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W.E. Gutman: Whiners, killjoys and curmudgeons

Posted: March 6, 2010 11:40 p.m.
Updated: March 7, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
"No one likes the bearer of bad news." - Antigone, Sophocles (496-406 B.C.)

Journalists and whistleblowers share common traits. They are perceived as arrogant, insensitive and vexing meddlers. Their exposés are seldom appreciated. Both seek the truth, one in the interest of history, the other in the service of justice.

Both are vital cogs in the vast and complex machine that energizes free societies. They become indispensable when democracy is trivialized and threatened by lies, deliberate myopia and rigid beliefs.

Journalism is the first draft of history. On the printed page, on radio and TV are seized - then frozen in time - indelible images of the human drama. Lucid and hard-nosed renderings should discourage revisionists from tampering with fact.

Alas, in this imperfect world, fact is calumny, reality is disgrace and truth is scandal. For those whose only loyalty is to the truth, it's a lonely world.

To the enemies of truth, journalists make an especially appetizing quarry. If our accounts lack focus or detail, we're dismissed as hacks. If our revelations are graphic, cheeky or too close for comfort, we're accused of needlessly giving readers palpitations.

No matter what we say, we're sure to be reviled by someone along the way.

Mercifully, some readers seek to be informed, not patronized. They possess the mental elasticity to assess a point of view on its merits. It is to them that scrupulous journalists devote their columns.

Others see conspiracy in the truth. Others yet are so jarred by the message that they want it suppressed, obliterated, reduced to ashes - along with the messenger.

Not all journalists rush in where angels fear to tread. Some are daunted by the truth. Political correctness (the sacrifice of truth at the altar of hypocrisy), they believe, keeps readers happy.

Despite claims to the contrary, journalists do not get paid to generate solutions for the problems they unearth. Their job is to observe, chronicle and report on the dynamics that cause or aggravate these problems - not solve them.

The great frustration journalists experience is not with the carping of dogmatists and know-nothings, but with the cowardice and perfidy of an audience that chooses to remain silent out of fear, political expediency or ideological sloth or engage in crypto-fascist babble designed to portray incorruptible and outspoken journalists as gadflies and muckrakers, busybodies, purveyors of social discontent and blabbermouths who threaten the established order.

Being a whiner, a spoil-sport, a killjoy and a curmudgeon - as I have been called by some readers - has one notable benefit. Unlike myth peddlers and bearers of glad tidings, whiners are heard. Gripes get more attention than eulogies. Which is why journalism continues to be a perilous occupation.

For years I thought that one way of erring on the side of justice was to side unerringly with the victims of injustice - the vanquished, the dispersed, the humiliated, the persecuted and the voiceless and the forgotten.

Behind prison walls. At mass graves and hurriedly dug sepulchers. Wherever voices of dissent and cries for freedom had been hushed. Amid the anonymous bones scattered about the steaming earth. Political chicanery, xenophobia, racism, pogroms, torture, war, genocide, ethnic cleansing - they'd all become a blur in an unceasing tempest of human agony.

Telling inconvenient truths is risky business. I know. I've been in the trenches as tracer bullets whizzed over my head. I've been grazed once or twice. Had my reflexes failed me when I exposed political corruption, police brutality and military crimes, I might not be whining today.

Much still begs to be said, revealed and dissected. I've been tempted to veer away from the truths that rankle some readers and treat them instead to the kind of bland fiction that will spare them the hazards of hypertension. Tempted, but never overcome.

Words survive briefly in the two-dimensional realm of an opinion piece, but they fail to generate change.

Instead, they leave a wasteland of rhetoric that does nothing to alter human nature, chill passions and curb hatred. Some horrors are simply too shocking for words.

The truth is not a marketable commodity. I've abandoned all hope that my columns can ever stimulate a rational dialogue. Resorting to disinformation and out-of-context tangents, a phalanx of right-wing moralizers who hide behind the anonymity of their blogs is poised to strike, intent on rejecting facts or silencing them with puerile ad-hominem assaults.

Is truth-telling worth the wall of odium and discord it raises? I struggle with this question with every commentary I write.

If it takes whining to ventilate inconvenient truths, so be it. I will whine.

W. E. Gutman is a widely published veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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