“’The idea that truth is found on a deadline is absurd. Have some humility!’ Ahahah, man, when you said that…” cackles the over-dressed yet under-shaven intellectual type, quoting from his pocket notebook.
It was so new it practically had the wrapper still clinging to the fake leather.
Quoting a journalism teacher to his face, cliché. Quoting him from a little reporter’s notebook, automatic A.
The pre-lecture banter about last night’s guest lecturer was spilling over into a full-fledged class discussion. A hot topic amongst the communications department, most professors deemed the impromptu debate more necessary to the growth of the students as journalists than what their syllabus called for.
This professor happened to be a participant in the awkward meeting of minds.
His wrinkles squirmed like a grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner being prodded about his “wilder days.”
Professor Howie Good, his blood red face finally contorting into a Cheshire grin, sat calmly while the reaction poured in from his students about his performance.
Last night, during his “vendetta” as one onlooker described it, he couldn’t sit this still if world peace depended on it. The noise of his tapping foot was audible in the overcrowded lecture hall, despite being located directly above the boiler room.
The floor was literally shaking, and his nervous tick was more noticeable.
If his foot ever stopped dancing to the rhythm of angst, his fingers would nervously, tirelessly, scribble notes.
The angst, borderline anger, that stews inside Good at all times, boiled over when New York Times columnist Andy Lehrens scoffed at possible public skepticism.
After he delivered the explosive quote mimicked in class by the sport-coat wearing caveman, the ethics debate that Good and the rest of the crowd came for was imminent.
The atmosphere of the talk itself was so palpable, it soon became the story, not Wikileaks. The dialogue and the conflict were so juicy, my notes turned into a screenplay. The rest of the scene was so hectic, such a blur of exchanged barbs, backhanded compliments, and full-frontal assaults, countered by condescending, blanket statements on both sides, that a simple reading of my notes is more entertaining than any prose I could use to describe it.
Narrator – a student in the crowd
Prof. Howie Good – the Tragic Hero
New York Times reporter Andrew Lehren – the man, symbol of power
Prof. Jerry Persaud – the negotiator
Ottoway Professor John Larson – distinguished journalist, friend of Lehren’s
Italics – stage directions
Bold – internal monologue
“First of three traunches, 92,000 field reports, fourth of July weekend, total secrecy, Bradley Manning, cooperation between Pakistan and the Taliban…”
- Lehren: “My lawyers tell me not to answer that,” he says with a sheepish grin, a flash of self-importance emanating from his smile.
- Narrator: That smile may as well be an applause sign. Every attempt at humor, “computers do reporting ‘automagically,’” is followed by that toothy grin.
v “Second of three traunches, Task Force 77, analysis software to cut through 900,000 documents, drones are called UAV’s, attitudinal vs. revelatory, don’t kill the messenger…”
Good’s questions keep getting shut down. He wants his ethical debate and Andy is standing his ground. Good gets desperate and misses with a jab about the New York Times winning Pulitzers while covering up the truth, an implication of their willingness to distort truth. It is a stretch.
- Lehren – answering a long winded question from Good about God only knows what: “I do believe it has brought about positive change, specifically the way the American public views certain issues, but I think I am too close to judge the wide-lens view of the impact.”
- Narrator: Andy just used the “I’m just a reporter working on deadline” excuse in answering Good’s questions about “cutting through” documents and the possibility of misreporting what could be the truth. I waited for an outrageously paradoxical comparison to a Nazi soldier or cigarette executive from Good, one that fortunately never came.
v “Last of three traunches, diplomatic cables, Mubarak’s poodle, blonde busty nurse, international relations…”
- The Negotiator (in a manner that English majors would recognize as the quintessential foil to that of Good’s: calm, collected, non-combative): “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but none of this is new. It just reads like James Bond meets Harlequins Romance, because it is straight out of people’s diaries. People write feelings in diaries. Feelings can distort truth, and yet you carried the torch for the Wikileaks story as unfiltered truth.”
- Good: “Objectivity can be just as big a burden on truth as feelings. I’m just suggesting that finding a whole truth isn’t possible and that realization brings about better journalism. You used the words ‘cutting through’ before I believe, like a college kid cramming. You can miss things that way!” His eyes added the words “just admit it,” like a child’s eyes who has just argued his case successfully to an adult, yearning for a concession, or even a debate. Anything but a flat dismissal.
- o Andy: “ …but I have only five weeks, so if YOU want to hand sort this, go ahead.”
- Good: “But the idea that truth is found on a deadline is absurd. Have some humility!”
- Andy pulled the “reporter on a deadline” card one too many times for Howie. He snapped, and now I can feel the heart of the professor sitting in front of me sinking slowly into her stomach. She sits stoically, but it was only hours before that she spoke glowingly of this guest speaker. I don’t know if this is what she had in mind when she asked us, “let’s show Andy what a great journalism program we have here.”
- The Negotiator ends the uneasy silence.
The Negotiator: “ Your words here and work are invaluable, but what about Jordan? We’re covering Wikileaks and Egypt and Libya, but not Jordan.”
- This train is derailed and off-course. The chaos is dizzying.
- I swear I hear a mind-numbingly awkward rape analogy to journalism. I decide that voice has to be imaginary because of a lack of jaws on the floor.
- The room itself is deteriorating as factions in the crowd begin their own ethics discussions. Good squirms and begins to make guttural noises as his filter kicks in again.
- The Negotiator mouths to Andy, “I don’t blame you, but he is right,” while pointing to Good. I say mouths because when the words came out, the context made them sound a lot more like “get off your high horse” than what was actually said.
- Good has succeeded. He has won the crowd, and hence, the argument. Students giggle with every thrown stone, and the laughter has risen to a decibel just loud enough to bring a smile to his face. John Larson rises from his seat to address the room, jumping at the first chance to end this assault on his friend and colleague Andy.
- Larson: “Thank you all, this has been a healthy debate about truth. Truth is a continuing body of work. No Truth, just truths.” And lies.
The boiler shut off and the floor stopped shaking at 6:20 p.m., just as the festivities wrapped up.
Stability and order return once the questions go silent.
“I just don’t understand what he came here to talk about if not the ethics behind releasing classified documents…” – half of the class.
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or stick up for him, because he was obviously caught off guard…” – other half of the class.
Who said what is unimportant to Howie. The fact remains that while Good won, the evils of journalism are no closer to being banished.