By the lake

A meditation on journalism as a record of who we are

Last week, in the Science Times section of The New York Times, at the bottom of Page 3, there was a short piece about “an archeological site in the wetlands of Denmark” where a battle took place 2,000 years ago.

So far, weapons and 240 bodies have been found, males, from teenagers to those in their 50s. How many were involved is unclear. Only a small area has been excavated. Presumably there are more bodies to be found, a total of 400 maybe? There must be more who walked or limped away, probably at least as many.

This was in a time when a village in Scandinavia consisted of a few houses, when there were no great concentrations of population, when towns of a thousand people were rare. Something really big happened in the Alken Enge wetlands near Lake Mosso in East Jutland.

But nobody knows what.

We know about Troy at least 800 years before that; we know about the battle of Salamis 500 years before; we know something about when Abraham came into Egypt. But we do not know what brought huge forces to battle near Lake Mosso.

Telling the tale is a great Nordic tradition. Writing it down, not so much. Homer sang, but later men wrote it down. Pericles spoke, but a later man wrote about it. Aristotle taught, but other men wrote up the lecture notes.

The story of ourselves is passed down through preserving the words. The ideas, the opinions, the events, the prophecies, the idiocies are all preserved in words on stone and papyrus and paper and now in digits. And what the words do not encapsulate the world does not remember.

Writing is not proof against error. But it is a force against the ravages of time. All together, various press accounts will make a diary of what happened and later thinkers will try to winnow out who was right and what was behind the appearances. Other people’s diaries make the best reading.

This gives the press a double burden: to create as full an account as possible because we are describing a vast battle; and to be as accurate in that account as possible because it is not right to fool your children.

True, who got it right is important. But it is not the central question. Were we, in the main, good observers of what we could see and did we preserve it for others to see, hear and read —that is the question.

We are always fighting near the lake. We just want people to remember us and to understand what happened and maybe what it was for.

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Richard Wald is the Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society at Columbia Journalism School. Tags: , ,