Death of journalism icon highlights what new media misses

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Author: Sam Van Buren

 

In a 1996 interview, Mike Wallace looked the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, in the eye and told him Nigeria is “the most corrupt nation in Africa . . . [and] it could be the most corrupt nation in the world.” His assertion visibly upset Farrakhan, who had recently spent time in Nigeria on a tour of African nations, and set him off on a memorable critique of moral judgment and American society. Only in person and during a televised interview could an interviewer like Wallace, even with his immense talent, push his subject and set up Farrakhan for such a passionate response.

Wallace set the standard for investigative journalism with his self-proclaimed nosy and insistent interviewing style that got to the heart of the stories he reported. Subversively suave, he was calmly able to ask the tough and uncomfortable questions with confidence and sincerity. Wallace’s death coincides with a turning point in the swift emergence of new media and the fading of the old. While the Internet and mobile technologies have made it possible for people to communicate across increasingly long distances, the same technological innovations also act as a buffer between individuals and subsequently affect the way that news is reported.

News stories today are told with less of the insight and knowledge that one can only gain in face-to-face interactions. Wallace’s journalistic magic was in his presence, and his presence in turn allowed him to portray the essence of his subjects. The buffering effect of contemporary media, however, allows a subject to guard emotion and develop responses that would otherwise reveal something different in person. The exchanges that occur in new media need to cultivate the type of presence Wallace perfected and that is needed for in-depth and meaningful reporting.

Long before Google, Twitter or online newspapers existed, the major sources of news were limited to radio, print media and a few television networks. After he found his start in radio, Wallace eventually established himself on television in the 1950s. Never one to beat around the bush, Wallace used his medium to push the buttons of his interviewees on camera. As an interviewer and with an unusually personable air, he could develop personal connections within minutes and draw meaty and complex answers out of his subjects. He knew how to read people, persuade people and manipulate high profile celebrities or diplomats into giving answers that dug beneath their surfaces.

Only on television could such a presence be understood and appreciated. In contrast, Twitter posts, blog posts and brief news articles cannot come close to approaching the depth of a televised interview. There are new media outlets, such as YouTube channels and TED Talks, which could provide the same type of presentation that television provided for Wallace, but with so many competing mediums, the challenge attracts viewers to watch a longer interview rather than glancing at a quick headline typed in abbreviations and acronyms.

The separation that technology has created between people turns new mediums of reporting into an impersonal dialogue, losing much of the richness of Wallace’s probing interviews. In one sense, a depersonalization of material means objectivity, which is necessary for unbiased reporting. On the other hand, reaching the motives and drives of the news itself requires a new level of digging. This digging can only come from face-to-face interviews, candid discussions and interactions. Not that new media reporting inhibits face-to-face contact, but it discourages the personal connections of a person’s physical presence by providing alternate and distance modes of communication. Even webcasts become a form of pseudo-face-to face contact, separating the interviewer and subject without providing the necessary physical presence.

New media certainly has all the advantages that contemporary technology has offered communication. From the computer to the tablet to the smart phone, news and information can be gathered instantaneously almost anywhere. The immediacy of information is incredible, allowing someone to process more and more information. Eventually, as the AT&T ads suggest, everyone will be saying, “that was so 27 seconds ago.” But when does the bombardment of information become too much, and when does it lose its substance? The confinements of a newspaper or a television interview make every story more valuable by virtue of the space it takes up. It is up to a reporter to get dense information to fill in those precious spaces or on-air minutes. Dense information can only come from pursuing a story to its source, Wallace’s own unique attribute. Only the medium of television and one-on-one interviews allow that kind of  insight into stories. New media is capable of providing the personal qualities and presence that distinguished Wallace on television, it just has to find a way to promote and attract viewers over the quicker, more limited ways to report the news.

 

Sam Van Buren is an undeclared sophomore. He can be reached at vanburen@oxy.edu

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