The impact of the media

Sting performs “The Empty Chair,” a tribute to James Foley, at the 2017 Academy Awards
This is a chapter in my media writing textbook on Top Hat

It was August 2014, and I was ready for another semester of media writing to begin. I updated my syllabus and tweaked an ice-breaker project.

Then just days before classes started, a Marquette University alumnus made international news. James Foley, a freelance journalist, had been executed in a video broadcast by terrorists.

It was a shock to the entire world, felt especially close to home. I met Foley 2011, after he was released from his captivity in Libya. He came to the Diederich College of Comm to speak about being a journalist in a combat zone.

I organized his interviews with the media during his visit. I remember him graciously spending as long as each local journalists needed, every time going over his allotted availability with no complaints. He knew what it was like to go the extra mile to get the story.

Then he disappeared without a trace in Syria, only to reappear in a horrific tragedy. The excitement of the new semester mixed with public mourning felt surreal.

A vigil honoring his memory was set to take place on campus. It was scheduled to take place during our first media writing class of the semester. I scrapped my usual plans and we walked next door to Gesu. The church was completely packed.

As we heard stories about the life of James Foley, we all struggled with difficult questions.

Why did he go to Syria? Why did James Foley die?

According to those who knew him best, Foley went to Syria because he wanted to have an impact. He knew the power of the media, and he wanted to use his skills to help inform and educate others about what happens on the front lines of war and conflict.

“In his drive to tell these untold stories, to humanize and explain the complexity and impact of war on real people for an audience far removed by both geography and even interest, Jim Foley told us everything about himself,” Dean Lori Bergen said at the vigil. “All of us are challenged to walk in his footsteps, as champions for social justice, and we can only hope that we might live as he did — with both composure and with passion for pursuing a life in service to others.”

In this chapter, we will take a look at the impact of the media.

Uncovering the truth

“It’ll never come out, the whole truth. You’ll never get the truth.”

Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein was talking to a source in 1972. He and his colleague Bob Woodward were trying to uncover a mystery. (Using the Who, What, When, Where, Why questions, of course.)

Who was behind a break-in at the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel? How did they do it? What were they trying to hide?

Bernstein was talking to a source who didn’t think it was possible for the reporters to get very far.

“The whole thing is being very well covered up,” the source said. “And nobody will ever know what happened.”

That was wrong.

After months of dogged reporting, the Post’s reporting trail led all the way to the top of the White House, where Richard Nixon had authorized the break-in and cover up. Facing impeachment when this became public, Nixon became the only American president ever to resign.

It wasn’t been an easy path. Woodward and Bernstein traced leads to Miami, met sources in secret at 2 am in parking garages, fought with editors and and even battled each other over words in a story. Here’s one account from All the President’s Men, the book about reporting of the Watergate scandal:

The two fought, often openly. Sometimes they battled for 15 minutes over a single word or sentence. Nuances were critically important; the emphasis had to be just right. The search for the journalistic mean was frequently conducted at full volume, and it was not uncommon to see one stalk away from the other’s desk. Sooner or later, however (usually later), the story was hammered out.

John Bernaden came to Marquette University and majored in journalism as the Post’s reporting unfolded. In 1976, he became editor in chief of the Marquette Tribune, where he covered Marquette’s NCAA basketball championship team. Bernaden said All the President’s Men is what inspired him to study journalism.

“What other profession has the power to dethrone a president?” he said.

Woodward and Bernstein motivated a new generation of idealistic students like Bernaden to pursue journalism to hold powerful positions accountable. There’s a phrase in journalism that fits this mindset: “To comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comforted.”

Watergate was one of the most dramatic examples of the media’s impact on politics and power. That legacy of media searching tirelessly for the truth is felt today. The Post’s new tagline is “Democracy dies in the darkness.” The Boston Globe shares Facebook posts under the banner #PressOn. The New York Times recently launched a new campaigned called “The Truth is Hard.”

Searching for truth sounds like it should always be a noble pursuit. However, even the best of intentions of the media to search for truth can sometimes come with drawbacks, such as privacy invasions or assuming negative intentions.

For instance, Bernstein relied on sources at a telephone company to feed him private phone records. According to All the President’s Men:

It was a problem he had never resolved in his mind. Why, as a reporter, was he entitled to have access to personal and financial records when such disclosures would outrage him if he were subjected to a similar inquiry by investigators? Without dwelling on his problem, Bernstein called a telephone company source and asked for a list of (a Watergate burglar’s) calls.

