When the digits in your age include a seven and that's just the first number, there are few surprises left. One came in an afternoon conversation at a downtown coffee shop last Tuesday. Two questions from a companion likely less than half my age prompted some unanticipated reflections.
"What got you into journalism?" was the first. That answer was easy. "It was the '60s," I replied. "That's what idealistic young people aspired to do."
My first forays, inspired by a family friend who graduated from Grand Junction High School with my uncle and later produced Emmy-winning television programs, also came at GJHS. Legendary journalism teachers Lillian Larson and Shirley Vitus were my first editors. Journalism and radio-TV classes a few blocks away at what was then Mesa Junior College were among the very few that earned me passing grades during a less-than-stellar freshman year. Love, not ambition, took me to Arizona State University, resulting in both a journalism degree and marriage. Radio, television, the Associated Press and now print became a career path with occasional detours outside those lines.
The '60s and '70s were a heady time to be a young reporter. Vietnam War escalation and protests, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, farm workers strikes, assassinations, covering Arizona and Colorado politics, Watergate … all kept the juices flowing.
"What's different now?" was the second question. Last Tuesday, two possibilities came to mind.
"Things like right and wrong seemed more defined then," was my initial response, "There were few gray areas."
An aging memory recalls little middle ground in the debates about Vietnam and civil rights. Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta mobilized not only field workers but, more telling, consumers in their battle for decent wages and working conditions for those planting and harvesting our food because the realities of child labor, substandard housing and being sprayed with pesticides were pretty black and white.
Police dogs, batons and fire hoses deployed at Selma, hangings and other killings — all brought into our living rooms nightly — showed us the horrors of segregation. Watching Americans die in jungles and rice paddies half a world away within hours of those battles, not weeks later in sanitized news reels, had a major impact on public opinion regarding Vietnam.
What's different today seems clear. Much of it stems from the way we get our news.
In the '60s and '70s, I was taught in J-school, radio news provided immediacy, television added pictures, newspapers provided depth and magazines gave us perspective.
Good luck finding any original reporting on local radio stations these days. Public radio is the closest approximation to the heavily staffed commercial radio news operations I started out in. Television has usurped the immediacy game with the ability to go live anytime from almost anywhere. Newspapers battle new competitive realities and only the very best navigate the digital landscape effectively. Most magazines that provided perspective are either history or shadows of their former selves.
Back then, we relied on trusted primary news sources like ABC, CBS and NBC. Walter Cronkite's reporting and commentary are credited by many as the beginning of the end of our involvement in Vietnam. We tuned into Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. The big three networks had daily reports from banks of correspondents around the globe. Major newspapers had national and overseas bureaus. AP and UPI competed fiercely.
Today, we all have our own set of facts and few make a concerted effort to gain information from sources outside their comfort zone. Pick your poison according to your own ideology. There's Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC honoring your choice on cable television. Info-wars, Breitbart and Drudge appeal to the "Dittoheads." Huffington Post, Daily Koz, and Politico to others.
Years ago I stood in the back of a Washington Hilton ballroom with a longtime friend who's also spent his lifetime in news, listening to Ted Turner outline his vision for CNN and wondering how he'd fill time on a round-the-clock channel. CNN made its bones with reporting, perhaps mostly notably involving two of our fellow AP alums, John Holliman and Peter Arnett, from a hotel room overlooking Baghdad during the Gulf War. Now it's cheaper and easier to fill time with paid talking heads who shout over one another while Chris Cuomo eggs them on.
That's what's different. We're poorer for that.
Jim Spehar finds himself spending more time these days with what his journalist son once called "the boring people" on public radio. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org