"A decade of budget cutting, downsizing, foreign bureau
closings, assignment drought, and agency takeovers are coming home
to roost. The aftermath of the terrorist strikes has exposed America's
shallow knowledge and understanding of today's complex world in which
we live. The media abdicated its responsibility to inform the public
with insightful reportage, in-depth enterprise journalism, and hard
news. Instead, they fed us softball lifestyle features that would
"sell." We were entertained instead of educated. Luce, Sarnoff,
and Paley did not abdicate their responsibilities to report the news
to the American public while bringing healthy profits to the bottom
line. Will today's media barons step up to their responsibilities?"
So wrote former Time magazine Picture Editor Arnold Drapkin in an
email sent to us just days after the terrorist attacks on New York
and Washington. We could not agree more.
Since the late '80s, we have watched - appalled - as American media
moved away from hard news and investigative journalism, to entertainment
and life-style issues. At the top, the big newsmagazines, the life-blood
of photojournalism, decided that the public no longer cared about
any substantive information coming from the rest of the world.
In 1987, Drapkin was told by the top editors at Time, "Arnold,
you have built the finest stable of photographers any magazine has
ever had, now you have to take it apart." And take it apart they
did. With a few exceptions, it was no longer possible for photojournalists
to depend upon editorial assignments to make a living.
The networks began by cutting foreign travel budgets for correspondents
and crews. Then continued the downward course by closing their overseas
Only upstart CNN seemed to think there was any value or viewer interest
in what went on outside U.S. borders. As ABC Nightline Executive Producer
Tom Bettag lamented, "It's not that the American public is not
interested in foreign news, it1s the bean-counters who aren't interested."
Similarly, the "news hole" in American newspapers began
to shrink when it came to foreign news, with the notable exception
of papers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post.
At the beginning of the new millennium, one of Time magazine's picture
editors told us, "The days of the old photojournalism are over,
and they are never coming back!"
In one day - September 11, 2001 - photojournalism was, in a sense,
reborn. The horrendous act committed on that day accomplished what
none of the dedicated and loyal photographers had been able to during
the past decade. A period filled with fighting, not only for the rights
to own their pictures, but the very survival of their craft.
Photojournalists rushed to the scenes in New York and Washington.
Most did not wait to be called. They responded, like the police, the
firemen, the EMS crews. They were driven to document this tragic moment
in our history.
At least two photojournalists were killed. Others were injured. Most
worked for long hours in choking smoke, and heart-wrenching misery.
The photographs resulting from their efforts are superb. It was for
all as though a pent- up desire to do their best had been released.
Miraculously, the magazines, newspapers, and networks - almost as
one - shook off the years of malaise that had so enfeebled them, and
welcomed the work as it began to flood into their offices.
When the publications hit the newsstands they sold out in minutes.
Americans were glued to their TV sets - not to watch the latest survival
show, but to see real people confronted by real-life, extraordinary
circumstances. It will be a while before "reality" programming
can resonate with viewfinders that have looked into the physical consequences
of hate. For the near future, fewer will look for the stars and glamour
that have graced covers and filled the airwaves.
Hollywood is in a state of paralysis while studio moguls try to figure
out the public's taste in this new world. For too long, it has been
about fads, glitter, and "edgy" photography. The idea of
journalistic expertise and credibility being considered "old"
and "boring" no longer applies.
We as a nation, will confront many new challenges. Our media can be
an enormous force for good if it is not squandered on inanity.
Resources must be spent. Editors must be freed from their impotent
state. Photojournalism must be respected and supported for the value
it represents - both in our society and in our history.