Sunday, April 20, 2008

From the "Still Kicking" file

Much to my surprise, life is still going on six years down the road from my diagnosis. I was caught off guard last month when I learned that the Alaska Press Club had chosen to honor me with its second annual First Amendment Award. Which meant giving a speech.

Various worst-case scenarios flashed in front of my eyes: Freezing, shuffling up to the lectern and whispering. Or speaking loudly and clearly, and saying something brainless. (Opening joke considered and rejected: "Boy, am I glad I had speech therapy!" And yes, I did practice my kegels as much as my speech.)

As it turned out, the scariest thing that happened was that I had to follow the fabulous Leonard Pitts.

Here is what I said.

At a time when so many distinguished Alaskans are quietly thanking their stars for their 5th amendment right to remain silent, it's great to be at an event that celebrates the right to speak out.

The best way for me to tell you how honored I am to receive this award is to say how proud and excited I was last year when you gave the first one to my friend John McKay.

This award recognizes more than the work that I have done. The cartoons that I have created absolutely would not exist without the extraordinary support of a line of editorial page editors who appreciate what both of our jobs are about. They have been my coaches, my teachers, and my friends.

Editorial cartoonists are becoming the rare Ivory-billed Woodpeckers of the journalism world. The fact that the Anchorage Daily News supports a staff cartoonist is unusual to say the least. So this award also recognizes the commitment of the management of the Daily News and McClatchy, from Pat up the line.

And I would be way out of line not to mention my wife Pam, whose foresight, smarts and patience have kept me drawing way past the time Parkinson's would have sidelined me.

There's a story about an irascible old Hearst editor, who, when asked "Is a cartoonist a journalist?" replied "Is a barnacle a ship?" The ship here is a bunch of smart, dedicated and courageous reporters and editors at news organizations across this state doing the job of digging up the news. Or, as I think of it, "my material". Maybe "leech" would be a better term than barnacle. But of course, when it's time to keel-haul somebody, it's good to have a few barnacles on the hull.

The whole idea that someone can make a living making drawings is improbable - and wonderful - enough in itself. But as I look back over a quarter century it seems even more amazing when I remember the depressingly regular bulletins announcing the imminent death of the newspaper business. And we can look back farther to see obituaries for the newspaper being written back when radio and TV were new. And now Radio, TV and print journalists are all together in our boat, sailing toward what often seems like Web Armageddon.

But, silver lining! Armageddon is terrific copy. In fact, many years ago a bunch of reporters were gathered in the Mermac lounge debating the question of "What would be the greatest news story?" They were settling on the grand finale, the final world-ending confrontation between light and darkness, good and evil, Coke and Pepsi,... when it hit then-reporter Howard Weaver that he had a better story he wanted to tell. The story of The Creation.

Dateline: The Void. In the beginning was the word. A journalist has to love that.

Well lucky us! That is right where we are this very moment. We are being showered with new tools and opportunities to tell stories. Those of us in this room will invent the techniques and sort through the values that are the template for those that follow. The advent of the Web made it possible to redefine myself from cartoonist to cartoonist/writer/musician/animator at a time when PD has been tryng to define me as "disabled". Imagine what it can do for you.

Seize those tools, those opportunities. Because we have a job to do.

Today, in addition to the familiar enemies of free speech, we have a new one: The combination of trivialization of the news, compounded by the raw sewage being dumped into the debate that obscures everything from the truth about Global Warming to the truth about John McCain's non-existent bi-racial love child. All of which festers on the Web which happily disseminates lies and truth without discrimination.

This leaves the distracted and harried citizen with a huge problem when it comes time to make the judgments that democracy requires. Many decide it's not worth the trouble.

This was brought home to me most forcefully by a ruling from Judge John Sedwick in a change of venue decision in the Kohring trial. The judge found that there was no need for a change because, quote:

"To put it bluntly, a surprising number of prospective jurors are just not interested in, and do not follow, local news. "Many don't even read local newspapers. Many do not watch the local news on television. Among those who do read the newspaper, many simply glance at the local news headlines while moving on to areas of interest such as sports or gardening."

To which I would add "OUCH!"

The trivialization and pollution of the news leaves the First Amendment vulnerable in a way that is particularly ignoble. With little of actual significance to protect, it will wither. With little of actual significance at stake, what's the point?

It's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen. I can't imagine a better group to entrust this to. Alaska journalists are smart, dedicated and creative. We've got a limitless supply of compelling stories to tell in this state. We've got exciting new ways to tell them.

Our craft is essential, as the founders recognized in amending the Constitution to protect it centuries ago. It's no less important now. We must engage citizens in the job they have to do. If we manage that, we will do work worthy of the protection conferred by the First Amendment.

And that is the best we can do.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...The fact that the Anchorage Daily News supports a staff cartoonist is unusual to say the least. So this award also recognizes the commitment of the management of the Daily News and McClatchy, from Pat up the line."

I can't help but notice the irony of your generous acknowlegement of the McClatchy Machine.

Pearls before Swine - there may be better metaphors, but none come to mind.

Helluva speech, BTW.