Notes from the VisCom Classroom: News as History

When does news become history, and when does history become ancient history?

I was thinking about these questions during a slide talk by Scott Applewhite, White House photographer for the Associated Press. Applewhite recently visited the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, where I teach journalism and visual communications. Applewhite, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize, was here in conjunction with “The American President,” a traveling exhibit of AP photographs on display at the Thomas Cooper Library through Oct. 9.

Thanks to the library and Charles Bierbauer, Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, the university community was able to learn about the art of photographing U.S. presidents from a veteran photojournalist.

Some of my photography students were in the audience, lured no doubt by the promise of extra-credit points. Their assignment: tell me in one page what you learned from listening to Applewhite and viewing the photographs.

Most of my students are in their late teens or early twenties, which means that the first president they were aware of as they grew up was probably Bill Clinton (a sobering thought). On the other hand, I can remember standing with my parents on a Manhattan street corner one chilly evening, waiting to catch a glimpse of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy as he rode by in a limo. Kennedy is real to me in some fundamental way. But to my students, is he any more real than Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt?

The Ring of News

Many of the classic photographs Applewhite showed and discussed — the terrible day in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson lifting his pet beagle by the ears, Richard Nixon looking at his watch while greeting a line of well-wishers, Ronald Reagan being shot — must have seemed like ancient history to my students. But for me, they still have the ring of news.

As a newspaper photographer in Oregon, I photographed Reagan and Jimmy Carter during their primary-campaign visits. Before that, I was on the picket lines, protesting Johnson’s, and later Nixon’s, policies in Southeast Asia. Some of my students, I am sure, will feel similar connections when they show their children (and maybe their students) news photographs of the current historic U.S. presidential election.

Based on what my students wrote about Applewhite’s slide talk, I know that they connected with what he had to show and say because of his passion for photojournalism. They seem to understand the difference between a candid moment, captured for posterity, and a staged photo-op. They also learned that it is not the photojournalist’s job to judge or interpret, but to record.

The only thing that keeps a journalist going is passion — why else would so many professionals endure the long hours of hard work, the endless waiting around for something to happen, the vagaries of travel, and the risk to life and limb in dangerous situations? I think everyone in attendance came away with a new (or renewed) appreciation for the vitally important job journalists do.

The Importance of Journalism

After the slide talk, it was my good fortune to attend a dinner with Applewhite, hosted by Bierbauer, who spent 20 years working for CNN in Washington, including nine as the network’s senior White House correspondent. As is usually the case when journalists gather after hours, war stories (both literal and figurative) dominated the conversation. Here was an opportunity for me to answer a more expansive version of the question I had posed: what could I learn from these veterans about the importance of journalism?

We live in an age when anyone with an Internet address can claim to be a journalist. Many young people today get their news from Comedy Central rather than from CNN.

We who teach and practice journalism have two choices. We can wring our hands and bemoan the situation. Or, we can make a convincing case for why journalism — in the most honorable sense of the word — matters. At our dinner the other night, Applewhite and Bierbauer did just that. Journalism matters because getting the story and telling it “without fear or favor” is the only way a democratic society can survive and flourish.

When I listen to journalists talk, I am often struck by how seriously they take their work and the job requirements that go with it, such as accuracy, objectivity, balance, and fairness. Journalism is, by and large, a job that brings great wealth and fame to only a few. But the profession calls out, and people — many highly qualified, some not so — answer the call.

The next time you hear someone, as I did today, blaming the media for some or all of society’s ills, ask yourself this question: would you rather live in a country that has a limited and tightly controlled press? Would you favor restrictions on press freedom or the licensing of journalists by the government? Would our democratic society be better served by less press scrutiny of its institutions (say, for example, the banking industry) or more?

Students Respond

Now back to Applewhite’s history lesson. The Associated Press has been covering the U.S. president for more than 150 years. Its WirePhoto service has been around since 1935, providing photographs for the nation’s newspapers and magazines. After attending Applewhite’s slide talk, one of my students wrote that she had been largely unaware of the role photography plays in shaping peoples’ opinions of their leaders. This gave her newfound respect for photography as a profession.

Another student wrote about the power of photography to humanize those holding high office, making them seem less stiff and formal. Finally, a third student wrote that seeing the AP photographs and hearing Applewhite talk made her anxious to overcome her own self-doubt and more enthusiastic about shooting her next photography assignment for class — music to any photography instructor’s ears!


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