Thursday, May 26, 2005

The press: Stuck in a universe of spin


The challenge for traditional journalism is whether it can reassert its position as the provider of something distinctive and valuable ..... Somehow journalism needs to prove that it is acting on behalf of the public, if it is to save itself.
-- Report: State of the News Media, 2005

It was the end of a restless night. In my dream, I was at last in the study of a prominent journalist with whom I'd worked for weeks to set up an interview. Now he stood before me, a well-schooled, well-dressed, urbane man in his sixties. But when he spoke, only gibberish came out. He smiled, ruefully. But not a single comprehensible word emerged from the nonsense. I'd read his books, looked forward to his insights. But he was trapped inside a jumbled brain, an apparent victim of stroke.

My alarm buzzed and I awoke struggling to shake the cobwebs and face another gray morning. Still the dream didn't leave me easily. Could it be, I wondered, that this was a metaphor for American journalism in 2005 --a once-distinguished figure stripped of its voice, an oracle whose message has become so garbled, so distorted as to be meaningless?

Battered by the orchestrated attacks of ideological bloggers, carved up by corporate budget cutters, tripped too often by its own haste to be first, and abandoned by new generations of technology-laden multi-taskers, the news media seem increasingly to be howling hopelessly into the wind of a gathering storm. Either their message is quickly swallowed up in the swoosh of endless spin or they themselves are mistaking the energy needed to be heard over it for something substantive being said.

Listen to the language of the recent filibuster debate. It's as if the news media, on cue, accepted the talking points of the public relations practitioners. First, when the language was used by Democrats and Republicans alike, the news media wrote about the so-called "nuclear option," whereby the Democrats would paralyze the Senate if the Republicans acted unilaterally to eliminate filibusters. But Republicans decided they didn't like the term, that it cast them in a bad light. So they began talking about the "Constitutional option" and -- more than anything else -- "an up or down vote" on judges. I always thought that a vote was a vote. But sure enough, one cannot pick up a newspaper today or turn on the television without hearing references to "up and down" votes -- for John Bolton, for judges, for turning June 12 into national hedgehog day. You name it. It won't go away.

On to my second point. Listen again to the report on the State of the Media 2005, published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University:

Today, a host of new forms of communication offer a way for newsmakers to reach the public. There are talk-show hosts, cable interview shows, corporate Web sites, government Web sites, Web sites that purport to be citizen blogs but are really something else, and more.
... All this makes it easier for those who would manipulate public opinion - government, interest groups and corporations - to deliver unchecked messages, through independent outlets or their own faux-news Web sites, video and text news releases and paid commentators.

Journalists, struggling to compete in this environment, reflexively turn up the volume. They adapt the tone of the megaphone, too often mixing the journalism of verification with that of assertion, screaming at each other in food-fight roundtable "discussions" where scoring points counts much more than making points, further eroding public trust that polls suggest, in any case, might better be characterized as public suspicion.

What's gone wrong? I opened two Sunday papers yesterday and read little that held my interest. And this, a week after Amnesty International called the Guantanamo prison camp "the gulag of our time." Isn't that an invitation to analyze the facts Amnesty analyzed, to press members of Congress on whether and why (or why not) hearings are in order, to do more than quote the president saying, Amnesty's assertion was "an absurd allegation?"

I think it is. But that kind of reporting takes hard work, independence and investment. It's so much easier to scream "yes" or "no" and to mimic the language of Washington's spin doctors. It's so much easier. But then, how much longer will a disenchanted public pay for what's merely easier?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Sunshine amid the long days of a damp, gray May


If you live anywhere in New England, I don't have to tell you this has been one dismal month -- cold, rainy and dark. I usually consider May to be my favorite month of the year. It's when the flowers bloom, green bursts everywhere and the songbirds return. This year a little worm is chopping up the leaves of our big front-yard maple. The wind turns my umbrella inside out. It's just plain dismal, day after day.

Given a global and national climate nearly as dark, I've been looking for inspiration, something to get me moving each day, to keep me from pulling the covers over my head and staying in bed.

I've found it in the National Basketball Association playoffs in a guy named Steve Nash.

Nash is an unassuming Canadian who plays basketball fall through spring and works for charity year round. He isn't any basketball player. He's a great basketball player. He was the Most Valuable Player of the NBA this year. But unlike most other professional athletes today, he doesn't push and shove or boast or thrust out his chest. He doesn't scowl or strut for the cameras. Instead, on camera, he's the guy who can be seen patting a teammate on the back after he's made a stupid play or turned the ball over. He runs like the wind but he's also a vision of calm on the court.

