Quantcast

Robert W. Snyder | The Nation

Robert W. Snyder

Author Bios

Robert W. Snyder

Robert W. Snyder, director of the journalism and media studies
program at Rutgers University, Newark, and author of Transit Talk: New York's Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories (Rutgers),is at work on a book about New
York City since 1945.

Articles

News and Features

Soon after the surrender of Nazi Germany, the reporter Martha Gellhorn
made her way to Dachau. There she interviewed a recently liberated
doctor who told her how the Germans immersed inmates in icy water for
hours at a time to determine the human body's ability to withstand
extreme temperatures.

"Didn't they scream or cry out?" asked Gellhorn. The doctor smiled.
"There was no use in this place for a man to scream or cry out. It was
no use for any man ever."

For Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies and author of People's
Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics
, the exchange and the
article that surrounds it are great examples of what journalism should
be. It bears witness, it is "truthful" and "faithful to the facts," and
it matches a story with "adequate feelings and moral judgment." Gellhorn
is the first of a long procession of journalists who march through this
book over the course of the twentieth century. The best of them, in
Inglis's view, fight the good fight for democracy, decency and
international solidarity. The worst bow to the pressures of the market
or fawn before the powerful. Together, their lives teach lessons about
the purposes of journalism and its place in the history of what the
historian Eric Hobsbawm has popularized as the short twentieth century,
the period stretching from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the
fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Inglis insists that the purpose of journalism is about more than
providing objective information. He conducts a respectful but pointed
debate with Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: From the
Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth
Maker.
Where Knightley criticizes generations of war correspondents
for partiality, errors and becoming little more than government
propagandists, Inglis treats objectivity as an impossibility. Truthful
reporting is possible, Inglis argues, but the search for the facts and
their presentation can't be separated from values and beliefs. "The
moral view is always somebody's, located somewhere," Inglis writes,
adding later that "the best journalists square their human allegiance
with their feeling for truth."

In showing how journalists responded to war, revolution, the Depression
and the cold war, Inglis charts a ragged story that identifies the
reciprocal relationship between journalists and their time. Themes that
structure other histories of journalism--the quickening speed of
communications, the growth of freedom of expression, professionalization
of the press--receive less attention. More important for Inglis is how a
journalist in a particular time and place balanced ideals and
expedience, and helped to move the world toward more cruelty or less.

His method is to present a series of biographies, grouped according to
events or themes. With a few exceptions (such as the Italian journalist
and political theorist Antonio Gramsci) those chronicled here are
British or American. Gellhorn's story illuminates the moral lessons of
covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Walter Lippmann's life
suggests the challenges of retaining intellectual integrity amid the
American rise to globalism and Lippmann's own proximity to the heights
of power. Harry Evans's career at the Times of London shows what
happens when an intelligent and crusading editor meets with the purse
and politics of a Rupert Murdoch.

The length of the biographies varies, from more than two dozen pages for
the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow to a few sentences for the murdered
Irish reporter Veronica Guerin. The longer biographies in People's
Witness
provide rewarding lessons, but the short ones can be too
brief to be satisfying.

The sources for People's Witness are generally published
biographies, memoirs and collected articles. (The book contains some
unfortunate errors. James "Scotty" Reston is rendered as "Sonny." Arthur
O. Sulzberger of the New York Times is presented as "Sulzbeyer."
And Ben Bagdikian is identified as Ben "Bagdikim.") Fresh material for
the volume comes from the author's interviews and own analytical
insight. Some of the book's most memorable lines are in its summary
passages, as when Inglis describes Alistair Cooke as "tranquilly
reactionary," and Norman Mailer, on the eve of writing The Armies of
the Night
, as one who "had done everything a dustjacket could
require."

Yet People's Witness is more than a collective biography that
extols engaged journalism and criticizes conventional ideas about
objectivity. What makes this book valuable is not one life story or
another but its historical perspective--the place of journalism from
World War I to 1989.

Inglis's story is largely an international narrative, framed mostly by
British and American experiences during World War II and the cold war.
The book's chapter on World War II, revealingly titled "The Blessed
Simplicity of Action," argues that for many journalists the war provided
a way of reconciling reporting and antifascism. In the story of Edward
R. Murrow, Inglis finds broadcasting that closed the distance between
Britain and America with vivid details and high ideals. During the
bombing of London, Murrow told listeners how "shrapnel clicked as it hit
the concrete road nearby." Covering the Normandy invasion, he said it
was possible to imagine hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" above
the roaring motors of Allied bombers.

