A couple of years back, lots of young people were wearing WWJD on t-shirts and wristbands. It stood for "What would Jesus Do?" and it was supposed to remind the wearer to consider the moral content of any proposed course of action. We can debate the authenticity–not to mention the depth–of such faddish expressions of religious devotion, but there is something to be said for the use of a standard to measure behavior. Accordingly, I hereby propose one.
A couple of years back, lots of young people were wearing WWJD on t-shirts and wristbands. It stood for “What would Jesus Do?” and it was supposed to remind the wearer to consider the moral content of any proposed course of action. We can debate the authenticity—not to mention the depth—of such faddish expressions of religious devotion, but there is something to be said for the use of a standard to measure behavior. Accordingly, I hereby propose one.
I suggest we evaluate the performance of our media outlets and political institutions by asking ourselves “What would Harrison say?”
In 2000, when Harrison Ullmann died, I wrote a column comparing him to the child in the fairy tale about the vain emperor and his clothes. Like that child, he would “ignore the politically correct pundits, the posturing wannabes and the fawning courtiers” to announce—hey, look at that—the emperor is stark naked! I can’t help wondering what Harrison would be writing if he were with us today.
- What would the man who described the Indiana General Assembly as “the world’s worst legislature” have to say about that anything-but-august body these days? How would he characterize the motley assortment of good-ole-boys, Elvis impersonators, culture warriors and gay-bashers whose only agenda items seem to be avoidance of taxes and refusal to live in the 21st Century?
- What would the man who looked askance at power and privilege, who railed against corporate welfare and pinstriped privilege, say about Halliburton, no-bid contracts, energy task forces and other elements of Washington’s rampant cronyism?
- How would the man who routinely condemned abuses of power have reacted to the Patriot Act, the revelations about Abu Ghraib, or the indefinite detentions at Guantanamo? (For that matter, what on earth would he have said about John Ashcroft?!)
- I can only imagine what the man who defended IPS and its teachers against ideologically motivated critiques would have written about the profoundly dishonest “No Child Left Behind” legislation, or how the man who cared so passionately about social justice would have characterized the “compassionate” conservatism of the Bush Administration. I don’t even want to imagine his reaction to recent disclosures that syndicated columnists have been accepting Bush Administration money to promote its agenda.
Five years after his death, I feel the loss of Harrison Ullmann more than ever, because if we have ever needed contrarian voices, fearless truth-tellers, and honest information brokers, we need them now.
Harrison and I were great friends, but we disagreed constantly. We argued about everything from the free market to labor unions to Unigov. Harrison’s voice was important not because he was always right (although he very frequently was), but because he was always principled. If he said something, you knew he believed it. He wasn’t part of some carefully constructed political echo chamber; he wasn’t providing “infotainment” or using controversy to generate ratings. He was telling like he saw it; he was incorruptible, passionate, and fearless.
And he was funny. I remember a column he wrote not long after the religious right started ranting about “the assault on family values.” In his very best matter-of-fact tone, Harrison wrote a column “describing” a meeting he had “infiltrated,” where the various villains—Democrats, Jews, gays, members of the “atheistic liberal media”—were plotting how they would destroy the American family. It was hysterical, and a much more effective demolition of radical right idiocy than a point-by-point exposition of the underlying political agenda would have been.
Harrison was always critical of “mainstream” newspaper and television reporting, but he would have been utterly appalled by what passes for news and analysis today. Ownership of media outlets has been increasingly concentrated in a small number of corporate moguls interested primarily in the bottom line, and the results are all around us. Talking heads shouting opinions are cheaper than reporters investigating and delivering news, so self-important “pundits” dominate television. Daily newspapers keep getting thinner; what’s left is more “human interest” and less actual news. Scott Peterson lies about an affair and kills his wife, and we hear about it ad nauseam; the President lies about weapons of mass destruction and kills thousands in an unnecessary war, and coverage is superficial and deferential.
Harrison was old-fashioned when it came to the profession of journalism. He believed it was the responsibility of the Fourth Estate to keep government honest—to be a watchdog, not a lapdog. He believed the media should be scrupulously independent, that it should report on government actions, not lobby for government favors.
If he were still with us, what on earth would Harrison say?