Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Journalists and Javert

As I spent several months last year (with breaks) reading Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables, the character who left me most puzzled was the infamous Inspector Javert. His decades-long pursuit of Jean Valjean is so well known that his name is used by writers today to illustrate someone who will ruthlessly do whatever it takes to close a case and nab a suspect or anything that might parallel that.

But as I read the end of Les Mis, my heart softened toward the stony inspector. He is definitely an antagonist in the tale. Jean Valjean is a goodhearted peasant who only stole a single loaf of bread so he could feed his widowed sister and her children. He did escape from prison, but only after he had been there for years for a punishment that was not appropriate for the crime. But as Valjean tries to build a new life for himself, lay low, protect the innocent Cosette and give freely to the poor and otherwise disenfranchised, Javert is somehow always there and his singular goal of capturing Valjean is almost frightening.

SPOILER ALERT: But then, when Javert finally has Valjean, he lets him go. Not only that, but Javert’s inner battle between what he thinks must be his allegiance to the state and the police force and his own years of searching for Valjean on the one hand and the understanding that Valjean is a good man who made a rather minor mistake in life and has paid unceasingly for it on the other drives him mad. So mad that he commits suicide.

You have to feel compassion for Javert in a way. After all, Valjean was a criminal and Javert a police officer. In the beginning – in fact through most of the tale – he was simply doing his job. Valjean did escape from prison (several times) and if it hadn’t been for the good bishop, could have committed more heinous crimes. Javert must have thought he was just doing his duty and, in many ways, he was. But he had no compassion for Valjean, no recognition that he had repented of his sins and was spending the rest of his life trying to repay God and society for them. That lack of compassion, lack of recognition of other people’s humanity was Javert’s downfall. Once he realized the possible injustice of his long hunt for Valjean, he had invested so much of himself in it that the only response he felt he could make was suicide.

In many ways, I believe some of today’s journalists are like this. When big stories or scandals come out, they are at the most basic level just doing their job in reporting and writing them. No one can blame them for that. Most journalists I know and read have a strong dedication to their publication, to the public and to the nation in general. They believe (and the Constitution supports them in this) that a free press is essential to a healthy democracy. They value the role they play in that free press. But sometimes they get carried away. They lose focus. They invest so much of themselves in their jobs that they forget to put things in perspective and look at the big picture. They lose compassion for the subjects about whom they are reporting and writing and, in turn, lose compassion for the readers who trust them.

I don’t believe this is the cause of some of the more explosive journalism scandals of late – like Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley. Those two men in particular had a lot of personal problems that contributed to their professional and personal demise. But I do think this plays a part in misdirection of reporting, writing and editing and an unhealthy focus on certain aspects of the news. And not all journalists do this. But the few respected and experienced ones who do can create a culture in the newsroom that supports it. How do we eliminate it? I’m not sure. I think a lot of the blame lies with the pressure journalists feel to marry themselves to the newsroom and to lose themselves in their jobs. To stop that requires a whole rethinking of American journalism’s collective thought. But the answer that will not solve the problem is to dismiss journalism and journalists entirely. Most of them do a great job. It is only by recognizing both their faults AND their talents and accomplishments that things will change for the better.