A few weeks back, I took in an awards luncheon that recognized minority entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area.
Part of the program involved a 30-minute session delivered by a “motivational speaker.”
I admire people that get paid a decent buck to come up with zippy one-liners and plays on words that drive some people to reassess their state in life. But in general, I do not have much use for motivational speakers or the books and tapes they try to sell when they motivationally speak.
When my cheese moves, I know exactly who did it and why.
I need little external motivation to find a new hunk.
But during that half-hour of free motivation, the speaker-turned-preacher named Delatorro L. McNeal II used one story that I found worth passing on.
I do not know where he heard it first, but since I heard it first from him, I’ll attribute it to McNeal.
A runner each day gets up in the morning and heads out along the same route through the neighborhood.
Each day, the runner passes a house where an old man sits on the porch in a rocker and next to him lays a dog howling in pain.
The runner continues the drill day after day. And each day the runner passes the house, the man in the rocker and the howling dog appeared.
After many weeks, the runner just cannot take it anymore and veers of course and up to the front porch.
“I have run by here every day for weeks,” the runner says to the man. “Can you please tell me why that dog howls in pain so much every day?”
The man leans forward in the rocking chair and says to the runner: “That’s because the dog is lying on a nail.”
The exasperated runner steps closer to the man and says:
“Well, why the hell doesn’t the dog move?”
And the old man leans forward and says to the runner:
“I guess it doesn’t hurt ‘em bad enough.”
I heard the story one week into my term as president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
I quickly connected McNeal’s story to the media, journalists and yes, even SPJ in the fall 2003.
When it comes to howling – combined with a singular unwillingness to “move off the nail” – the media, journalists and organizations dedicated to serving journalists might set the standard.
We howl about the increasing ease with which government at all levels takes away the public’s right to know under the guise of making people safer. But how many working journalists, newsroom leaders and media corporation leaders day in and day out take on as a top priority the fight against it?
We howl about the fractured nature of journalism organizations and their general unwillingness to work together in an ongoing, consistent way to address all kinds of industry ills. Yet, in my experience from the past 15 years, that unwillingness remains the rule.
We howl about efforts to dismantle journalism programs at our colleges and universities, and with them, the student media on the campuses. But the drill goes on, and in most cases, the fight is limited to a handful.
We howl about the inability of journalism programs to attract the best and brightest among college-bound students. And we howl about journalism’s inability to keep those best and brightest in the business. And they leave.
We howl about ethical breaches that cripple journalism’s ability to engage readers, viewers, listeners and surfers. Yet those who commit the breaches gain fame and fortune, and even live on to pontificate in columns for media outlets willing to trade on their notoriety.
We howl about the lack of diversity in our coverage, in our newsrooms and among our sources. How much better is it in 2003 for all that howling?
The list of howling opportunities will grow, and you and I, on any given day, will contribute to the din.
So what can we and SPJ do?
During my installation speech at the SPJ National Convention in Tampa, I offered this view: SPJ now approaches being 100 years old. Journalism goes back forever. Cave dwellers filed daily copy on the walls of their homes.
With passing time comes an increasing level of comfort. With each day, the pain we tolerate – the nail – becomes a little more bearable, a little less uncomfortable.
SPJ and journalists everywhere need to look very closely at what we do each day as if each day we practice the craft will be the last – unless we make the right choices and move.
That’s an individual commitment that can lead to a collective good.
Yes, we journalists all get painted with the same brush, I explained in Tampa.
So what we need in the industry brush and the SPJ brush is strong, dedicated and quality bristles if the painting job is to succeed.
So today, if you feel the slightest bit of discomfort about anything that is journalism, help me and SPJ and your colleagues by quickly moving off the nail.
Gordon “Mac” McKerral, SPJ president, lives in Tampa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.