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Journalist's death sparks community forum

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2010

If you're reading this, you've either picked up a newspaper or visited a newspaper's website. Chances are, you have at least a passing interest in the way news is gathered, disseminated and accessed by the public, as well as an opinion on the huge changes currently rocking the industry.

Whether you believe traditional journalism has entered an inevitable decline, or that technology has opened up brilliant new possibilities for the field, a community forum scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday at KTOO will give you chance to express your opinion and listen to the opinions of others.

As the forum's name makes clear, "Waking Daniel Schorr" was put together in part in response to the death of 93-year-old journalist Daniel Schorr. Organizer Grace Elliott, a local educator, storyteller, and longtime KTOO radio DJ, said that Schorr's death came as an unpleasant shock to her, galvanizing her into action.

"It literally kind of took my breath away," she said. "I thought it was such a loss."

"He had this incredible body of life experience," she continued. "Without even trying, he was a historian because he'd been analyzing and reporting the news his whole life."

His death forced her to think about who, in the confusion of a rapidly-changing industry, would step up to fill those shoes. And it made her nervous.

"It made me feel a little less safe in the world," she said.

As she spoke with others in the community about Schorr's death, including Capital City Weekly Editor Katie Spielberger, she found the topic fertile ground for interesting exchanges, and began formulating a plan to bring community members together.

Like a traditional wake, the event will focus on the impact Schorr had on people's lives during his 60-year career as a reporter and commentator, and, in a broader way, what the loss of journalists of his stature means for our culture.

Schorr's death came on the heels of others in the field - Walter Cronkite, who died in 2009 after a long career as an anchorman on CBS News, and newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, who died in 2007. Elliott said all three exemplified a type of traditional journalism that many feel is passing out of existence.

"We're losing all these old legends who were champions, really, for the facts and the truth of the story." she said.

Stark reports and images from the Vietnam War, for example, helped bring that violence to an end, she said; now, journalists are often imbedded with the military and lines are blurred. People get their news in fast bursts, often from the Internet, where anyone with "an opinion and a blog" can espouse variations of the truth with little recourse.

"New media has generated this fervor to be fast," she said. "(There's a) pressure to appeal to a younger audience."

Elliott also cited the recent debacle over the White House's firing of USDA worker Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod lost her job after widespread circulation of a video excerpt, in which her comments on race were taken completely out of context. She was later given a formal apology.

Elliott said Friday's event is meant to be a conversation, and she doesn't have a big attachment to a definitive conclusion or outcome.

"We're hoping to keep it somewhat unstructured in the sense that it's not a debate or panel discussion, where people have to come with their point of view intact," she said. "We're hoping it will be more of an exchange."

She said she'll get things started with a brief description of why she wanted to convene the forum, but after that will step back and let the discussion progress naturally.

"There isn't an agenda because we're going to discover it from each other," she said.

She's invited people from media outlets -the KTOO newsroom, the Empire, and the Capital City Weekly - as well as those not directly associated with the industry. She hopes to attract a wide range of people - old and young, liberal and conservative - and said that if all goes well, she'll help facilitate similar events centering on other issues in the future.

Though she knows summer is a tough time to get people to come to events, she said she just had to move now.

"Sometimes when a great person dies, it's almost like their leaving creates a vacuum, and there's this wind behind it that kind of pulls you along."

Contact Arts editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com



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