From Offshore: In memory of Gwen Ifill
Wednesday, November 16, 2016 3:44 PM
The venerable line about the role of the journalist being “To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” was never intended — by Edward R. Murrow or anybody else who said it — to mean “It is the role of anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection to afflict most everybody.”
Eva Murray lives, works and writes on Matinicus Island.
If there is one thing we can pretty much all agree on, it is that we can’t respect “the media” anymore. Alright — hold on.
Gwen Ifill, who died a few days ago, was the sort of professional who put the lie to the idea that everybody in “the media” is a troublemaking scrounger. Dignified but accessible, Ifill came across as warm, trustworthy and genuine in much the same way as did the beloved TV journalists of another day, the avuncular stars of the 6 o’clock news like Walter Cronkite, whom we trusted more than we trusted the president. I certainly would rather listen to Gwen Ifill than listen to most politicians.
I was a wee child in the late 1960s. I remember Dan Rather in a helmet on the black-and-white television. I remember Cronkite being over the moon about us going to the moon. I was too young for Edward R. Murrow but I remember Charles Kuralt, who was the only television celebrity I ever got la-la over the chance to meet. (And I didn’t get to meet him. CBS Sunday Morning got in touch twenty-some years ago and said they were coming to Matinicus to do a story, and I was wildly excited that Charles Kuralt might get here, but they sent Tim Sample instead. Tim’s fun, but as a Kuralt fan, I felt a bit rooked.)
Yes, I am that nerdy; I have a signed photograph of Bob Schieffer, with whom I share a birthday. Gwen Ifill described herself as nerdy in that same way. She was a few years older than me, but not many, and she mentioned watching the news regularly as a child and “never seeing anybody who looked like me in any way.”
I have a little printed fabric patch that says, “Don’t blame the media — become the media.” Thank you, Gwen, for becoming the media and for becoming a mentor and an example to a lot of people you never met — including me.
Criticizing “the media” for insensitivity is easy. I am an Emergency Medical Technician and a Search and Rescue volunteer, and I can tell you if there is any group of people in our society who have little use for “the media” in that abstract and unflattering sense, it is emergency workers, searchers, and disaster response folks. The last thing anybody needs, when dealing with people in crisis, is somebody sticking a microphone in the overstressed responder’s or — shockingly — victim’s face demanding, “How do you feel about your house burning down?” or “Was it an asteroid that killed her? Are we all at risk? Should everybody panic?”
In the case of Search and Rescue we are warned that even well-meaning news reporting, if ill-timed, can present a real hindrance, and the less-responsible buzz, rife with speculation, is trouble with a capital T. It is very often the highly trained dogs who will actually find a missing person or some evidence, and nothing will mess up a search dog’s work quite like a thousand random curious people stomping around in the area with neither organization nor training in evidence preservation. It is our job, as SAR volunteers, to avoid “the media” — especially social media.
I am no lover of “Reality TV,” and we have had more than enough of that reprehensible slop on this island. I am no lover of blogs written by people who do not know much about their subject. I am no lover of vengeful ranters quick to yell — or type — “Heads will roll!” regarding some tragedy. I have no interest in celebrities or conspiracies. All of these things comprise, sadly, “the media.” But conscientious, thoughtful, respectable and respectful journalism protects and defends civilization and is a gift to citizens. Cronkite and Kuralt — and Ifill — were national treasures. They could not have been brushed off with the dismissive tone we use when we talk about the tabloids and sound-bites, the “echo-chambers” and “listicles” which make up “the media” we love to hate today.
We who think it is our proper business to speak up in public, to write down the stuff that goes on, to generate something for the B section every other Tuesday, or to scrutinize the details of another person’s work ought to keep the example of Gwen Ifill in mind. It is not wrong to have heroes.
I’m no reporter, but I suppose I might be part of “the media.” I hope that doesn’t get me kicked out of Search and Rescue.