Thank You for the Meal, Mr. Friedman

19/11/2011 16:41


If lectures could be described in culinary terms, the lecture that the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and university professor, Joshua Friedman, delivered on the soil of Comenius University on Tuesday, November 15, would be a multi-course meal.


In the way of an appetizer he stated how happy he was to be accommodated in a hotel some parts of which date back to almost 800 years ago. And with a tinge of envy he added that in the States a 130-year-old farmhouse is considered a precious historical monument. It certainly tickled the Slovak audience’s Euro-nationalist tongues.


The tasty relevé came in the form of an excursion into the history of U.S. journalism, which began with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. In Friedman’s words, the Constitution is “the best thing that ever happened to journalism in my country” because “the first amendment prohibits the Congress from creating any laws that would limit the free press.”


In the young United States, 220 years ago, journalists began to revel in their newly-gained freedom. The exuberance gave rise to gossip and rumors in place of quality journalism. Once ethical principles were abandoned, the era of partisanship started. Newspapers functioned as a means to insult political rivals and played an infamous role in the political fights of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others. At the beginning of the 19th century, out of 329 newspapers, all but 56 were associated with a political party.


The next milestone came a few decades later with the Murdochian-Berlusconian journalist Joseph Pulitzer, who managed to make sensationalism and gossip an official working method, which later became to be known as “yellow journalism”, and was one of the fathers of mass circulation and advertising revenue. In his older age, sudden pangs of conscience led him to offer money to the University of Columbia to establish the first school of journalism in the world. Probably due to Pulitzer’s tarnished reputation, the university turned down the offer, and it took more than 30 years to accomplish the goal. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was founded in 1934, and Joshua Friedman became one of its graduates in 1968, when the Golden Age of journalism was just round the corner.


“This was the situation I came in,” said Friedman. A very good timing indeed.


In the 1970s, thanks to Watergate and the fact that large newspapers began to make large amounts of money (e.g. $150 million a year), foreign correspondents could enjoy conveniences such as private airplanes, dinners in the most expensive restaurants or business class flights. Friedman traveled around the world and searched for the truth about famine in Africa, war in Beirut or Kosovo. When he worked on an investigative report in Africa in 1984, he only had at his disposal a hotel telex machine to send stories back home and had scarcely any access to news broadcasting. Yet, as technology progressed, news writing changed drastically. When he reported on the war in Kosovo some 15 years later, he could instantly send photos and stories with his laptop and satellite phone and follow news on the Internet. However, he had to stay in a cheap hotel, fly economy, and write shorter stories.


This was due to the perfect storm which, in 1980, hit the world of quality journalism and resulted in a media crisis of unforeseen dimensions. Advances in technology and changes in economy were the culprits. Since then the crisis has only deepened.   


The idea of crisis in media and society was exactly what the next course, the entrée, was developed upon. The young generation is the protagonist recipient of technological progress. We are those to whom Friedman referred when he said “their reading habits are changing”. Maybe that is why this part was a bit more difficult to chew.


What has happened with newspapers and TV networks in the last thirty years? Technology burst in, and everything is upside down. Media are working for people; therefore, they are dependent on audience. If the audience redirects their attention to something else, media wither. This is exactly what has happened recently.


With satellite and cable technology, we don’t have to buy newspapers anymore, we don’t have to wait for our favorite series to appear on TV screens, and we don’t even have to go to the cinema. All we need is the Internet. We are redirected. We chat, twitter, socialize, play, find advertisements, advertise, and even get married on the Internet. It lures us away from books, newspapers, TV, and even reality.


The person who reads print newspapers in 2011 is white, male, sixtyish, and they are dying out. The impact on print media is devastating. With the audience, they are losing advertising revenue, and not even the survival formula 60:40 (60% advertising vs. 40% news) will help. According to Friedman, “many are broke, survivors panic, don’t know how to fix it.”


The young generation are witnesses, and evidence at the same time, to unparalleled changes in society. “Nowadays, everyone is a walking journalist,” said Friedman in a recent interview for The Slovak Spectator. We can broadcast everything we want, from any place in the world through the cell phone. For instance, the killing of Muammar Gaddafi was recorded by people standing by and broadcasted through cell phones. Journalists did not report. The pitfall of hundreds of sources on the web is that we must find out which of them are trustworthy and which are just gossip and sensation. All goes back to where it started 220 years ago.


But let us finish the meal with a dessert or a pièce de résistance of the enlightening lecture. “What is the mindset of a journalist?” asked one serious student. The answer probably wasn’t what we had expected. According to Friedman, a journalist is a suspicious creature, obsessed with finding the truth as a dog is obsessed with a bone. And just as the dog, the journalist never gives up his story. Further on, we were warned not to think of a journalist as a nice and calm person. Just on the contrary, journalists, as Friedman said, stay up late, drink a lot, take drugs, make terrible spouses, and are very egocentric and neurotic. However, the lecturer did not seem to fit this description.


When he answered all of our questions and was just about to receive the Comenius University commemorative medal, half the young Slovak audience ran away to who-knows-where. Without judging their behavior, let me just say that those who stayed are maybe more used to saying, “Thank you for the meal.”    


Source: Lecture given by Joshua Freedman on November 15, 2011.    









Text: Katarína Koreňová

Photos: Katarína Koreňová and Lucia Náhliková (3rd photo)