I’ve been listening to the debate about Juan Williams’ firing from National Public Radio with – well, frankly, there are bigger things in the world. But one element of the discussion hooked me. It’s not the part about what he said. For those of you who’ve stopped watching news of any form, Juan is a former NPR news analyst who freelances on Fox News.  NPR fired him because of what he said on Fox News last week.

            He said something about fearing the sight of Muslims in Muslim-wear on planes. I immediately cancelled our flight to Orlando. Kidding. Muslims expressing their Muslim-ness doesn’t fill me with dread.  It’s the women in silk jogging togs (matching top and bottom) with earpieces and a laser stare.  The women getting eight things done to my one. The women who are just older versions of the Pom Pons in high school who couldn’t be convinced I existed even if I tackled them in the hallway.

         I realize that if I were a well-known news personality making those statements, I‘d be responsible for you developing an irrational fear of the produce aisle at Safeway, or the sidelines at the Saturday soccer game. That’s where they propel their Escalades, to menace guys like me.

            But I digress. Sometimes the answer to a present-day problem lies in combining something tried and true with something new. Cool how that works. Take Groupon. The first recorded use of the coupon was when Joseph (of the Technicolor Dreamcoat) needed to quickly unload extra grain after a bumper crop in Egypt.  This led to the reunion of the 12 sons of Jacob, and later to the invention of the internet. You get the idea. So Groupon joins the old idea with new technology and voila! Another billionaire too young to remember when you had to shake a thermometer.

            Anyway, this leads to the larger question in the whole Williams-NPR affair.  Or, as I’ve coined it, NPR Shoots-Self-in-Foot-With-Gradeschool-Firing-Gate (Look for this term to go viral.  You heard it here first.) 

         The larger question, of course, is that of journalistic integrity – the notion that journalists occupy a special place in the panoply of all professions by reporting the newsobjectively. As opposed to news analysts, who say how they feel about the news, and its impact on larger social issues.  The question is, “Does journalistic integrity matter anymore, or as an enlightened society can we just admit that it never existed in the first place, and is not a realistic goal to strive for?”

         One way to view the question is through the prism of the age-old admonition to students of English Composition – Show, Don’t Tell. (This is not the same as the other topical debate commanding headlines this week – Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.  More on that later.)

         The caution to show, rather than tell, the reader in your narrative suggests that readers are bright and capable folks – similar in intelligence to the writer, if you think about it. So the job of the writer is not to tell a story. The writer’s job is to construct visions in the reader’s head, and to bundle those images to show the scene. To do otherwise (we counsel the fledgling scribe), is to demonstrate laziness toward the craft, and to be condescending toward the reader – both mortal sins in the moral code of writing. 

          It may sound somewhere between silly and impossible to imagine that a journalist can report facts without inflection – to let the images of the story speak for themselves, without letting the journalist’s personal views distort the written images. Maybe that’s why they call it a craft.   

         When a writer attributes intent to the actor in a written piece, that’s a clue that observation is giving way to editorializing.  When terms like pernicious, conspiracy, plead, rant, afraid, and covert appear – well, your Honor, they all call for speculation on the part of the witness – in this case the journalist. You get the idea. In Juan’s case – can I call you Juan? – worried and nervous were the offending terms. 

            Juan, show me Muslims at the airport in Muslim garb. Don’t tell me how to feel about them. In fact, if you show me the visions in your head, I may feel something completely different. Your job is not to tell me how to feel. Your job is to show me the world you see. That is, of course, when you’re a journalist. Which arguably is a full-time, not a part-time, job.

          Show, Don’t Tell, Mr. Bottorf at Parkdale High School would say, in another world, in another life. Sometimes the world that was still has something to offer the world that is.

         Good luck at Fox, Juan.

 


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    Jack Downs is a mystery writer, teacher, and the author of two novels and several short stories. Jack lives in Carroll County, Maryland with his wife and three children..

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