacNeil writes, “he continues to observe.” Journalism is a serious business—“behave with civility”—but “remember that journalists are no more important to society than people in other professions. Avoid macho posturing and arrogant display.”
In late 2017, Ronan Farrow was on the verge of blowing open the story revealing the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. But then executives at NBC News killed the story, Farrow claims. Bewildered, he took his reporting to the New Yorker, which then vetted and published his reporting. Fast forward two years, Farrow has won a Pulitzer and Harvey Weinstein is now using a walker and getting ready to go on trial.
In his 2019 bestselling book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Farrow delves into “the systems that protect powerful men accused of terrible crimes in Hollywood, Washington, and beyond.” That system includes media executives, tabloids, high-priced lawyers, undercover operatives, private intelligence agencies, and even, it appears, officials within our own legal system. A complement to his book, Farrow has now produced The Catch and Kill podcast, whose first episodes you can now stream online. Find it on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, and other platforms. You can stream the first three episodes below.
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