Nash set a remarkable record last night. He became the first player in NBA history -- surpassing the likes of Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson -- to score more than 25 points and dish off more than 10 assists in four consecutive playoff basketball games. But it's not Nash's statistics that interest me. It's the way he plays. He never, as announcers note, "picks up his dribble." So Nash, who is probably 6-foot-3 or so but looks at most 5-foot-10 amid all the tall trees around him, races into a crowd under the basket, somehow comes out the other side with three guys chasing him and then spots a teammate cutting to the basket who suddenly finds the ball in his hands three feet from the rim. It's a thing of beauty.

Or there's Nash flitting within inches of a 7-footer and then suddenly stopping, boucing backwards and arching a high shot over the defender's outstretched arms as he falls to the ground. Swish.

Steve Nash is the quintessential team player and teammate. After he joined the Phoenix Suns this year, the team won more than twice as many games as the year before. Twice as many. Amazing. When he is on the bench his team stalls in confusion. And so he sits little.

It looks as though the wonderful run of Steve Nash and his Phoenix Suns will end soon. They're down 2-0 to the deeper and more physical San Antonio Spurs in the Western Division Finals and now the series moves to San Antonio. It's a shame. Nash's young backcourt mate suffered a disabling injury to his eye at the start of the second round of this four-round playoffs. The Phoenix bench is too "thin" to take up the slack.

But whatever happens to Steve Nash and his Phoenix Suns in the next couple of games, I salute him. He's rekindled my joy in professional basketball as has no player in many years. Not since Bernard King averaged about 40 points for the New York Knicks some 20 years ago have I been so captivated by one player's performance. And King had an edge; I'm a Knicks fan.

Steve Nash plays basketball with joy, grace, speed and anything but a sense of self-importance. He's once again making the sport fun to watch. Deep into the Spring that wasn't. Do you think the Sun will come back out for summer?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

With God on our side


America's surge toward religious McCarthyism could well wash away its biggest obstacle this week as Senate Republicans prepare to cast aside more than 200 years of procedural precedent by banning judicial filibusters. If they succeed, the price will be the system of checks and balances on which democracy delicately rests.

The Senate is poised to act because that is precisely what the Religious Right wants. Further concessions proposed by the Democrats, who in the past have blocked fewer than 5 percent of Bush's nominees, the lowest percentage in four administrations, couldn't slow the Republican assault on Senate rules. This ruling party, driven by the religious zealotry of its base, wants absolute control of every branch of government.

That's why the vote to keep the filibuster compares with the Nixon impeachment hearings as the biggest tests of U.S. democracy in at least the last half century. The outcome will depend on a half-dozen thus far uncommitted Republicans. And in an age when party line loyalty typically trumps public interest, I can't say I'm confident of a vote of conscience.

If Republicans succeed in stripping the right to filibuster from Senate rules, it's a safe bet that a parade of judicial nominees intent on eroding separation of church and state, banning abortion, curtailing the First Amendment, battering gay rights, and expanding the Patriot Act will soon march through the Senate to lifetime appointments. That is the real and radical agenda of a White House and its Christian Coaltion drivers, who ostensibly want to stop "activist" judges but actually want to end judicial independence in interpreting Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Other signs of an emerging religious struggle already abound.
  • The New York Times reported this week that a chaplain at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs was given orders to ship out to Japan after accusing her superiors "of using their positions to promote evangelical Christianity among the cadets." The chaplain, Capt. Melinda Morton, says her transfer was no accident; it came after she resisted pressure to denounce an outside report by a Yale Divinity School team that, according to The Times, found some chaplains at the academy "were insensitive to the religious diversity of the cadets."
  • Eighty years after the Scopes Trial dramatically established the validity of teaching Darwinian evolution in schools, the religious right is counter-attacking again. Districts across the country are increasingly enmeshed in debate over whether a new form of "science," called "intelligent design," should be mandated as well. Supporters of intelligent design insist it isn't creationism and isn't anti-science. But it is both. The web site of The Christian Post defines it this way: "Intelligent design is the theory that the complexity and organization of life are evidence of the living things having been designed, calling on an intelligent creator or designer that may be responsible for their complexity."
  • In response to a questions from ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos two weeks ago, preacher Pat Robertson said that he believes "activist judges" (read anti-faith judges, according to the Chrisitian Right) pose a more serious threat to American Democracy than Al Qaeda -- you know, the folks who flew planes into the World Trade Center.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union this week sued the federal government, arguing, according to The Boston Globe, that it violated the separation of church and state by funneling more than $1 million to a faith-based abstinence program. In its newsletter, the program, the Silver Ring Thing, told young people "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (is) the best way to live a sexually pure life."
Organized religion of any stripe has never been a dominant force in my life. But I've begun paying a lot more attention to it as this country fractures into two camps: Those who would use religion to bring people together and those who would use it to tear them apart.

