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Across The Barriers: Reflections On Journalism

By Igor Pomeranzev
Address to students of the Journalism Faculty, Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv), September 20, 2011

The drama of journalism is embodied in the etymology of the word. "Jour" in French means day. Daily publication is the bread of journalism. After 24 hours the bread is stale. Incidentally, journalism is not just a craft, it can also be an art. At least, the journalists people like to read and cherish are artists: they have their own style, their own themes, ambitions, loyal readers, imitators, enviers, enemies.

Creativity by its nature lays claim to longevity. A one-day lifespan is too brief. It feels restricted by 24 hours. It suffocates in the time span allotted to it. When listeners tell my colleagues, and sometimes me as well, "You're a radio classic," I experience a feeling of disquiet, bitterness even. There are no classics on the radio. While your voice is on air you're best friends with Ariel, spirit of the air, but as soon as you stop talking, you're no more than exhaled carbon dioxide.

Igor Pomeranzev
Igor Pomeranzev
Journalism takes due account of its oppressive dependency on the fast flow of time. Otherwise there wouldn't be so many publications with titles that included words like "time," "times," "day," "week," "hour," "daily," "evening," "morning," "night," etc. In many countries there are prizes for our profession, such as "journalist of the year." The people who thought that one up were subtle judges of character: yes, a journalist would like his creation to live, and 12 months, while the Earth revolves around the Sun, will do.

In Poland the legendary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski was recognized in his lifetime as "journalist of the century." I don't know whether  Kapuscinski himself regarded the award with a certain irony, but he titled his last book of reportage "Travels With Herodotus." Why Herodotus? Herodotus, an Ancient Greek historian, lived roughly 2,500 years ago and wrote about the Persian wars. Herodotus is regarded, with justification, as their forerunner by geographers, ethnographers, folklorists, anthropologists and, first and foremost, historians who follow Cicero's lead in referring to him as the "father of history". Herodotus prefaces his "History" with the following remarks: "Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks."

I think you've already guessed why Kapuscinski travelled the world in the company of Herodotus's book and why he is so generous in quoting him. He sees in the Greek a fellow writer, a fellow journalist. For Kapuscinski, Herodotus is a model reporter who wanders the world, observes, talks, listens, so as to then write it all down and let it all hang out. That's the pedigree the Polish writer wants for his journalism.

I like the flights of his self-regarding fantasy, his professional megalomania, his self-centered ambition to break out of the confines of 24 hours to which the journalist is condemned. Kapuscinski reminds me of the hero in a Greek tragedy, who knows full well the fate allotted to him by the gods, but resists it all the same. He remained true to himself to the end: almost a year before his death he published two books of poems. With the help of poetry, he wanted to break out, break through to eternity.

History, alas, unlike journalism, looks to the past. It works with memory. It is a friend of the pluperfect tense. Furthermore, it is a science, though part of the humanities, and for all that we might wish it to be so, has absolutely no relationship with the French word "jour." Nevertheless, journalism has distinguished antecedents it can be proud of. I would even go so far as to put the authors of ancient chronicles on the lists of "journalist of the year."

To be honest, though, I have a weak spot for those chroniclers who violated the genre. I am certain that the monk Nestor of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, one of the authors of the "Primary Chronicle," would have been roundly criticized by a modern editor for inserting his own opinions and unreliable information. Though he would have found space on the "Comment" page. The pedigree of this branch of journalism is even more ancient and authoritative. Elements of journalism can easily be found, I believe, in the Old Testament in the Books of the Prophets. I have in mind the fearless denunciations of both kings and the common people. Here is a passage from Chapter 22 of the Book of Jeremiah:

Thus saith the Lord; Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.

In contemporary language, I would translate it as follows: "Observe the law, especially with regard to those who are oppressed by the authorities; respect the rights of immigrants, the underprivileged; and prevent bloodshed."

Here is another verse which still sounds fresh to me today:

Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbor's service without wages and giveth him not for his work.

In today's papers this would sound roughly as follows: "The head of state should be punished with the full force of the law for corruption and illegal appropriation of property. The president blatantly abuses the constitution, not paying salaries and other social payments."

I don't think there's any need for me to tell you whose style I prefer.

I am especially curious about those journalists who have, for one reason or another, passed into history despite the transience of their chosen genre. The rich and varied journalism of George Orwell has remained in the public mind thanks to his novels and books of documentary prose. His disgust toward journalism reached its peak when he was working for the BBC's Indian Service between 1941 and 1943. World War II was in progress, and the British Ministry of Information, under the excuse of war, dosed and filtered information and commentaries. They were trying to persuade Indians that Nazi Germany was their enemy and the United Kingdom their natural ally. Listeners with a sensitive ear for the echoes of history could already hear the empire creaking at the seams, but the Ministry of Information required optimistic stories and commentaries from BBC journalists. It was the ministry, not the Nazi or communist propaganda machines, that was the model for the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's dystopian "1984."

