In defense of the media and our skills

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 26, 2011

By Donnis Baggett
Waco Tribune-Herald
Pardon me while I vent. A few days before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, someone emailed me two photographs that could tear your heart out.
One photo depicted a Marine lieutenantís flag-draped casket being offloaded from an airliner as the planeís passengers looked through the windows in somber reflection.
This photograph was one of the 20 images in Todd Heisler’s Final Salute story that was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.
The other was a shot of 2nd Lt. James Catheyís young widow lying on a makeshift bed in front of his casket the night before the funeral. She had asked to spend one last night with him before he was laid to rest.
An anonymous bloggerís text attached to the photos urged everyone to remember the sacrifices of our folks in uniform. The writer also urged forwarding the photos to everyone on the recipientís email list because it was a sure thing that ěthe mediaî wouldnít publish them.
The photos were incredibly powerful images that etch themselves permanently into your consciousness. But the images ó the ones that the blogger said ěthe mediaî wouldnít touch ó werenít ignored by journalists. As a matter of fact, they were published six years ago in a newspaper.
Had the anonymous critic bothered to look closely, he would have seen a credit line at the corner of the photos. That credit line identified the pictures as the work of Todd Heisler, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Rocky Mountain News for the images in 2006. He now works for The New York Times.
So these photos ó the ones ěthe mediaî were certain to ignore ó were not only published by a mainstream newspaper, but also were awarded the highest honor in journalism. And Heislerís partner, reporter Jim Sheeler, also won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper.
The anonymous blogger who stepped in it with his snarky comment is far from alone. Almost daily I see blogs and emails from critics accusing ěthe mediaî of withholding their coverage and compassion for the military. Usually those critics are anonymous.
Anonymous critics
The newspapers I have worked for the past 38 years have printed untold thousands of stories, images and supportive editorials about our military personnel and their families. So Iím more than a little weary of ěthe mediaî being painted in hues of pink.
I wonder if our anonymous critics ever stop to think that ěthe mediaî they so gleefully bash are part of the institutions of freedom that our military folks put their lives on the line to protect.
Do they realize that during the past two centuries, scores of reporters and photographers ó dedicated human beings who make up ěthe mediaî ó have died alongside our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines while covering our nationís wars? Heisler himself narrowly escaped death from a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq.
I wonder if the critics ever stop to think that ěthe mediaî are comprised of ordinary working people with families and mortgages, and yes, even feelings.
They are people who believe that their profession makes an important contribution to the messy business of democracy.
I wonder if they think about the fact that members of ěthe media,î unlike anonymous bloggers, sign their names to their work, making themselves accountable to the courts of law and public opinion.
Do the critics ever consider how members of ěthe mediaî risk the wrath of those in charge every time they publish a probing news story or a tough editorial opinion?
Do they realize that the First Amendment is listed first for a reason ó so that ěthe media,î warts and all, can serve as courts of last resort when absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Those touching photos were not shot by an amateur with a camera phone. They were not published by some anonymous blogger or a self-styled patriot in his pajamas hitting the send button in the middle of the night. They were shot by a talented and dedicated journalist who puts his name on his work, and then they were published in an American newspaper ó which is about as mainstream media as you can get.
Long hours, low pay
Iíve never met Todd Heisler, but Iíve had the privilege to work with hundreds of journalists like him. I can testify that most members of ěthe mediaî work incredibly long hours at low pay and often at the expense of their family lives to cover the news for you.
They do this even when the stories are painful to cover. And even when they get mindlessly bashed by anonymous critics.
If youíd like to see photographs by Todd Heisler and donít mind visiting a mainstream media awards site to see them, hereís a link for you:
www.pulitzer.org/works/2006-Feature-Photography
Enough venting.

Donnis Baggett is publisher and editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Email him at dbaggett@wacotrib.com.

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