Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"With great power there must also come great responsibility!"

The quote is From Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962), the comic in which the character Spider-Man first appeared. In the Spider-Man mythos, "with great power comes great responsibility" is the central core of Peter Parker's being, and the reason why he uses his abilities to fight crime. In the issue pictured above, he learned that lesson when a failure to use his powers to stop a criminal indirectly led to a chain of events resulting in the death of his uncle.

I bring this up because last night I flipped to Keith Olbermann's Countdown program on MSNBC to see his guest host and a commentator conducting a segment of the program in which they gossiped with each other about how Senator David Vitter's wife came to a press conference about his involvement in the DC Madam scandal looking like a prostitute (she was wearing a leapord print dress) and traded jokes about how possibly she dressed like a hussy in order to spite her husband for cheating on her.

Everyone involved in the production of that segment could benefit from reading Amazing Fantasy #15 and letting the moral sink in ... with great power there must also come great responsibility.

Being a journalist with a primetime program on a major television news network is a great privelege and a great power. Such a tv figure has a tremendous amount of influence relative to the avereage citizen to shape and influence public discourse. It took the human species hundreds of thousands of years to get to a point where we were in a position to even have such a thing as a journalist. Our founding fathers recognized this, which is why they included the freedom of the press in the very first amendment to the Constitution.

These people, they should consider their roles as guardians of the public good as a sacred duty. It is an honor, and with it comes great responsibility.

Which is what makes the aforementioned vapid, inane, and petty nonsense about Vitter's wife so dissapointing. It is a failure to exercise the power of the pulpit responsibly. It is a waste of precious time that could be used to raising the public conscioussness, to promoting the public good. See here for an example of how the story can be covered in such a way that actually does that.

"Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations." - Joseph Pulitzer, The North American Review (May 1904)

That's the kind of ethos we need in our pundits and journalists. The above is Pulitzer's way of saying "with great power comes great responsibility." Its not enough to be a pundit or a journalist, one must first and formost be a civic minded citizen. Otherwise journalism just devolves into market driven drivel and/or kabuki theatre which does little more than promote the status quo, which is what we've seen happening.

This reminds me of Jon Stewart's futile attempt to implore the hosts of CNN's Crossfire program a few years ago to start acting like responsible citizens. To this day, that is one of the greatest stands and calls for responsible civic journalism that I have witnessed in my lifetime. I'll provide the video below, and as you watch it, pay attention in particular to Tucker Carlson. He is unable to fathom, to even grasp, what Stewart's point is. He was completely incapable of engaging the subject in a serious manner.

That is just so sad. In Carlson's mind - and I think this goes for a large chunk of the media - they aren't doing anything wrong. They're doing they're jobs.

But they're not. As Stewart says, they are supposed to be helping us, but they are hurting America. That criticism is as true today as it was then. Please, journalists of America, as we live through these difficult and dangerous times for democracy, keep in mind with great power there must also come great responsibility!


John Elliot said...

Despite what Marvel and the movies would have us believe, this epic and powerful quote does not come from a Hollywood script writing team but from the revolutionary ridden and passionate literary haven that was 19th century France.

Credit has been given to Stan Lee writer of spider man, Franklin D Rosevelt and even Winston churchil at various stages, however the first literary record of this can be attributed to Francois-Marie Arouet aka Voltaire.

Much like Victor Hugo, Voltaire was disturbed by the sickening abuse of authority and privilege by those in power whilst the poor and deprived starved and suffered around him.

Much of Voltaire's work reflects on this theme, however it was in "Ĺ’uvres de Voltaire, Volume 48" that we first hear the direct use of this phrase.

If you can remember the name of this book during said argument in friday night pub ramble then you have definitely earned your pint.

Of course in Spiderman's case it was just as apt as when first directed at those who Voltaire believed to be wicked, corrupt and everything that was rotten in France at the time.

Anonymous said...

John Elliot,
I was surprised to find an even earlier reference to this oft miscredited quote! 1803-1817.

Parliamentary debates: official report : ... session of the ..., Volume 36, Page 1227
Thomas C. Hansard, Great Britain - History - 1803-1817

""He should however, remind the conductors of the press of their duty to apply to themselves a maxim which they never neglected to urge on the consideration of government--" that the possession of great power necessarily implies great responsibility"*+great-responsibility%22&lr=&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=1800&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=1900&as_brr=0&client=firefox-a&cd=1#v=onepage&q=%22great-power%20&f=false

Anonymous said...

Voltaire 21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778

'nuff said.