Things get messier during the cold war. Some American reporters, such as
I.F. Stone, maintained their independence. Others uncritically accepted
government lines. In discussions of coverage of the Korean War, Vietnam
and more, Inglis's dual perspective--British and American--provides a
second line of sight on America's global struggle with Communism. For
many American readers, the book is likely be an introduction to
Commonwealth journalists--John Pilger and James Cameron, for
example--whose perspectives have departed from the standard frames found
in the US media.

For all its cruelty and bloodshed, and for all the confusion that has
appeared since its end (especially since September 11, 2001), the short
twentieth century was a remarkably good period for journalism. The years
from the end of World War II to the end of the cold war, in particular,
saw a flowering of public service broadcasting, muckraking, dissenting
critics, samizdat publishers, adventurers reporting from
hellholes and reporters' efforts to hold democratic countries to their
best values. Why?

Part of the explanation has to do with historical circumstances. As
People's Witness suggests, memorable journalism opposes something
in the name of something better. (American journalists today may
subscribe to a belief in "objectivity," but some of their most revered
forebears--Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Jessica Mitford--have been
muckrakers with a pronounced political purpose in their work.) During
World War II and the cold war, journalists in Britain and America had a
great choice of adversaries--from fascists to Stalinists to citizens of
democratic countries who trampled their country's best values in the
name of fighting Communism. Even if the early years of the cold war were
marked by an excessive faith in government sources among American
journalists, once conflict broke out within government over the Vietnam
War, journalists began to expand and enrich public debate.

As communications professor Michael Schudson has observed, news gains
power in societies when people believe that if they are armed with
knowledge, they can influence the course of events. America in the era
of the civil rights movement was such a place, and it produced great
journalism that connected the demands of the oppressed with the
consciences of the many.

In the same period, the successes of social democracy--or at least the
mixed economy--gave journalists breathing room from the kind of economic
pressures that afflict them today. In the extraordinary thirty years
after World War II, in Western Europe and North America, nations
concluded that the market was not to be the measure of all things.
Activist governments were willing to provide everything from national
health insurance to grants for artists. In journalism this meant
financial support for public broadcasters who were, at least in theory,
independent of both the political pressures of the state and commercial
pressures of advertisers. The best work of the British Broadcasting
Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service testifies to the
enduring validity of this idea. Among private broadcasters, specifically
in American television, federal regulations required fairness and public
service in broadcasting--a requirement that fostered, in thoroughly
commercial networks, the creation of substantial news and documentary
units. The death of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 led to the decline of
public service broadcasting. People's Witness offers yet more
proof that journalists, whatever their party affiliation, have a strong
interest in the maintenance of societies where the profit motive does
not always rule.

In America, the journalists of 1945 to 1989 also enjoyed the benefit of
reporting for a society characterized by mass media and mass politics.
Particularly in television, journalists could act with the confidence
that they were reaching large segments of their fellow citizens. Today,
in the age of 24/7 cable television, when the public is subdivided into
niche markets, much news and journalism can seem to be both ubiquitous
and insubstantial. Then came September 11.

From journalists, in Inglis's view, the good journalistic responses to
9/11 combined individual survivors' stories and "what they could count
on as the trustiest of their national values," finding its heroes in
self-sacrificing firefighters. Some of the worst reactions, he argues,
came from elements of the left--which he would normally support--that
failed to recognize the flaws in radical Islamism and the virtues of
Western democracy. He identifies three journalists whose work can help
bring us into an uncertain future: Seymour Hersh, who "discovers what we
could not possibly discover for ourselves, and tells us what it is";
Tim Judah, whose reporting from the Balkans and then Afghanistan "moved
easily between the obligatory self-deprecation of being there and
the sure deployment of big strategic tropes"; and Michael Ignatieff, who
calls for an internationalism with a strong sense of both ideals and
interests.

Is this enough? As People's Witness suggests, journalism as an
institution rises and falls with the currents of its time. Journalists
as individuals sometimes do better. Since economics triumphed over
politics, it is harder to envision a solution to the market pressures
that deform public and private broadcasters. This book, for all its
virtues, has no obvious solution to that problem.

But in the lives of journalists, and in Inglis's ruminations on the
meaning of journalism, possibilities emerge. In the face of Pentagon
media managers who would censor war news in the name of keeping up
morale on the home front, journalists will need Knightley's dogged
insistence on independence and truth. In the face of the kind of men who
murdered Daniel Pearl, journalists will need Inglis's stouthearted
vision of reporting that stands for democracy and decency, and against
cruelty and sectarianism. But without a new version of the ideals and
structures that serve to protect public service journalism, will this be
enough?

The New York of 1945 was the victorious city of the New Deal and World War II, one that can barely be glimpsed today beneath postmodern towers and billboards for dot-com enterprises.