August 22, 2012

1953. Bill Downs on Journalism - "The Armor of Cynicism"

Bill Downs: This I Believe
Bill Downs in Germany, 1947
Bill Downs contributed this piece to Edward R. Murrow's "This I Believe" series in the 1950s.

The Armor of Cynicism
A news reporter, which I've been for half of my life, is required to be a cynic. The attitude is, in a sense, a scientific technique of our craft, since the job requires close observation of men in every conceivable position, disposition, and indisposition. Among other things, we are supposed to spot the toes of clay splaying out from under the pearl-gray spats, or the cloven hoof encased in the jackboot, before anyone else.

Cynicism also is the touchstone of a reporter's alchemy through which he hopes to discover that nonexistent load called "objectivity." For as a set of philosophers, the only true objective reporter is the dead one.

Also, cynicism is a form of armor in which a reporter wraps himself for protection. There is nothing more disillusioned than a disillusioned newsman, and the effect on his work can be disastrous. Not that there is anything special about the people who cover the news—they are as cantankerous, dishonest, noble, cowardly, mean, ridiculous, courageous, and truthful as the ordinary run of people. But they do have a special place in our society in that they are the day-to-day historians.

But in covering news over the period that stretches from our Great Depression to our Great Debate, a philosophy does develop. We're all pretty miserable and inadequate creatures who often get ourselves in impossible situations and positions. We never seem to quite fully succeed or completely fail, which is some comfort in this Atomic Age, but not much.

I believe that the only protection that man has against himself is the trust and confidence of his friends. For example, my cynicism tells me that the man who makes a career of "people-hunting" or "people-hating" is a man who desperately fears being chased or not loved. Knowing this does not make this man any less dangerous—witness the dedicated communist or the bigot—but against these people the individual has only the defense of the collective security of the friends who believe in him. I believe the same pattern applies in international relations.

My favorite story on this subject is the one that was being whispered in Moscow when I was assigned there for CBS back in 1943. It concerns a hapless individual, running down the street in a Russian village, his clothing flung over one arm and a loaf of bread tucked under the other. "Pavel," a friend calls, "where are you running to?" "Haven’t you heard?" Pavel replies. "Tomorrow they’re going to sterilize all kangaroos." "But there are no kangaroos in the Ukraine," the friend declares. "Yes," answers Pavel, "but can you prove that you're not one?"

I am personally ashamed that men have to prove that they are not "kangaroos." When bigots attack a colored man, I ashamed that my skin also is white. During the War, in Amsterdam, I felt shame because a starving mother wept over a can of beans for her child; I was ashamed of my fat. And on D-Day, and again later in Korea, I had a sense of shame at being alive when so many around me had to die. When this kind of shame is banished from the Earth, then perhaps we will have that civilization man has been striving for, for so many centuries.

I would like to speak one more word in defense of cynicism. The connotation of the word is that of contemptuousness, distrust, and currishness. But if you take out your dictionary, you'll find another and older definition of the cynic. You'll find that back in the golden days of Greece, he was the member of a school of philosophers who taught that virtue was the only good and that its essence lies in self-control and independence. I like that, but I make no pretensions that I'll ever be able to live up to it.