Of Journalism’s Church, State and Thursday Evenings
This article is adapted from War Reporter by Day, Revolutionary by Night written for Tony Sutton’s international website ColdType (Writing Worth Reading From Around the World), page 47, as part of his Radical Vignette series.
It’s the mid-sixties.
I’m 27 and have already survived reporting on anti-apartheid revolts and the Sharpeville funeral in South Africa, insurrections in Zambia, and three years and two bloody wars in the Congo.
So I fly to America (Richard Nixon, Prop.) to find out if I can play the game with the big boys.
With a lot of luck, I get a job as newswriter at the ABC-TV Network’s flagship station, WABC-TV in New York. It’s the station that invented, for better, or — more likely — worse, the original Eyewitness News concept. And the same newsroom that houses Jimmy Breslin, Howard Cosell and Geraldo Rivera.
My assignment is to write the daily evening round-up on the progress of America’s war with Vietnam. My guess is that I get the job because I’ve covered the Congo for United Press International, so presumably know something about wars.
There’s a lot of war for me to write about. The Americans have been fighting in South Vietnam for ten long, brutal, senseless years. Now they’re desperate, start bombing across the border in North Vietnam itself.
In the south, for the first time ever, the North Vietnamese army stands and fights the Americans, instead of just fading back into the jungle after a raid. Already, more than 2,000 Americans have died in this war with more body bags arriving home every week.
So there I am – an English foreigner still in my twenties – reporting to potentially 18-million New Yorkers on their country’s disastrous invasion of South Vietnam.
Meantime, all those relatives, friends and neighbours keep coming home in body bags while politicians promise glorious victory if only America hangs in.
I write of America’s battles, the deaths, the lies, the atrocities, the few victories, the many defeats. Every day I try to find and write the truth of that faraway war so Americans can understand it.
I do it well enough to be promoted to the ABC-TV Network newsroom to keep writing the war story. Now my audience is potentially 200-million Americans.
Not once, either at WABC or later, at the ABC network, does anyone ever suggest that my war reporting is anything but honest, fair and accurate. Not once – not even in this brutally tough and often paranoid New York news arena – am I accused of bias, political or otherwise.
Instead, my fellow journalists elect me a Director of our union, the Writers Guild of America (East), and I win an Emmy award for “Outstanding Program Achievements”.
Then there’s Thursday evenings.
Every Thursday evening, after I finish writing the day’s Viet Nam war story for potentially 200-million Americans, I take the subway from the ABC Newsroom off Columbus Circle, to an abandoned building on the shabby lower East Side of Manhattan.
I press a button next to a battered door, exchange passwords, and am buzzed up dangerously rickety stairs for the weekly meeting of the local Trotskyites.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) called for permanent revolution of the working classes. According to Wikipedia:
“Trotsky identified as an orthodox Marxist and Bolshevik–Leninist. He supported founding a vanguard party of the proletariat, proletarian internationalism and a dictatorship of the proletariat based on working class self-emancipation and mass democracy”.
Even now, in the mid-sixties, 25 years after his death, Trotsky’s ideas still scare the hell out of the American government and people.
Because what Trotsky means by mass democracy is far from the savage capitalist democracy so beloved of American oligarchs, plutocrats and simple fascists.
Some 20 people make these Thursday Trot meetings, most of us in our early twenties and thirties. All of us appalled by America’s colonial war, and all working to destroy the American empire. Our dream is to abolish private property and revel in a workers’ paradise.
We argue endlessly over the role of the bourgeoisie in the permanent revolution, the delights of atheism, the ever-popular dialectical materialism, and whether the second American revolution is inevitable or merely impossible.
It’s heady, scary stuff. We’re the valiant vanguard of the second American Revolution!
We Trots meet on the building’s third floor, just a few feet from the elevated subway. Every time a train rumbles past us, the whole building shakes and everyone stops talking until there’s quiet again.
Seems an anarchist lives on the floor below and, being a traditional anarchist, likes to make bombs. So we’re scared the train will set off the anarchist’s bombs and blow us all to hell before we can start the revolution.
I’m not at all sure how our silence makes us any less likely to be blown to hell, but that’s the way it is.
Part of my revolutionary duty with the Trots is to print off pamphlets and posters for distribution to the not-so-eager proletarian masses waiting breathlessly to be saved.
No Tsar, But a Workers’ Government they read. And Permanent Revolution and Communism is Freedom.
The ABC newsroom is almost deserted by the time I get back from the meeting. So it’s easy to slip into the the Gestetner duplicating room and print off a few hundred copies of my pamphlets and posters without anyone noticing.
I pack them into a shopping bag, casually stroll out of the ABC building, walk a half block to the designated live drop-off corner, and wait. At the top of the hour a man appears out of the dark, takes the bag and, without saying a word, disappears back into the shadows.
The next day, I’m back in the ABC newsroom writing the Vietnam news – with all its battles, deaths, lies, atrocities, few victories and many defeats – for potentially 200-million Americans.
And so it goes, until I decide that in America being a Trot revolutionary and a journalist at the same time is too dangerous.
If anyone finds out that the ABC network’s chief Vietnam news writer is also plotting to overthrow the American empire every Thursday evening, I’ll likely go to jail. I’ll certainly never work as a journalist in America again.
If a news camera eventually catches me marching with my wife and two children in one of many anti-war and anti-racism protests, I’ll have to hand in my ABC press pass and find some other line of work.
Then there’s the anarchist just waiting to blow me up with his bombs when he makes a tiny mistake just as the subway train passes.
Certainly, there’s no sign of the masses rising up to overthrow what our Chinese comrades call “America’s running dogs of imperialism”.
Anyway, Trots are notoriously grim and humourless and Trot meetings are ruining my Thursday evenings.
So I abandon the Trots and become a Nichiren Neishu Buddhist instead. I chant Myoho-renge-kyo … Myoho-renge-kyo … Myoho-renge-kyo … which means something along the lines of “every person can attain enlightenment, without restriction, in this lifetime.”
A few years later, across the border, I’m appointed executive producer and chief trainer for all the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s TV journalists.
Every training session starts with a lecture on journalistic ethics and morals. And ends with discussion of every journalist’s responsibility to guard and protect the free marketplace of ideas – the shining jewel in the crown of liberal democracy.
I train thousands of TV journalists in hundreds of workshops in a dozen countries.
No complaint ever that my political views — whatever they’ve become —influence my storytelling workshops.
So what’s my point?
It’s that journalists can hold the most radical personal views while, at the same time, respecting the traditional rules of democratic journalism — integrity, fairness, accuracy, balance — and honestly serving both the people and the free marketplace of ideas.
I write this in the hope that next time you hear a strutting, lying, psychotic, fascistic bully —Trump’s not the only one around, you know — rant about the evils of journalists in a democracy, you might remember that for the past dozen years, around the world, an average of one journalist a week is killed in the line of duty.
Whatever our personal politics, as servants of the people we believe it’s our moral and ethical duty to tell truth to power, hold power to account.
It’s our job and our passion.
And I would remind you further that as journalism goes – so goes democracy.
Tim Knight is an Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi award winning journalist and filmmaker who works out of Surfers’ Corner, Cape Town. He’s the author of Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition. www.timknight.org.