Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Collateral Damage

Kevin Jones, the journalism student who drove the car in which David Halberstam was killed, is obviously haunted by that terrible experience. Having another car slam into you at an intersection is bad enough, but seeing your passenger die is an added horror, and when that passenger is perhaps the most celebrated journalist in recent history, well, the whole disaster must be too much to immediately process. Which is why I hope that Jones was speaking from shock when he told the Associated Press that he wants "to make some kind of tribute" to Halberstam in the near future. No offense to Jones, but if there's anyone who doesn't need more tributes, it's David Halberstam.

I understand the desire to venerate a seasoned vet in the profession you hope to join. Did it many times myself. But when this happens in journalism, the results tend to reinforce the status quo rather than challenge, much less undermine, it, and Halberstam was as status quo as they come. His now-celebrated "criticism" of the Vietnam war was mainly tactical, for Halberstam never really questioned the right of the US to attack Southeast Asia in the first place. The real problem was that the war wasn't being waged correctly or efficiently (sound familiar?), and this is what eventually drove many mainstream journos to turn against what is still seen by many as a "mistake." If Halberstam truly was the cage-rattling truthteller of legend, he wouldn't be receiving the unanimous accolades still pouring in. An efficient propaganda system needs the likes of Halberstam, if only to establish "responsible," acceptable boundaries for reporting. Halberstam played his role better than most, and was richly rewarded for his service.

Young Kevin Jones is blinded by all this, and takes seriously the idea that journalists should not only win awards like the Pulitzer, but that this validates their worth. That's what usually happens when a kid enters journalism school, perhaps the biggest con there is in higher education. I've dealt with and worked alongside many J-school grads, and nearly to a person they were conditioned to accept the corporate media structure as a logical and objective means of conveying information. When I'd tell them that true investigative writers like George Seldes didn't need J-school to learn his craft, they'd sometimes ask, "Who's George Seldes?"

"My point exactly," I'd reply.

Having witnessed Halberstam's death probably cemented Jones' high opinion of the reporter and the media system he helped to define. If so, then there was more than one casualty in that tragic wreck, and looking across the corporate media landscape, there's bound to be more.