The Digital Journalist
Getting to the Point

by Peter Howe

It's always when I write my December column for The Digital Journalist that the Moody Blues' song "Strange Times" starts echoing through my head. As I sit looking at a blank screen trying to think of something profound to say that sums up the last 11 or 12 months, the first thought that comes to mind is generally, "What a weird year!" At least it has for the last four or five.

The mere fact that I can go back that far and even further with December columns for this publication defies reason, but the fact of the matter is that we're eight years old, and about to produce our 100th issue in February. How weird is that? What are the odds that a bunch of people frustrated with the state of things in our industry could complain their way to a loyal audience of at least 30,000 people a month? It is amazing to me and very rewarding. Even the most disgruntled of our contributors are pretty gruntled now, at least with the state of The Digital Journalist, if not the world.

Unfortunately, the planet doesn't seem to be in as good shape as the DJ. That we've severely pissed off Mother Nature seems beyond doubt. Starting with the Tsunami late last December there were 11 earthquakes of magnitude seven or greater in 2005, including the devastating one in Pakistan in October that killed more than 79,000 people. The Atlantic basin had a record 25 named storms, 13 of which were hurricanes, three of which were category five, and one of which, Wilma, was the strongest hurricane on record. I've listened to all of the experts saying that this has nothing to do with global warming and if you check the data back far enough you will see that this is merely a part of a repeating cycle. I'm sure the experts are right since I put more faith in their science than my neurosis, but it still seems a little apocalyptic to me.

The year's other powerful storm that got my attention was the one over the White House. The speed with which the wheels fell off that thing proved that if you want a really invincible political machine, it's yet another of the things that they make better in China than here. Although from my point of view it happened 12 months too late, the turnaround from arrogant certainty to confused disarray has been astonishing - or maybe it hasn't. I think that those if us who spiraled into near-terminal depression after the last election tend to forget (as indeed did the administration) that Bush only won the popular vote by less than three percent, which means that nearly half the country didn't vote for him. It just takes a quagmire on foreign soil, an economic disaster in the making at home, a botched rescue and recovery effort in Louisiana, and a federal prosecutor who won't go away to significantly add to that number. The only mystery to me is why W's approval rating is still as high as 37 percent.

In some ways the things about my adopted land that have been causing me the most discomfort in the last few years are similar to the cautions that the scientists give about the weather - a lot of it is cyclic. When I read the newspaper or watch a current affairs program on TV I feel the same way that a Christian Evangelist must have felt during the 1960s and '70s, isolated, out of touch and distressed by the direction the country was taking. In fact it seems that the only way that this country can find its middle is by experiencing swings to the extremes.

It's at this point in the column that my editor starts to wonder what this all has to do with visual journalism, so I'll reduce his anxiety level by saying that the big changes in thought and course that a country makes are the result of a lot of small actions, many of which are those of visual journalists. I think it's rare that one report, one photograph, one piece of footage can redirect an entire nation, but I believe that the agglomeration of many may form a mass that has the capability to do so.

When I was interviewing Philip Jones Griffiths for Shooting Under Fire, he felt that the iconic photographs from the Vietnam War didn't change the way the public felt about the conflict but rather confirmed suspicions that were already forming in its collective mind, suspicions that were the result of listening to the experiences of soldiers from a draftee Army returning after a one-year tour of duty. Under different circumstances, but in the same way, the photographs out of Abu Ghraib were the first crack in the walls of the house that Rove built. The idea that America not only condoned the torture of prisoners, but also practiced it on those under our control was profoundly shocking to America, especially the part of Middle America upon which this administration has relied for the core of its support. By themselves these photographs would not have been enough to alter many minds about the war, but they started a dialog in which more questions would be asked about the way that it was being conducted.

It was the sight of refugees within the nation's boundaries that increased the downward trajectory for the White House, and here the work of photographers and videographers was key. The chaos of New Orleans after Katrina had plowed through was both a natural and man-made disaster, but one of the benefits of the incompetence and lack of urgency that the administration showed in its aftermath was that photographers could work more freely to bring the stories to the American public than at any other time under this regime whose tight control of the press and its access has been a hallmark.

Here photo opportunities were exactly that, opportunities to take photos, and as this site has shown, the effectiveness of journalists allowed to do their job without restraint is powerful. I was in France when the images from the floods hit newspapers and television screens, and the effect upon that nation was shock and disbelief that this was happening in the richest country on the planet (along with a little ill-disguised contempt that was only moderated by the fact that it was the French themselves who first decided to build the city of New Orleans below sea-level.)

So what lessons are we to learn from all this? I think that the most important one is to remember that what we do really does make a difference, even though it may not seem like it at them time. Each frame of reality that we bring to the attention of our fellow citizens, each small moment of truth that we reveal through the lens, incrementally and sometimes imperceptibly, alters the public consciousness, and edges it closer to the tipping point where the significant change occurs.

The Bush administration has gone over this point in the public opinion game, and its descent is rapid and so far unchecked. That doesn't mean they won't be able to claw their way back - it would only take the capture or corpse of Osama bin Laden to achieve that. But they will never regain the level of trust and confidence given to them by decent people that they once enjoyed. The mask is off, not ripped off, but chipped away by the work of journalists in Iraq and Louisiana, in the District of Columbia and the heartland. This is not to forget that it was kept in place for too long by the inactivity and fearfulness of many of the editors and publishers of this country's mainstream media, cowed by the brute force of the Rover and his gang, and timorously trying not to appear unpatriotic.

The lesson is, I suppose, keep doing what you're doing and take heart that it will make a difference. Once the current starts to move the crashing of the wave upon the shore is inevitable.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor