Roger Ebert's passing today is heartbreaking to the writing community and to budding writers who need an example of what it is to have a voice in the world and use that voice to great effect.
Last year he quietly helped save the University of Illinois student newspaper at our mutual alma mater, the Daily Illini. It's where many young journalists first found their sea legs as writers. Champaign-Urbana, Illinois was his hometown and he kept the Midwestern quality of remembering where he came from, and offering support over the years. I still have a copy of his book A Kiss Is Still A Kiss where he wrote: "And Don't You Forget it!" on my dust jacket.
As a journalism freak from grade school onward I was more excited to meet Jack Anderson, Mike Royko and Roger Ebert than whoever was the pop star at the time (because I honestly wouldn't have known). One of my first Daily Illini articles was about a student whose battle with manic depression led to suicide. I went to his family's home for Thanksgiving at their invitation, and absorbed the heartbreak because as his father told me, "If this causes one child to call home and not think there's no way out it will be worth it." We cried all the way through to the pumpkin pie.
College newspapering led to a Chicago suburban paper job which eventually led to freelance with a side of social media or whatever this is now. Ebert practically invented the model of a reporter as an individual presence on Twitter. He led by example using his voice on the new platform as he, with the help of his wife Chaz, fought to keep his voice in life.
The first thing most modern media groups will tell you at a job interview is that in this new normal, your Twitter opinions will be screened, parsed and graded. And any discussion of politics is off the table. Had he not been a legend and supported in speaking out by the Sun Times, Roger Ebert probably wouldn't have lasted five minutes in a media atmosphere that can choke a writer's most important instrument -- his or her voice. He could rebut one of Sarah Palin's screeds, review the hell out a movie, talk about whatever was for dinner and riff on the news, all in one day of Twitter. As one will.
When 20th Century Fox boycotted At The Movies over a bad review in the '90s, Ebert and Gene Siskel held firm and the studio eventually capitulated. Hopefully with less terrible films. Because when you've sold your opinion to the highest bidder it can be dressed up in verbiage such as compensated influencer, brand advocate whatever godawful thing it's called next, but the fact remains that you may have become a shill. And it's hard to de-shill oneself when that particular bird has flown the coop.
Ebert never caved. His voice was bold, honest, logical, brilliant, decent, kind, hilarious, all the things our voices long to be when they grow up. Roger Ebert has left the aisle seat, but the truth remains the eternal truth. And don't you forget it.
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