Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Journalistic Voices of Tom Hayden

This weekend I was in Los Angeles for the West Coast Youth Journalism Conference, sponsored by Campus Progress and The Nation Magazine. I stayed with a group of students who write the La Gente news magazine at UCLA.

One of the authors at the conference who really struck me was Tom Hayden, co-founder of the SDS movement at the University of Michigan. It was Tom Hayden who primarily wrote the famous Port Huron Statement in 1962, which popularized the idea of 'participatory democracy', argued against racial bigotry and nuclear armament. As a panel speaker along with big names like the publisher and editor of The Nation, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, professor of law Patricia Williams, and columnist Marc Cooper, he argued about how the 2008 election should be covered by journalists, what they thought about "objectivity" in journalism, and the issue of race and class in America. As time was running short, Tom wanted to stress that we are at war right now, and sustained the discussion for a bit longer than the organizers had in mind in order to dwell on war-time media.

Tom said that he had been able to cover a march Dr. King was involved in during the 60s in L.A. He was a student journalist in Michigan who was trying to glean quotes from Dr. King as he quasi-participated in the march, and said that he initially was trying to make some kind of big name for himself in covering the civil rights movement. When he finally was able to speak with Dr. King, King asked why Tom was not himself active in the movement and urged the young student to participate. When challenged about his own values, Tom decided that any kind of objectivity in reporting was a smoke screen.

These values are not universally observed, and hence striving for them is like holding up an image of a false god. For writers who think they can be detached and indifferent and know what is going on, Tom said they claim to know what is going on, but they don't really know. What Tom felt is important is what journalism calls the voice, which exposes the character, the advocacy and the value of the piece. In that sense the contribution that journalists make to society is by providing information and argument to force.

He continued to embed himself in the civil rights movement, but increasingly as an activist who told the stories of the 60s movement with force. I was able to ask him after the panel discussion a question which I was desirous to hear someone with a lot of experience as both a journalist, activist, and a politician answer.

I asked if he thought it was possible to flow in and out of various voices in journalism. Say, at one point you're telling the story from a first person point-of-view about an event, and the next you're writing a factual summary news piece about what the event is. That seems easy to say in writing, but is that practically possible and how, I wondered. Tom responded that yes, it's possible, but also very difficult. Successful journalists can be maladjusted. But journalists build a reputation, of course, and nuancing a reputation is often difficult to achieve. If one becomes a celebrity as an activist, or as an actor, or as a pop star, it seems that one often lives the rest of their life in the shadow of those events. Tom will always be remembered as a perennial activist, though he has many other voices. As Tom grew older, and became more active in drafting political documents for legislation, Tom's writing style changed, he recognized. His voice changed. His devices changed. He changed.

So, of course you can built different reputations over time. The question I was interested in was whether one can reputably commit oneself to several voices simultaneously and can be trusted to do each of them well. For example, if one begins to earn a reputation for advocacy journalism, can one make the switch when necessary to the mythical "objective" journalistic voice that field reporters are supposed to have. If I earn a reputation for covering youth activism with an certain advocacy voice can I also earn a reputation for covering, say, complex legal cases with a different kind of standard?

By way of response, Tom asked whether I had read the book Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. I think Tom is absolutely right in bringing up the themes in this book, which have much to do with self-identity and self-denial. Siddhartha at one point feels that he is constantly trapped in a cycle of constantly losing and regaining the self, and decides that there is a better path to enlightenment. In Siddhartha’s lifetime, at various times he becomes suspicious that one path may lead to a dead end, and he quickly changes his course. He continues to follow whatever path makes itself available if he has clearly not yet reached Enlightenment. Siddhartha goes from place to place, experimenting with all sorts of teachers, philosophies, and lives their lives. Soon, he decides he cannot reach Nirvana their way and he leaves when the time is appropriate. Though Siddhartha's friend, Govinda, stays within the traditions of the Buddhists and Hindus, Siddhartha is even ready to deny the teachers and spiritual life altogether and search for Enlightenment in secular life.

Now, I don't consider myself a Buddhist - (though what Buddhist ever has?) - but I think the metaphor is apt. As one grows over time, you develop different voices and different ways of relating to society through writing. There may have been various aspects of my writing, and my views that fit with a kind of orthodoxy, but as Siddhartha was more open than Govinda, one must has to be willing to accept that the search for a "path" in the first place may be futile. The voices in journalism reflect varying sensibilities, and each place that Siddhartha went to, he had a different voice as a participant-observer in their communities. Yet all the while neither the communities, the secular world, nor does Siddhartha himself have something more than subjective truth. The wide open universe, to which there is no path, is not reducible to an enlightenment experience, so deliberate and aggressive pursuits of some kind of objectivity - while it has its place - leads us further from really experiencing the world and telling about the struggles it contains.

"Good luck with SDS," Tom told me, and then he disappeared in a sea of students.

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