I caught Helen Caldicott, the anti-nuclear campaigner, today on one of those three-hour marathon interviews on C-Span. I remember Caldicott well from the early 1980s when I was reporting on the nuclear freeze for The New York Times.
The fact that Caldicott is publishing books and on the lecture circuit again probably means there's a sharp turn in the zeitgeist underway, and a welcome change it is. The nuclear threat never went away, really, although the tidal wave of trivia that flooded our media after 1989 has often made us feel like it has. There is a sense of impending doom in the air again, not unlike the early 1980s.
Caldicott was showing one of those concentric circle maps that illustrates what damage Washington, DC would sustain if it was hit with a nuclear bomb. The inner circle means instant death; the next circle means you're dead in a few weeks from radiation; and the outward circle means you get enough radiation to kill you in 20 or 30 years from cancer.
As Caldicott pointed to the map, the thought fleetingly but indelibly crossed my mind that if this catastrophe ever happens, "I will gladly become a nuts and bolts reporter again."
What I meant was, if this scale of emergency happens the whole country will be instantly craving all sorts of important information -- on the amount and type of damage and casualties, on what is left of government, on what is left of the media, on what steps average citizens can take.
In other words, at such a point of crisis, real journalism will instantly be in demand again. Suddenly it will matter a lot whether readers and viewers can believe what they learn from the media. Their lives and the survival of this country will depend on it. The pundits will suddenly be in much less demand; and the reporters, much more.
Courage in journalism will also matter again -- real physical and moral courage to get the story and report it straight. War reporting, for the first time since the Civil War (though briefly reprieved after 9/11), will be practiced again on American shores. There will be no apetite for glorifying narratives that serve no purpose except to goose ratings and feed the corporate maw; rather people will demand what journalism should always be about, which is responsible fact-finding and fact-reportage that supports sound public decision-making.
Today, it's as if the patient, this country, is so sick that it doesn't even know it's sick. If it's obvious that solid, straightforward, courageous reporting will be needed in the event of a national nuclear emergency, why shouldn't it be more obvious that we need it right now, to prevent such a catastrophe from happening?
Over the past month, I've switched my professional efforts from The McGill Report, which archives my weekly journalism, to this blog, Local Man, a collaborative discussion and resource site for journalists interested in understanding the media better -- in particular, how to create media for global citizens.
In other words, Local Man is devoted to theory, not practice. A part of the reason for the switch, I think, is simply the way my interests are evolving. But a larger part is that I just don't see much opportunity these days to do the kind of journalism that interests me. What opportuity there is, is on the Internet, and I plan to keep exploring that avidly. But for now I'm going to use Local Man to try to think things out, hopefully in discussion with others, as to what the true strengths of this medium are, and how best to experiment with the medium, and use it.
To me newspapers are getting dumber and dumber; with ever-dwindling readerships; ever simpler vocabularies; chasing after teenage readers because The Readership Institute tells them they have to; and becoming mere consumer guides to our TV and Hollywood-drenched culture and propagandized politics.
A nuclear catastrophe would quickly revive responsible, civic-minded journalism in America. I wish I could imagine a scenario short of such a catastrophe that would so quickly instill support for the press as a core institution of democracy.