One Cheer for the MSM

We all criticize the mainstream media, regularly and with reason. More and more and day by day the MSM is showing us that its response to the popularity of conservative media and the rise of alternative news sources is to become less carefully liberal. What in the past had to be hidden is now announced.

This is not necessarily bad: it makes things better by making them clearer. I didn’t enjoy their ideological smuggling. Now they’re more like free-market people: Here are my liberal wares, if you want to buy them buy them, if not the Fox News stall is down the street, buy their faulty product and curses on you!

Fine with me, except that as a consumer of news I think they’re making a mistake. In a time of endless opinion, fact is king. Fact is rarer, harder to come by, more valuable. If only the MSM understood what money and power there are to be had from being famously nonideological, from being a famously reliable pursuer and presenter of fact. Wouldn’t it be great if that were the next new thing?

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But let’s put old arguments aside. In the tension over bias a great deal can be lost. One of those things is just praise for work that comes from the MSM that is not only excellent and truthful but profoundly in the public interest. Work that is difficult and that demanded from the workers a level of professionalism that suggests a kind of love, maybe for the craft, maybe for the object of their efforts. Maybe both.

An example is a joint venture by Time and the Rocky Mountain News on the families of fallen servicemen in Iraq. Time gives it a beautiful spread on its Web site; the News provided the story and photos. Look at the level of craftsmanship, even art, from the editors, writer, photographer. Look at the work that went into it. It could not have been anything but a labor of love.

The Time version has been speeding all over the Web. The Rocky Mountain News version is more comprehensive in terms of text, and offers this comment from Maj. Steven Beck, the Marine who stood with Second Lt. Jim Cathey’s widow, Katherine, as his coffin was unloaded from the cargo hold of the commercial flight while everyone looked out the windows. He said, “See the people in the windows? They’re going to remember being on that plane for the rest of their lives. They’re going to remember bringing the Marine home. And they should.”

Reporter Jim Sheeler of the News was there on the tarmac with Maj. Beck and Mrs. Cathey. He looked at the people on the plane, and wrote, “Inside the plane they couldn’t hear the screams.” Photographer Todd Heisler took the pictures. They are powerful on their own, as is Mr. Sheeler’s reporting, and don’t require commentary.

I’d add only this. We’re lucky, aren’t we? Those who are not in the field fighting, those who are not at home worrying or mourning. We’re lucky.

All of us who are not in Iraq or Afghanistan are the people on the plane. We’re watching; we feel respect and regard. We are awed by what the men and women on the field are doing. But we are of course detached by distance. We are protected from what is happening on the ground. It was ever thus. Soldiers fight and soldiers die and people back at home, in their safety, think about but cannot know what it is like to be there on the field. We think about but do not know, most of us, what it is to lose someone there, on the field.

And all we can do is say thank you. And it couldn’t possibly be enough.

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There’s a thing a reporter told me the other day that makes me want to say thank you, too. She’d gone to interview mothers in Ohio who’d lost sons in Iraq. The mothers were as varied as their sons had been in terms of experience, personality, views. Some of the mothers were very much in support of Iraq. Some were not. One of those who’d come to oppose the war started to speak, in her interview, of her opposition. She faltered. A pro-war mother encouraged her. She said something like, ‘We all have our right to our views, you go ahead, honey.’ The reporter was pierced by the tenderness of it, the fairness of it, the very Americanness of it. Once again: What a country.
One of the great and historic things about this war is that whatever you think of it, justified or not, the right decision or not, no one—no one—has decided it is right to emotionally abandon the fighters in the field. This, as we know, is different from what happened in Vietnam, when a generation of those who served were given in response the distanced disrespect of a certain portion of our country. Everyone feels bad about that, and should. But amazingly enough we seem to have learned from it. Almost everyone knows—and the very small number who don’t know at least know enough to go off and be quiet—that the men and women on the field are fighting for us, serving us, that they are putting themselves in harm’s way with courage, that they deserve to be patronized by no one, that they deserve honor from all.

This is a wonderful thing. On this December these men and women are a self-given gift to the nation. Thank you men and women of the armed forces of the United States of America. Merry Christmas to you, happy holidays; stay safe, come home.

Thank you. It’s small and not enough but it is so meant, and by all of us.