Media Almighty (or not)

I watched Primary Colors over the weekend and noticed something memorable in the parody of the early Clinton campaign. While watching Governor Fred Picker seize his moment on television, Billy Bob Thornton’s character (supposedly James Carville) notes that the shine on their opponent won’t last forever. “The media giveth,” he says, “and the media taketh away.”

Comparing the power of the media to that of the Almighty strikes a chord with me. The image is that of a higher authority from which contemporary journalism draws its own detachment from the rest of us, all the while claiming a public trust that vanished a long time ago. While the movie is fiction, Hollywood often simply holds a mirror up to popular culture, and I think this was one of those times.

For those who care, the line comes from the first chapter of Job, verse 21. Job is speaking after losing everything he thought he owned.

And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (NKJV)
Speaking of the press, I’m a little late passing along a link to Jay Rosen’s latest piece“In Our Business, Seconds Count,” Says Dan Rather. But is That Really So? — but better late than never. Jay shines his brilliant light on the matter of our obsession with being the first to break news. I like his conclusion.
Why does PressThink conduct an argument with a harmless cliché of the news business? Because it is time that our journalists learned how to tell proper time, and bring the priorities of their business into better alignment with common sense, civic experience, and an enlarged historical sense. It’s good to compete with peers who are trying to get the story. But it’s better to have a firm sense of when such competition has internal significance only, and no public import at all.

There are times, I suppose, when ticks of the second hand might figure in the larger world beyond the news trade. But there are many more times when journalists will be tempted into that illusion, and they should resist. They should resist because finding a time frame for narration that is appropriate to a particular event involves a critical and sensitive act of judgment in journalism, without which the news comes up lame. But problems of judgment can be skirted, repressed, just forgotten about, and often the work of forgetting is done by a reporter’s lazy convention or an anchorman’s tired cliché.

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