Get Lucky or Get Lost: Takeaways from Chris Matthews’ #RealNews2017 Keynote Speech at George Mason University

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Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen

 

True to journalistic form, the communication forum dubbed #RealNews2017, didn’t bury the lead and hold off on what many considered the event’s main draw but, instead, after a few brief words from sponsors and organizers, put MSNBC’s “Hardball” host, Chris Matthews, front and center on stage, and from the audience’s resounding applause, the event seemed to be kicking off in a grand fashion.

 

Being a political commentator, an author, a talk show host, as well as a former speech writer with experience serving in the Peace Corps, Matthews brought a unique perspective to the forum as he doled out personal insights about the business to tomorrow’s future journalists.

 

Starting out, Matthews, in an obvious attempt to connect with his largely local George Mason University audience, decided to rhetorically fumble out of the gate and quote, not the man for whom the university he was speaking at is named, but for some inexplicable reason that must have seemed like a good idea in his “Hardball” mind, quote another famous Virginian by the name of Thomas Jefferson, stating, “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

 

One can forgive the obvious rhetorical faux pas, given the nature of the event but, although the quote was technically relevant, given the context of the forum, it still seemed like a negligent slap in the face to another founding father and drafter of the original Virginia Declaration of Rights—the basis for the United States Bill of Rights, in his own house.

 

Matthews continued on by making the point that access to newspapers and media is of paramount importance, but even more important is the general masses’ ability to interpret and understand what they are being told by the media.

 

Matthews then went on to list a series of newspapers and media outlets by name, in what seemed like a transparent attempt to stretch his keynote speech to a length permissible to forum organizers, before making an antagonizing reference to our president’s primary means of communicating with the public (Twitter), and asking the audience how they could possibly know where to go for, and what to take as, truth.

 

Continuing with his flawed approach to connect with his audience—this time with the youth—as an elderly, wealthy, white male, Matthews decided to explicitly paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, and ask the audience, “What’s in your brain?”

 

Matthews went on for a few additional minutes asking a series of half-hearted rhetorical questions such as, “Who do we trust, when knowing the truth requires judgement?” for which he gave no clear-cut answer, but given his having a show on MSNBC, one can safely assume that he’d like his own program to be where the audience attending goes for said answers, if for no other reason than a quick boost in his ratings.

 

“We cannot automatically trust our leaders to give us the facts,” said Matthews, followed by a quick, what seemed to be, pandering recommendation list to the youth, of today’s most popular left-leaning political satirists.

 

Matthews then, in a blatant disregard for the environment in which he was speaking, asked his audience consisting of media professionals, college professors and journalism students, in a skeptical and condescending tone, “Do you really want to get into this world of media?” Further showcasing his speech’s out of touch and tone-deaf messaging.

 

Matthews wound down his speech by stating, “[In this business] you can push like mad, and you still need breaks.” He went on to confess that all the work he’s put into his career over the years, probably wouldn’t have gotten him as far as he’s made it if he didn’t catch multiple breaks along the way, due to pure luck—disheartening words for the future journalists in the room that have spent thousands of dollars, and were likely to spend thousands more, to get a leg up and be successful in a business that Matthews says, comes down to a few lucky breaks, if you’re fortunate enough to stumble onto them.

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“All the President’s Men” (Then & Now)

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Photo by Jacob Morch

 

“All the President’s Men” is a film that follows the events that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency of the United States. The film, as well as the events it portrays, took place in the 1970s. The time period does a lot to highlight the challenges journalists faced back then and the methods they had to use to communicate effectively.

 

In today’s world, we’re used to texting each other, emailing colleagues, searching library databases in seconds, and rarely take a moment to look back to appreciate how far communication has come since the days of yelling as loud as one could to be heard, or using the pony express to get a message to someone.

 

“All the President’s Men” has two main characters, Woodward and Bernstein. They are the two journalists responsible for bringing the Watergate Scandal to the public’s attention, and exposing the corruption of the Nixon administration. Through following their activities, viewers gets a glimpse at how it was to be a journalists not too long ago.

