In my book, the number one, cardinal rule of journalism is this: Tell the truth but never treat people with contempt. Especially when they have invited you in their homes, fed you from their tables, and opened up the private corners of their lives to you.

That's exactly what H.G. Bissinger did in his book "Friday Night Lights", about the 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas.

There's alot of truth in Friday Night Lights, both the book and the film--Odessa in 1988 was a place where the football team traveled by charter and had a multimullion dollar stadium while teachers lacked money for basic supplies; the team used up and spit out its players, especially the black ones--who were seen as expendable as soon they were injured or their talent used up.

But I stopped reading halfway through, when the George Bush, the first, came to town for a campaign stop. And Bissinger, who'd managed to be true and fair in the book, eviscerated the people of the town in his description of the Bush rally--describing the townspeople as redneck hicks who were too stupid or too blind to know what was good for them. It was painful to read--because the truth was lost in Bissinger's unadulterated contempt for Odessans.

I could no longer trust what he wrote. So I put the book away.

Sometimes people do contemptible things--the US Catholic bishops come to mind--and need to held accountable. And, at least in this interview, Bissinger says that his book caused people in Odessa to change:

I recently did go back in June to do a piece for Sports Illustrated. The town has changed. The town is much more enlightened about issues of race, issues of education, and they now admit, “You know, we didn’t like the book. Reluctantly we had to read it and we had to admit that there was a lot that was true and it forced us to change.”

If that's true, then Bissinger's book did what journalism does best--make people look themselves in the eye and if they don't like what they see, to do something about it.

BTW, that cardinal rule of mine is paraphrased from something that Terry Anderson said about being a Christian and a journalist:

"It it is impossible to be a Christian and a bad journalist. If you mislead, distort, treat the subjects of your story with contempt or disregard, exploit people in pain, which is what a bad journalist does, you are not a very good Christian are you?”


Powered by Blogger