Richard Reeves, old tad reporter of the finest kind, tells us in salty, joyous prose exactly how and why journalism has metamorphosized. No fooling around.
And guess what, this former New York Timesman does not despair as much as one might expect over what he sees and reads these days. Reeves is a philosophical realist if there ever was one.
This latest Reeves book is based upon his Joanna Jackson Goodman Memorial Lecture on American Civilization and Government at the Library of Congress. “We the press may be going the way of blacksmiths,” he tells us. “Same job: punching out old stuff with useful but old-fashioned forms, like horseshoes. Or we could end up as bank tellers pushed aside for the automatic teller machines—ATM journalism with slots to deposit or withdraw news.” Yet, “we cannot stop the march of technology. It is a force of nature.”
Reeves cites the enormity of today’s technology companies—more than 10 times the size of the biggest media companies. Intel has 41,000 employees and 16 billion in revenues, while The New York Times and The Washington Post have a combined total of 19,000 employees and combined revenue of about four billion.
“The next changes could hit folks like me where it hurts, right in the old occupation. If the word goes audible, as I think it will, a lot of people, younger ones, may dictate better than I can write.
“My own worries about the technology have less to do with how I get my news than with how it is gathered and prepared for transmission. I worry about the future of writing—if it has a future. I exaggerate, of course. But I do see troubling portents in Windows 95, Microsoft’s pictographic and thus universal language, using icons and mice rather than letters and key stroking.”
So relax, old timers, a very new media is here, and we old tribesmen might as well stop grousing about it. We cannot do much about our owners—except to “Yell About It,” Reeves says.
This little gem of a book covers, with great gusto, the catalogue of current concerns in the news community.
Leaks: “No government is safe from leaks, no people are safe without them…(they) are the wild cards of governance. What the people know and when they know it are the engines of democracy. Leaks change the timing.”
He takes his measure, too, of celebrity journalism and news as entertainment. He notes that Tom Friedman of The New York Times today is considered in Washington as more influential in the formation of foreign policy than the old bulls of the foreign policy establishment. Not exactly a revelation to anyone.
As for the value of news in television front offices, Reeves wonders when the new network owners will have the confidence to rename their news shows the Westinghouse Evening News, the G.E. Nightly News, or the Disney World News.
“Where we can do something about it is truth telling,” Brother Reeves sermonizes. “That is where we, our rowdy tribe has to fight or die—or both.”
He drives on with more red meat. “Being persistent and consistent, we should be a little obnoxious in exposing again and again what is probably not true and real…to survive and serve, we have to make our corner the one to which men and women of good will can repair, can come to find or verify truth and accuracy in a society under siege.”
The ever-cheerful Reeves concludes on this positive note: “Perhaps our Humpty Dumpty rise and fall during the past couple of decades will teach us something. We are best as outsiders, trying to function as an early warning system, given the privilege of reporting back to a free nation.
“In fact we are most effective when we are insecure, doubting our inflated importance and self-importance and anybody’s ability to catch truth and history on the fly. We deserve to be and should be outsiders looking in—that’s all we are.”
For any young, middle-aged or the slow-footed, the sayings of Dick Reeves is the greatest feel-good elixir you will find. Only 130 pages long and a fresh and lusty nugget of wisdom appears on every one of them.
Dick Reeves, this icon of the old—and the new—journalism, will make working stiffs think twice if they are thinking of calling it quits.
Thomas Winship is former Editor of The Boston Globe and Chairman of The International Center for Journalists based in Washington, D.C.