Nation Gifts Journalists with Angry Letters, Little Praise

    Before the angry letters start rolling in this year, and before our readers charge us with making any egregious errors or being irresponsible journalists, I’m taking the opportunity to climb atop my soapbox and get this off my chest once and for all.

    Journalists are an underappreciated breed. We’re overworked, underpaid and despite our best efforts, journalism itself has become a dying art, eclipsed by sensational Web pages and humor-driven, late-night mock-news shows. The tidal wave of change and the invasion of modernity have cast a looming shadow over this profession and have all but knocked us off our feet.

    And the angry letters keep rolling in.

    Despite our withering popularity, the standards have not fallen. If anything, the public — and especially the government — has grown increasingly unforgiving and unappreciative of our toils. There was a time when America considered us the quintessential fourth branch of government; now we’re pigeon holed as liberal extremists among a population who takes our exposes for granted.

    Though the public may see us romanticized through film, tenaciously chasing Superman or valiantly unearthing Richard Nixon’s dirty secrets, our reality is one far more mundane, and our work far more vilified than Hollywood portrays. Our pressroom is dirty, our sleep is little and our stakes are high.

    Mistakes mean scornful letters that almost depict us as sinners. For our victories, we earn no prize — at least not outside personal satisfaction and the Pulitzer.

    Remember New York Times op-ed writer Joseph Wilson? Probably not; he never received his prize either.

    Wilson, a former United States ambassador to Gabon, traveled to Niger in 2002 at the request of the CIA to investigate the possible sale of Nigerian uranium to Iraq. By the end of his stay Wilson concluded that there was little chance, if any, that such an arrangement had occurred — an opinion that he shared with government officials, including the State Department’s African Affairs Bureau.

    Less than a year later, with still no reason to believe Niger was capable of selling uranium to Iraq, President George W. Bush publicly accused Iraq of attempting to purchase uranium from Africa. Wilson later discovered the accusation, announced in the president’s state of the union address in January 2003, was referencing Niger.

    In an effort to bring these government inconsistencies to light, Wilson wrote of his experience in a July 2003 article in the New York Times, in which he criticized the administration for “[going] to war under false pretenses.”

    Shortly after, in an act of retaliation, government officials leaked the identity of Wilson’s wife — prominent CIA operative Valerie Plame — to the press. The events spurred an FBI investigation during which I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was accused and eventually charged with perjury and obstructing justice. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

    Despite the fact that Wilson’s reporting experience was a one-time deal, his story, and the personal abuse it earned him, illuminates the unfortunate byproduct of being a journalist — intense and often unjust criticism.

    Judith Miller, another New York Times reporter notorious for her coverage of Iraq’s possible weapons of mass destruction, also experienced this hostility first hand. Miller, also involved the in the leak case and believed to have evidence regarding the disclosure of Plame’s identity, was jailed in 2005 or her refusal to testify before a grand jury about the information. Despite widespread public opposition over her decision, Miller unflinchingly stood by her actions.

    These stories, however, are only the half of it. The profession, by nature, forces journalists to have thick skin, so criticism we can handle. It’s the obliviousness of the American public that gets me down.

    I remember the first time my name appeared in print — I was drunk with excitement; I felt venerated and hopeful. But it didn’t last long. Now I see how forgotten we are.

    From Wilson, to Miller, to Seymour Hersh, to Ida Tarbell and Murray Waas, most Americans have no idea who these people are — and yet their contributions to this nation’s political society are undeniable.

    Maybe it’s lagging readership, maybe it’s disinterest, maybe it’s modern media getting in the way, but any way you look at it it’s a sad view.

    I’m not trying to toot my own horn or elevate the marginalized efforts of American journalists everywhere. All I’m saying is that it would be nice if once in a while the angry letters weren’t, well, quite so angry and the bylines not quite so forgotten. At the very least I wish America could recognize its most dedicated and investigative journalists — people like Miller and Hersh.

    I won’t hold my breath for the resurrection of newspaper appreciation and journalists everywhere will just keep on keeping on. If by chance, however, you should find yourself wandering campus between classes this week, twiddling your thumbs with nothing to do, grab some coffee and a copy of the New York Times. Find a shady spot to settle down, pull up a chair and actually read it. I dare you.

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