Thursday, July 09, 2009

Must We Grin and Bear It?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve lost considerable faith in journalism as a powerful force for good in the world. After more than a quarter of a century in the business, I have witnessed its severe decline. I probably first became aware of that decline during the early 1990s, when I saw the U.S. media savage President Bill Clinton, first for the bogus Whitewater scandal and later for his unfortunate affair with a White House intern, which congressional Republican’ts tried to use as the basis for a coup. In both cases, the media leapt to the conclusion that Clinton was guilty, even before the facts were in, because his many GOP detractors said he was. That’s not the way that journalism, or the law, is supposed to be conducted. I was taught that the media could be mighty players in keeping the influential honest and also restraining the partisan liars of the world. And that reporters had a responsibility to find and broadcast the truth, not innuendos or easily discerned falsehoods. Yet I see evidence every day of journalists being lazy and gullible, leaping to conclusions, and repeating misinformation.

The latest example is a pretty small one, but it’s indicative of larger problems. Earlier this week, during the televised memorial to singer Michael Jackson, one of his childhood friends, American actress Brooke Shields, took to the stage for a weepy but nonetheless moving tribute, at the end of which she said that Jackson’s “favorite song” was “a song that Charlie Chaplin wrote for the [1936] movie Modern Times. It’s called ‘Smile.’” Later, earnest commentators across the TV spectrum, including Barbara Walters, repeated this “fact.” However, it seems that none of them bothered to double-check Ms. Shields. For as it turns out, comedian-actor Chaplin--together with composer Alfred Newman--wrote the musical score for “Smile,” but they didn’t write the words; nor did they give the song its title. Those responsibilities were taken up in 1954 by English lyricists John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. So it’s wrong to say that Chaplin wrote what we now know as the pop standard “Smile.”

I can’t really blame Brooke Shields for misstating the provenance of this song; she’s an actress, not a reporter. But the journalists who later repeated her error have no excuse. Aren’t reporters supposed to be skeptical? Aren’t they supposed to question what they’re told, no matter whether they’re being told it by a beautiful brunette on television or a known prevaricator like Newt Gingrich? You’d think that somebody on Barbara Walters’ staff would have double-checked to see whether Shields had her story straight. But noooo. Walters was just as credulous as every other highly paid talking head who said that Chaplin wrote “Smile.”

If reporters aren’t curious and careful enough to double-check something small like this, how can they be expected to get the facts right on big issues such as health care reform or stimulus spending or state ethics probes into Sarah Palin’s behavior?

It’s sad to see how far journalism has fallen.

By the way, if you’re interested, here’s Michael Jackson singing his favorite song, “Smile.”

READ MORE:The Story Behind ‘Smile,’ the Charlie Chaplin Song from Michael Jackson’s Memorial” (MTV News).

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