Once again, the Atwood Chair of the Journalism and Public Communications, Richard Murphy, department came to speak to the class. He demonstrated his excellent knowledge in the field, a dedication to journalism almost unseen today, and showed a history that is not only important to Alaska, but left an impact all over the world.
It is still a memory that burns hard – the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Murphy talked about how he heard of it, with a phone call late at night. At first, he didn’t believe it. But he looked into it anyway, and because of that, started some of the great reporting in Alaska’s history.
The level of dedication to this story was absolutely amazing. The reporters who went down to Valdez were living in a crampt apartment that they rented. One story that was really telling of what a farce the reporting is with groups who are well-respected, like the New York Times was that one night, they just went to a press conference, and once it was over, hit the bar.
Murphy talked about what could be a film scene. All of the journalists are in that bar, having only listened to what the company told them. The camera pans back, outside. It is raining like crazy, miserable weather. Out there is a long Anchorage Daily News reporter, with his gear and a sleeping bag, headed to a ship where a group of volunteers, none of whom are getting paid, are going to collect birds to help.
This level of dedication served them well, and did change the conversation about this. When Exxon’s people had a press conference, and they were assuring the press that no animals had been harmed by this spill, one reporter holds up a copy of the Anchorage Daily News with a picture of a dead oil-covered bird, and asks, “then what is this?” A powerful moment in this discussion, and it shut everybody in the room up very quickly.
And the lies that Exxon was putting out there outrageous. The dead animals one was bad enough, but when the ADN published that the ship’s captain was drunk, they immediately retaliated by saying this was a lie, and that they were trying to deceive people. Never mind that the next day, they fired the captain for drunkenness.
What’s worse is that the government was also often complicit in their lies. The Coast Guard started to work to keep reporters away from the actual ship. They were helping to cover up the facts because they didn’t want to stop sucking at the tit of the money that these people brought in. Of course, this isn’t unusual. After the collapse of 2007, Congress very quickly came to the bank’s defense. But that’s off-topic.
One thing worth mentioning was that there was a lot of faith placed in a lot of people that couldn’t be done post-9/11. One journalist couldn’t get back to Anchorage to get his photos developed, so he grabbed a guy heading out on a plane, who he didn’t know, gave him the rolls of film in an envelope, and told him to call a number and get them to that person. They never lost a roll of film. That’s incredible.
Murphy remarked that some of the biggest news agencies just came and went, often doing no more than going to press conferences and listening to what Exxon told them. Which, of course, isn’t journalism. Not the good kind, anyway. But the Anchorage Daily News stayed there all summer.
He polished off this tale of the coverage of Exxon Valdez by remarking that there was one press-conference where everybody was, and Exxon promised all the people that they would help them. Now, 20 years later, they are in court still fighting to not have to keep their promises.
That remark led to the tragedy of journalism currently in Alaska. Murphy said that if something like Exxon Valdez happened now, the ADN wouldn’t even be able to charter a plane down. The top two floors of their building are being rented out to a film company. It is a graveyard in their news room. He seemed very saddened by this.
The leaving remark that Murphy brought was that journalists often thing that they can change the world. They can’t do that, but (and this is very important), they can change the conversation. They can direct what the nation is talking about. And this leads to the ultimate failure of the mainstream media – they aren’t getting people talking about anything. They are just saying stuff.
Murphy is a brilliant reporter, and has left a legacy most worthy or all the respect of journalists everywhere. He is everything that this industry should be, and the journalism industry will be losing a piece of itself when he leaves it.