In an essay from 1946, "Why I Write," Orwell noted that he was preparing to flee journalism for prose: "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past 10 years is to make political writing into the art." He produces a strong argument: "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable." ("Politics And The English Language," 1946) And so Orwell became a genre refugee: a novelist. He sharpened his style and radically changed his vocabulary. Furthermore, he describes a society of the future, albeit a dismal one, with the heightened topicality and timeliness so characteristic of journalism.

I translate the word "journalist" into Russian in my own way: "a man for a day." Though even one day can be lived honorably. But if "a man for a day" lives it not just honorably, but heroically, he can become a "man for all time." I have in mind a real hero. His name is Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990). In 2010 a selection of his articles was published under the title "Time and Eternity," a title I regard as provocative for an anthology of newspaper reports and articles. Muggeridge's father was a prominent socialist and he brought up his son in line with his political convictions. In 1932 "The Manchester Guardian" sent Muggeridge to Moscow as its correspondent. In February 1933, hearing of famine in the North Caucasus and Ukraine, Muggeridge set off for the south without the permission of the Moscow authorities.

The result of the trip was three articles that appeared in "The Manchester Guardian" at the end of March. These were the first eyewitness accounts in the West to describe the scale of the famine. Muggeridge smuggled them out to his paper using the diplomatic bag. The paper printed them in abridged form, since the paper's viewpoint differed from that of its correspondent. More than that, the correspondent's view was very much a minority one in the England of that time. The U.S.S.R. was in fashion, and English intellectuals sympathized en masse with the building of socialism in Soviet Russia. Here are some quotes from Muggeridge's reports:

"The civilian population were obviously starving. I mean starving in its absolute sense; not undernourished as for instance most Oriental peasants are undernourished or some unemployed workers in Europe, but having had for weeks next to nothing to eat.... The famine is an organised one. Some of the food that has been taken away from them -- and the peasants know this quite well -- is still being exported to foreign countries.... The little towns and villages seemed just numb...cattle and horses dead; fields neglected, meagre harvests despite moderately good climatic conditions; all the grain that was produced taken by the government; no bread at all, no bread anywhere.... The tendency in Russia is towards a slave State.... The present battle is between the General Idea and the peasants" and so on, and so on.

Those three reports radically changed Muggeridge's life. He was to all intents and purposes kicked out of the paper, and he had to go to India to find work. In the future, Muggeridge remained faithful to his journalistic principles: "What is happening? What does it mean?" At different times he had different enemies from among those for whom ideology is more important than the truth. As his biographers write, English socialists spat in his face, literally. He was challenged to fistfights. He was refused entry visas by South Africa, Portugal, and the U.S.S.R. He was barred from the airwaves of the BBC. For his religious convictions -- he became a Catholic toward the end of his life -- Muggeridge was caricatured as a Jeremiah, though who, if not he, obeyed the words of the prophet: "Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place."

I have worked in journalism for more than 30 years, and my observations about the dramatic nature of our profession are not idle speculation. I often think about the fluttering ephemeridae butterflies, which have a lifespan measured not in days, but hours. "Ephemeridae" is a Greek word. It has found a place in zoology, but in Ancient Greece the word was used to describe the daily reports about the activities of kings and warriors.

To avoid the fate of the ephemeridae butterflies, in my own work for radio I keep as close as I can to "Ars Sonora," the art of sound: to create a product for the air out of sounds, with the human voice only one of many sources that I value equally -- buzzing, whistling, rustling, groaning, cackling, crunching, gnawing, twittering, snoring, barking, gurgling, roaring, sobbing, cooing, splashing, clucking, whooping,  hallooing, rumbling, or silence. I also extend the life of my reports and interviews by means of poetry. I call them "work lyrics." Here's an example:

In the refugee camp
there were only five victims of rape.
Our brother's golden rule --
obtain firsthand information.
But I couldn't go up to those refugee women and ask:
"Anybody here been raped?"
I approached, said who I was. Switched on the recorder.
"Maybe somebody could sing a love song?"
The women were shy.
One called over her 7-year-old daughter.
"Liri, sing, sing for the man".
How old is she now?
Must be almost a girl...

I have spoken  to you consciously about the "metaphysics of journalism." You'll learn about "physics" during your regular lectures. Today's commentary I would classify as a piece of "investigative journalism." The subject of the investigation being journalism itself.

Thank you for your attention.

translated from Russian by Frank Williams
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Comments
     
by: Massoumeh from: London
November 10, 2011 10:35
Igore,

This is a wonderful piece. I will recommend it for courses on journalism. Makes delicious reading and calls for sophistication in journalism.
In Response

by: pomerantsev from: prague
November 10, 2011 14:23
Thank you. I am happy

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