Forty-four years after Watergate, Woodward discussed the press’s relationship to the presidency in the years after Nixon’s downfall. In his view, the search for truth can also have negative impacts. He called the dynamic between the press and the presidency as “not a healthy relationship.”

“It was certainly awful in the Nixon White House — the relationship with the press,” Woodward said on the Presidential podcast. “Now it has its ups and downs, but it’s certainly not good. And I can understand that for presidents, because any time there’s something negative, the press is going to jump on it.”

Telling people’s stories

The power of the media doesn’t have to mean digging up dirt and negative stories, however. Many are attracted to media writing for the storytelling aspect.

“It’s fun,” said Tess Quinlan, a producer for NBC Sports. “‘Working’ is talking and writing about sports. There’s nothing better than that.”

Quinlan, a 2014 graduate of Marquette in Broadcast and Electronic Communication, said she struggled with thinking her work wasn’t “saving the world.” But she realized the media plays many multifaceted roles that involve telling stories.

“I might not be curing cancer, but the doctor that is watches football to unwind,” she said. “I’m not running into burning buildings, but the firefighters that do are avid baseball fans. That matters to them, so I should do the best possible job I can.”

It’s not just about escapist entertainment. While at Marquette, Quinlan helped create a pilot for Time Warner Cable Sports called Sports.EDU. She was the executive producer and lead anchor of the program, and told important stories about the debate over whether students should get paid. She interviewed experts, moderated panels and wrote scripts for the introductions.

“It was a grueling, but rewarding, process,” she wrote about the experience. “I owned the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Storytelling doesn’t have to be about only sports stars, politicians or celebrities. Dan Reiner, who earned a journalism degree from Marquette in 2016, enjoys working for a metropolitan paper in New York, where he engages with the local public.

“I’ve always believed our job is to tell other people’s stories — I’m not the focal point, and it should rarely be that way,” he said. “If I get comments or emails that show my writing positively engaged the public, I know I did my job well.”

The examples of Quinland, Reiner and others like Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York show that the skills of the media can connect communities by telling people’s stories.

Capturing history

He was in the right place at the right time.

You can see the others in the background of Neil Leifer’s picture. Some are taking photos of the back of a young Cassius Clay celebrating over Sonny Liston laying on the canvas. Some are staring at the scene with their cameras down, resigned to the fact that the opportunity passed.

There were four Sports Illustrated photographers at the fight in 1965. Leifer was just 22 at the time, and other other senior photographers got to pick their preferred spots first.

Leifer was right in front of the scene when Clay knocked Liston down.

He knew he had something good. He had a clear line of sight while the referee wasn’t blocking his view. But it wasn’t until days later in the dark room that he could see what developed. That’s when he knew for sure that his camera was focused and he captured the action shot.

It wasn’t even featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated back then. But over the years, his photo of the young Cassius Clay took on a life of its own as his subject’s legend grew and grew and grew. People wanted to remember him the way he was back then.

In 1999, Sports Illustrated put Leifer’s photo on the cover and called it the greatest sports picture of the century. It became iconic.

Leifer went on to have 170 of his photographs make the Sports Illustrated cover. He chronicled Muhammad Ali’s entire career, from beginning to end. They became friends.

And after Ali died, Leifer remembered that night in 1965 when he was in the right place when the time was right.

There’s a saying that journalism is the first draft of history. Today, that’s true about a front page newspaper article or a tweet. When you are the media, you are also making history everyday.

Front lines are everywhere

Photo via Herbert Lowe

For those who work in the media, a primary goal of their work is to have an impact. That could mean uncovering the truth, telling people’s stories, or writing the first draft of history.

“I believe that front-line journalism is important, you know — without these photos and videos and first-hand experience, we can’t really tell the world how bad it might be,” James Foley once told the Boston Globe.

Marquette University journalism professor Dr. William Thorn echoed that sentiment when discussing James Foley after his death.

“He was motivated to do the right thing… He kept talking about the injustice he saw, and the ability of a journalist to make a difference,” Thorn told the Catholic News Agency. “He was unafraid. His heart went out to the people who were suffering in the villages, who were getting bombed out or shelled out, who didn’t have food or clean water. That was his focus.”

In fall 2016, Marquette Law School had a forum about the legacy of James Foley. A documentary had just come about him, and those who knew him well gathered to discuss his impact.

His best friend, Thomas Durkin, spoke about Foley’s passion for helping others, which could take a variety of forms.

“For Jim, the front lines were in Libya and Syria,” he said. “But we’re either men and women for others or we’re not. You don’t need to go to Libya or Syria to be someone for others.”