 

One thing that stood out in the film, was just how slow things moved back then. Perhaps the movie had a pacing problem, if so, that’s the editor’s fault—but that’s beside the point. They had no mobile phones that put effective communication at their fingertips. They had to either do their work physically in the same space, or wait until they saw each other again to share what they uncovered.

 

Landline phones were another conspicuous presence in the film. It was bad enough that someone had to actually be physically home to talk to someone not in the room with them, but the cord on the phone served as an additional chain to the home or office.

 

Libraries were both a place to be dreaded, and a treasure trove to be riffled through, back in the 1970s. There were no computers one could go on and search a few keywords to find what they were looking for. Journalists had to search through card catalogues and numerous clips to discover what they were looking for. I could take hours, maybe even days, to uncover anything of value to them. Every second you spent looking through hard copies of old publications, resulted in time lost trying to beat a competitor to a story.

 

Toward the end of the film, Woodward and Bernstein realize the apartment they are in, is possibly bugged. In today’s day and age, we would text each other what we wanted the other to know if we couldn’t talk to each other directly, but Woodward and Bernstein had to actually sit down at a type writer, and type out what they wanted to tell each other, while the other looked over their shoulder.

 

Perhaps I would have gotten used to the pace of things back then, and not minded the slower and more rudimentary forms of communication, but having been raised in the internet age, I can’t imagine what a miracle today’s world must seem to those who actually lived through the technological dark age of the mid 1900s, and have a living memory of how it used to be.

What is the Role of a Journalist?

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Photo by Andrew Neel

 

A watchdog, a martyr for “the cause,” an advocate for the truth, and an occasional speedbump under some type of slow-moving bus—a journalist can be, and often is, all of these things and more. In a perfect world, journalists would be able to expose hard truths, bring unscrupulous behaviors to light, and be held up as heroes for doing such. In today’s world, journalists are more likely to be thrown in a jail cell for pursuing the truth, than be celebrated for their investigative research, especially when who they seek to expose happens to sit on a significant pile of cash.

 

Integrity isn’t cheap, and neither is an education, therefore journalists often face the dilemma of caving to what their employers need from them, or not being able to keep the lights on in their studio apartments. To be a journalist in today’s day and age, implies one will almost certainly be torn between two worlds: being true to their morals or being the best at “getting the scoop;” telling it like it is or telling it with a “spin;” putting their two cents into their story or turning a blind eye to blatant wrongdoings.

 

In many ways, America is steeped in an “opinion economy.” Everyone has something to say about everything. To be a journalist, is to be inherently counter-culture. It can be lonely. It can be frustrating and, at the end of the day, it can lead one to ask oneself, “why did I choose a life so culturally isolating and socially ostracizing?” Freedom of speech is only valuable if you have the freedom to speak—but about what? Certainly not your opinion—if you’re a journalist.

 

We fight so tenaciously for a right we can’t fully enjoy if we do our job faithfully. What an interesting dilemma to which we condemn ourselves. The public is losing faith in us. The president denounces our profession. Pundits are passing themselves off as “one of us,” and the public either can’t tell the difference, or cease to care. What went wrong? The money seems to be a major contributor to the downfall of objective and effective writing.

 

Traditional newspapers are seeing their sales fall. It’s harder to find ways to monetize our medium, and those we’ve vowed to police, are buying the channels through which we are supposed to be policing. Capitalism is both a blessing and a curse, a poison and a remedy, a hero, but one with a corruptible conscience, and in the information wars, the people are voting with their dollars and their clicks, and hard-hitting journalism is losing—badly.

 

What can we do? I don’t know. Most journalism seems to be turning into public relations, and when it’s not serving some corporate interest, it occupies its time by spewing out pop culture opinion pieces, both of which are, from what I’ve been taught, the antithesis of good journalism. The line between good and bad journalism is blurred, now, more than ever, and future journalists have their work cut out for them trying to distinguish where, and if, the line is going to exist in the years to come.