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September 26, 2008
By John Trent
Veteran broadcast journalist Forrest Sawyer was all over the map, all over the country, all over just about every subject related to the future of journalism, the future of the Internet, the future of politics and the future of our world Thursday during a 45-minute discussion in the theater of the Joe Crowley Student Union on the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
Sawyer, mixing a good dose of humor with blunt, to-the-point perspective, kept the crowd of more than 100 – the majority of whom were students from the Reynolds School of Journalism – engaged in a lively and interesting conversation.
A sampling from Sawyer, who in an Emmy-winning career spanning nearly more than 30 years has worked at ABC, CBS and MSNBC, anchoring such news broadcasts as the award-winning newsmagazines “Turning Point” and “Day One” as well as “Good Morning America” “Nightline” and “World News Sunday”:
“This presidential campaign is a travesty,” Sawyer said at one point. “Considering the problems we have to address … and we’re talking about lipstick and hockey moms and there are (political) advertisements that are outright lies, (this) is an indictment of our political process.
“This is as bad as 2004, except the stakes are infinitely higher.”
Sawyer said that both Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama have chosen to focus on arguments that seem to trivialize much larger and important issues. Sawyer was asked at one point if he felt the media had shown bias in favor of Obama.
“There really is a lot of bias,” Sawyer said of the media’s coverage of the campaign. “A bias toward nonsense.”
Sawyer used global warming as an example of an issue that the media should focus on more intently.
The 59-year-old Sawyer, who began his academic career as a “hippie” wearing “sandals, shorts and Hawaiian shirts” at the University of Florida studying wildlife biology, said he was recently in the Arctic with the award-winning poet and environmental writer John Hart.
The two men were in agreement with what they were witnessing.
“The state of the environment?” Sawyer asked, noting the massive retreat of Arctic ice shelves and the recent report that Polar Bears, with their habitat in peril, have resorted to bizarre behavior such as cannibalism. “We are in so much trouble.”
He added: “The global (environmental) crisis and our use of resources hangs as the greatest threat to humanity.”
Sawyer, on a lighter note, counseled the would-be journalists in the room to not fear the increasingly electronic direction that news is currently taking.
He used his own experience of 15, 10, even five years ago as an example.
“I’d get a minute and a half to tell an incredibly complicated story – it was like writing a haiku,” he said, drawing widespread laughter from the audience.
With the Internet’s prominence on the media landscape, he said there are important opportunities for budding journalists to re-shape how stories are told and how they are delivered. Print journalism, he said, is on its last legs. “The dead tree business will be over very soon, and TV news will be extremely challenged,” he said.
With elements of journalism leaving traditional forms and converging on the Internet, Sawyer counseled journalistic versatility: “Learn everything in school you possibly can. I’d learn to shoot, edit and the basics of reading and writing and storytelling. Learn everything you need to learn in order to tell stories.”
With the fundamentals in hand, Sawyer said the possibilities for young journalists are actually quite exciting.
“Now, the question is, how do we go from data and knowledge to meaning and wisdom,” he said. To the student journalists in the room, he added, “I would pay tremendous attention to how the Internet is moving. It is fundamentally different. It has no gravity … it’s crazy, and it’s like the wild west.”
And, perhaps conjuring the young “hippie” who almost by accident fell into a broadcast career more than 35 years ago when his previous life’s goal was to study barnyard owls, he added, with a smile: “And one other thing. Dislike authority. Question authority. As the old saying goes, your job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.