Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Broken News

Breaking news
Originally uploaded by dooce
"Film at 11:00" is the way they used to say it. That was the teaser used by television stations to alert viewers that there would be some visual to add interest to the talking heads reporting the evening news. That's when news was a serious matter, perhaps so much so as to be a bit dull.

All that has changed. It now appears that events become worthy of mention as news not because of their significance but because there is video. Local television stations report car chases from the other side of the country just because they have film taken from the traffic chopper. It drives me nuts.

I have a high regard for the contribution journalism makes to society. My oldest son is a professional journalist, a career path I once imagined for myself before I got diverted, whether for good or ill. I'm proud of my son's career and he and I have had many conversations about journalistic ethics. I've learned a lot from his experiences. I am not a persistent critic of print or electronic journalism. I'm something of a media junkie myself and probably spend way too much time with newspapers and news channels.

However, this "Breaking News" thing is just too much. It apparently is calculated to lend a sense of immediacy and urgency to a story. But what results is that the lead story becomes whatever is the most immediate traffic accident, hold-up at the 7-Eleven, or Brittany Spears DUI. It all depends, of course, on whether there is video.

It's becoming a joke, but in my opinion it isn't funny. The trivialization of local news, which seems to be happening around the country, is having a debilitating affect on the sharing of information necessary to the building of community.

Breaking news
Originally uploaded by
Naeem Rashid
We live in a very complex world in which information is the most important commodity. I find it disturbing to see a program like Larry King Live, a nightly hour-long interview show, devote night after night to high profile crimes, usually those involving beautiful white women. Apart from the hypocrisy of treating crime as entertainment, and criminals as stars, this unfortunate practice misses the opportunity to provide dialogue on the important issues of our time.

The 24 hour news channels are now going the "Breaking News" route. MSNBC, Fox, and CNN are all scrolling the hot news stories across the bottom of the screen. My 20 inch television, an object of scorn from my kids, displays the various layers of scrolling news banners at a point just below the nose of the talking heads. The announcement of Britanny Spears most recent divorce filing was presented as a "Breaking News" banner scrolling across the forehead of Wolf Blitzer.

All is not lost, of course. There are important and dependable outlets for serious news. I rarely miss Meet the Press, a hard-hitting interview show every Sunday, or This Week with George Stephanopoulos, a personal favorite. For those of us into hardcore news we can search out Chris Matthews, Bill Moyers, or the columnists of major newspapers.

But even as I write this piece the local news station is spending about ten minutes of air time reporting on tonight's American Idol highlights, and covering a contestant who lives in Joplin. I've got nothing against American Idol. I watch it myself. But it is NOT news. It is a news station using its outlet to promote an entertainment program with big ratings.

The issues in our society are way too important to be subsumed by the culture of celebrity and the pursuit of ratings and profits. The breaking news fixation is urgently in need of repair.

Be sure to shoot plenty of video.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dare I Trust Obama With My Mind and Heart?

I am admittedly a political junkie. I moved to the United States from Canada in 1959 when I was eleven years old. Even at that young age I remember being interested in the likes of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker, who were the luminaries of Canadian politics in those days

True to form, I quickly got intrigued by American politics and can recall participating in school debates about the virtues and vices of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. I'm sure there was compelling interest among my classmates in the political views of this annoying kid who had just moved to the States from his Canadian igloo.

Nonetheless, politics became an ongoing interest of mine. I grew up and went to college in the 1960's and, like many students in those days, was deeply concerned about the war in Vietnam. I took out American citizenship in 1965 and cast my first vote for president in 1968. I will confess here what I tend to avoid admitting except when waterboarding is involved. That vote went for Richard Nixon, who said he had a "secret plan" to end the war. I believed him and thereby earned my first dose of cynicism about American politics.