Whether dropping in at a Sunday sermon, serving a meal to the homeless or sitting in the spell of a gospel concert, I've tried to spend my spiritual time among those who heal and build.
But 35 years ago, on a rain-soaked, two-lane road south of Knoxville, Tenn., I got a taste of what can happen when one man's godliness is misconstrued as The Answer for all.

With a college friend, I was hitchhiking from the Great Smoky Mountains to Nashville to visit a couple who had served as the informal ministry at a Colorado lodge at which I'd worked. Our first ride came from fellow in jeans and a checked, flannel shirt. He said he was a plumber, and he didn't wait long before he turned to me in the front seat, held me with a level gaze and asked: "Have you boys been saved?"

"Excuse me, sir?" I asked.

"Have you boys been saved? Have you taken Jesus into your heart?"

"Well, no sir," I mumbled.

He kept driving with his lefthand. But with his right he drew an imaginary horizontal line across the dashboard. "I've done some bad things in my life," he said. "I cheated on my wife and drank until she left me. But a few years ago I took Jesus into my heart, and it has made all the difference."

He paused.

"Boys," he said. patting his imaginary line. "I could kill you right now, and I'd go to Heaven and you'd go to Hell. Think about that."

Believe me, we did -- all 40 miles of that ride. And we thought about more.

To the young divinity student we were heading to visit in Nashville, religion and spirituality were a means of bringing people of multiple denominations together, of sharing good work and searching for higher meaning. His wife, an art student, spent much of the summer I worked with them stringing bead necklaces to give to friends. But to this plumber on the drive from the Smokies to Knoxville that morning, religion was a line in the sand. You either were with him or ... watch out.

In today's U.S. Senate, as lawmakers prepare to wipe out rules others have relied on for good or bad to protect minority rights, there are a number of signs that the plumber's way is in ascendancy -- and the rest of us had better watch out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Silence from the land of violence


Circulation is bleeding buckets. Pundits again are wringing their hands and predicting the death of newspapers as we know them. The printed word, they say, is dying with its readership. Young people just don't care.

The argument isn't new, but the evidence of recent downward circulation trends gives it momentum. What's lacking is intelligent analysis or an intelligent response. Publishers stumble over themselves to dumb down their products, to provide news in four and five paragraph chunks, with a premium on runaway brides, celebrity trials, and soft and lazy political puffery.

Ethics? It has taken a back seat. The New York Times Co., through its subsidiary, The Boston Globe, buys Metro, a free throwaway daily whose top management makes crass racist jokes. Like other traditionalists, the old-news publishers are desparate to be connected to anyone who might have the key to making money off the Boomer's children. These news executives flail around in desparation, ignoring the power and passion of what's really going on in the world in favor, too often, of pabulum.

Responsibility to readers? It's party time. As newsrooms salivate on Page 1 over Laura Bush's performance at the annual Washington correspondents' dinner, there something close to a news blackout in the land of perpetual violence: Iraq. Heard the phrase, "Fiddling while Rome burns?" It's happening. They are happening simultaneously -- the rapid decline of news circulation and the unending bloodshed overseas that just barely sneaks out in below-the-fold and largely bloodless body counts deep inside the news (Page 22 in my Boston Globe today). Four hundred dead in a couple of weeks. Nine Americans killed last weekend. Do they have names? Did anyone ever take their pictures? And do their deaths have any purpose?

I read in The New York Times Week-in-Review that we may be headed toward the Perfect Economic Storm, when a variety of forces leads to the collapse of our economy. Has anyone stopped to think that spending $100-plus billion a year on Iraq -- much of which no one can account for -- might contribute in some way to both the gargantuan deficit, to inflation and to other factors that could lead our economy to its knees? Certainly not the U.S. Senate. It voted unanimously for the latest $80-plus billion installment.

The new Times opinion page columnist, John Tierney, suggests that we cover the violence of war less -- and hints that perhaps someone just might censor the press if it doesn't restrain itself. "I'm not advocating official censorship," he writes. " But there's no reason the news media can't reconsider their own fondness for covering suicide bombings. A little restraint would give the public a more realistic view of the world's dangers."

That, Mr. Tierney, would mean the dangers in your world, right? I'm guessing you don't have any relatives in the military -- our all-volunteer military. I'm guessing none of your Iraqi relatives are being blown to bits, either. And I'm guessing it's annoying to read about these nasty stories when there's so much niceness among the beautiful people you rub elbows with in New York each day.

Consider this possibility, Mr. Tierney. Perhaps the mainstream press is in decline because of columns like yours. Because the press increasingly mirrors a different aspect of the nation's gathering bankruptcy -- its moral emptiness. News organizations dance with the First Lady and distance themselves from harsh realities. The Bushies said it, plain as day, during the presidential campaign. "We create our own reality," one operative told Ron Susskind in an interview for the New York Times magazine.

Indeed they do. A bizarre reality at that, dutifully reported by the news media, but too often without a sense of contextual irony. There's that new form of "science" created to challenge Darwinism in Kansas schools. Using it, creationists seem poised to win the rematch of the Scopes trial more than a century after Clarence Darrow established the validity of science in education.

There's George Bush and Vladimir Putin, partners in democracy and driving lessons, waving at me, smiling, from the front-seat of a car on the front-page of my Boston Globe. They're tooling around Moscow together in the ultimate photo opportunity, now being pawned off on me as news.

There's the sychronized drumbeat from the president and his attorney general calling for "up-or-down" votes on all judicial nominees. Their words, and their intent, make it sound positively undemocratic to deny lifetime court appointments to the most neanderthal of their selections. Their cause is helped by a press that once again forgets to mention that 96 percent of Bush's nominees to the courts have been approved, a higher percentage than any of his predecessors, or that the Republicans blocked dozens of court nominees during the Clinton Administration. Such real news -- we used to call it context -- would get in the way of the rising Republican groundswell to trample to last remnants of minority rights in the Congress. It might slow the momentum of Republican spinmeisters creating their own reality.

And then there's that gusher of a story about the new Laura Bush, carefully scripted on Washington's biggest stage -- a dinner for the journalism insiders themselves. How warm and fuzzy.

If the rest of us read enough articles like this, maybe no one will notice as the next 90 or so American forces and 900 Iraqi civilians are blown to bits. Or maybe the press can take Tierney's advice and just play down this nasty war until we no longer have to suffer through it. It is just so distasteful. But then again, maybe as the press does so more people will stop reading newspapers altogether -- and a new, more informative form of news can begin to emerge.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The ultimate in outsourcing


When a colleague of mine at Boston's Emerson College needed help hanging a picture in his office earlier this year, he discovered he had to call someone in Phoenix, Ariz., to put through his requisition order. And when I called up my Internet provider to find out why service had gone dead, I found myself talking to someone in Texas. So it makes perfectly good sense that the United States is outsourcing a rather sensitive order of business even farther away these days:
overseas to that little-known torture paradise of Uzbekistan. Who better to call when you need a little boiled oil to get a suspected terrorist to talk? How better to build a community of nations than through equal-opportunity human rights violations?

Consider President Bush's dilemma. Deep down he knows his Coalition of the Willing never amounted to much more than BAA (Britain, America and Australia). Even the flower decorations are disintegrating. The Italians and Poles are pulling out their forces by year's end. The Spanish are already gone. Can the Falkland Islands be far behind? Or did they commit any troops?

I can feel the president's pain. What's a guy to do to achieve his clear goal of reaching out to the world in this, his second term. He keeps trying. He's appointed Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank, a sure sign that all nations voicing demands for economic freedom will start on a level playing field -- and with just about everything else leveled for that matter. He's appointed John Bolton as his representative to the United States, another man who speaks eloquently of the need for leveling (in his case, the leveling of most stories of the United Nations building).
He's even sent Condi to France.

Of course, I can feel the terror suspects pain even more: trust me, it hurts when torturers extract fingernails and toenails with pliers, just one of the dandy tricks the Uzbekis have been accused of. But aren't a few dozen extracted toenails a small price to pay for a global community of torture that leaves no nation behind?

Since the World Bank deals with economic development and since Wolfie and the president are such pals, I wanted to leave both with a modest proposal. Rather than leaving our Uzbeki jailer friends with piecemeal work -- an arm boiled off here, genitalia wilted from electroshock there -- perhaps we should support an economic development grant to make those efforts systematic.

But that would be illegal and immoral, wouldn't it? Oh dear.