I will never forget that election of 1968, particularly the Democratic National Convention, which was held at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois, from August 26-29. Only part of the convention was in the Amphitheatre; the rest of it was in the streets where massive protests and violent confrontations were unfolding on national television. I vividly recall watching Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn) in the podium nominating George McGovern and declaring, "If George McGovern were president, we wouldn’t have these Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago." That led to a finger-pointing, expletive-laced response from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

But here's the thing. I spent that summer living with a friend at his grandparents' trailer home in Manteno, Illinois, where we were working at a bridge building plant. That night, in the tight confines of the trailer, my friend's grandfather was shaking his fists at the television and yelling at the "hippies" in the streets. I, in turn, was yelling at the police for clubbing college kids protesting a seemingly fixed convention. (For a wonderful, well-written book about this incredible year in American politics, read Theodore H. White's The Making of the President 1968.)

That week had a profound impact on me. I saw how politics divided generations, raised and dashed hope, and stirred cynicism and indifference. In 1972 I was excited to support the anti-war candidacy of George McGovern, only to see him crushed at the polls. In the years that followed I continued my interest in the political scene but no candidate captured both my mind and my heart.

And now comes Barack Obama. Something is going on inside me. I am far more hardened by cynicism and resistant to illusion than in those "loss of innocence" experiences of the 1960's. But I'm listening and I'm feeling. I don't think the pathway between my mind and heart has been entirely lost--just overgrown with brush and missing signage. But I think I'm going to hack at the weeds and look for directions. I'm going to allow myself to be a bit vulnerable and open myself to the possibility of hope.

It feels kind of good.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Words Matter

I have long believed that words are extremely important. I'm notorious for lingering over a phrase or incessantly massaging a paragraph. It's very annoying to editors when I'm slithering past a deadline, which I usually am. But words have power and they should be handled with care.

Originally uploaded by jovike
I have been thinking about this as I have observed the emergence of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate. His oratorical skills are remarkable and he has used those to good effect, making this political season not only interesting but also important. People are drawn to him even if they do not share his political philosophy.

I think one reason for that is that Obama seems to understand the importance of words. His delivery has something of the feel of the black preacher, but there is more. There is a depth behind the words that goes beyond the rhythm and cadence by which they are spoken. One senses that the response to his oratory signals that there may be the potential here for the formation of a national movement for change, or at least a historic realignment of American politics.

It is both inspiring and frightening. Words like this can be used for good or ill. History is the witness to both.

Ronald Reagan was a master of words. Whatever one thought of his policies no one could deny his ability to light up a room and to unify people around a core of ideas. And who will ever forget the speech he gave on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midair. He used 648 words to comfort the families of the seven astronauts who died, and to lift the spirits of a country in mourning. His speech, written by Peggy Noonan, ended thusly:
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
I cried.

There are phrases that continue to resonate over the years. Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death." FDR's "nothing to fear" wartime challenge. JFK's "ask not" inaugural. Martin Luther King's "mountaintop." Words change lives, frame ideas, and embolden people.

This election year we will once again experience an avalanche of words, most of them justifiably forgettable. But perhaps a few will have the power to linger, to inspire, and to change us all. We must listen attentively so that we can embrace the words that speak justice and truth, and reject those that demean and delude.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

From Whence Cometh Joy?

Our wonderful granddaughter, not quite two months old, has been remaking our world. It is not just her indisputable beauty, her disarming charm, or her obvious brilliance. It is something more, something deeper and even a bit mysterious.

In the past few days Ashley has begun to smile and even to seemingly laugh inwardly in response to external stimuli. It is now too frequent and predictable to allow you cynics to dismiss it as gas. This beautiful little girl is beginning to know joy.

But why? I'll admit my three-finger helicopter landing on her stomach is pretty entertaining. My ability to twist my face into something resembling a mop would obviously result in gales of laughter among those older and more sophisticated. But how does Ashley know this is funny stuff?

It may seem like an insignificant question, but I think it is something well worth pondering. I cannot account for it except to say it seems clear that laughter and joy are inbred and not learned. To have joy, to laugh, to smile--these are inherently a part of what it means to be a human being.

I have had the privilege of traveling rather widely throughout the world. I can distinctly remember playing with a group of children in an African village. We shared no common language. We came from entirely different worlds. But within minutes we were all laughing and joking together as we played little games that American children would readily know. Laughter knows no geography, culture, or language. It comes from within.

There are many things in our world that conspire to snuff out joy and to mute laughter. To do so is a crime against humanity. Ashley has reminded me that a smile is far more than a pleasingly upturned lip. It is a declaration of life itself.