Reap with Those Who Reap?

I had not heard about the game show, “Paid Off,” until I read a poignant new piece in The Huffington Post. It  It describes a case of replacing news with entertainment–a case I think has relevance to Pope Francis’ 2018 World Day of Communications message about journalism and his prayer for us as consumers of news who need to cultivate our news- awareness with what he calls an “education for truth.”

Huffpost senior reporter Maxwell Strachan tells us of young contestants on this “TruTV” network program presenting themselves as deeply in debt due to college loans and then answering a battery of trivia questions in order to win money to pay down that debt. Strachan’s piece is wisely headlined, “The Greatest Crisis of My Generation is Now a Dystopian Game Show.”

I vaguely remember watching a similar show–or the reruns–called “Queen for a Day” when I was very young in the early 1960s. A mix of memory and research tells me that the premise of this program was for moms to tell a TV audience about challenges–and, sometimes, heart-rending hardships–in their families.  At the end of the show, one contestant with an especially gripping story would be gifted mercifully with a washing machine and other devices of convenience and luxury as her prizes.

The Wikipedia article on that 1960s show reminds us that this programming concept was hardly unique. Today, we see people announcing profound life challenges, implicitly or explicitly, sometimes with a tone of seriousness and sometimes in an entertainment motif, and then being offered easy solutions in any number of programs, as well as commercials. The solutions continue to reflect a materialistic mindframe in which our society is the giver of things mysteriously capable of healing a broken heart or ameliorating a difficult situation. Or, occasionally, relieving persons of responsibility for problems that may have been prompted not be the “cards they were dealt,” but by a game they mistakenly chose to play.

All of this is not to say that the contestants on “Paid Off” or any other media personalities are guilty of particular faults or that such a show represents our further decline into a dystopian well of pretended answers to serious problems. Instead, I’m thinking that there is danger of audiences letting the pretended answers harden their own hearts to the problems and to the underlying situations that caused those problems. I’m not critical of the nod being made to the need for mercy and the joy found in “showing some love” to all people suffering hardships, even though I see some irony when acts of mercy are the tit-for-tat from a glitzy Q&A on trivia.

But I’m drawn to Pope Francis’ paraphrase of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. As mentioned in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the prayer which concludes the World Communications Day message invokes the Lord’s help for us in these counter-programming pursuits:

Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion….

Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters….

Where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety….

Where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions.

 

The need to raise real questions applies to all of us as news consumers, as well as those who generate news–such as journalists who may be called to educate us more fully about the challenges of debt that drove young contestants to “Paid Off” or the challenges of dysfunctional family life or handicapped children or depression and anxiety that drove yesterday’s housewives to “Queen for a Day.”

Entertainment and marketing driven by partial or trivial answers to today’s crucial issues of human dignity can tend to oversimplify and short-circuit a more complicated journey that we’re all called to take. The journey requires getting up from the couch and pondering all that the game show or the commercial reveals, along with the implications for real people, along with our responsibilities as consumers of news and information who should accompany the marginalized and address the causes of marginalization.

We should be wary of treating tiny “reality-show” glimpses of reality as mind-numbing doses of short-term happiness, personal consolations, opportunities for schadenfreude, or reasons to double-down on the “fake news” that materialism and commercialism can solve problems and reduce our responsibilities.

Those responsibilities include a lively curiosity about the “education” that perhaps should be our take-away from a program or a social-media post. They also include a lively charity that harks back to the wisdom of Romans 12:15. There, we read, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

I think one of the messages we can draw from Pope Francis is this: Despite the modern ability to put lipstick on any pig or materialistic balm on any pain, when we realize deep down that we’re seeing something dystopian in the media, we should consider some real responses. They include searching for information, asking tough questions, holding and demanding problem-solving conversations, and gearing up to bring the Lord’s love and truth into more personal encounters with suffering people.

In the face of these good temptations, we should not be easily paid off by entertainment that persuades us to stay on the couch, watching the same old reruns.

 

 

 

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No Civil War, but a “Civility” War?

“Civility, whatever that is….” That’s a phrase used in a recent post I found at the Columbia Journalism Review online. The June 27 piece by Matthew Ingram is an important, carefully considered collection of news and commentary where the use of the word “civility” is scrutinized. In some cases, the concept of “civility” as a value, or even as a thing, is called into question.

Is the term being manipulated, and perhaps weaponized, as society discusses whether our conversations in the pubic square–or, more typically, in the news media–have lost a sense of civility? Is it time to cast doubt on the meaning of civility, even though one can find many reputable online definitions, which usually include important ideas like politeness, courtesy, and respect? Should we stop using the word because it is starting to make some people uncomfortable or skeptical?

I myself have heard “civility” criticized (perhaps in jest?) as an over-rated virtue or a display of false gentility that allows a speaker to sidestep questions or avoid reality. But where does the blame lie–with the word or the speaker, the meaning or the intent?

This makes me think of Marilyn McEntyre’s book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, which I understand to be a call for honoring and preserving perfectly useful, time-tested words which can enhance everyday conversations among common folk. I don’t know how McEntyre would react to an attack on the word “civility,” but I’m guessing  she would deem it uncivil to rob people of a way of expressing their thoughts or to confuse people about whether a word–and therefore a thought–is good or bad, socially acceptable or intellectually ridiculed.

Pope Francis, in his message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, does not appear to use the term civility (at least in the online English translation of his remarks) when he is calling for a journalism of peace or rebuking rhetorical trends toward defamation and prejudice. He uses the term “respect” a few times, including in his Peace Prayer of Saint Francis (version 2.0), when he says, “Where there is hostility, let us bring respect.” Words and news will thrive when they are used with good intent.

Well, “respect” may be a better, less ambiguous word than civility, but I for one hope we do not start a war against that latter term. Let it be. Let us ponder it. It has profound connections to words like “civilization,” terms like “civil society,” and fearful events like a “civil war.”  To start challenging a valid word is dangerously close to challenging a valid idea. There will be substitute synonyms, like “respect,” but if advocates or opponents of something or other can come against one word, they can come against other words.

Remember George Orwell’s warning about the “Newspeak” language used in his dystopian novel 1984.  He said it was “designed to diminish the range of thought.” A world where the range of thought is diminished is good neither for news consumers nor news generators–only for “newspeakers.”

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A News Media-tor for a “Peace Movement”

Riffing on the recent news that Jerry Springer is ceasing his violence-prone TV show after some 4,000 episodes, Greg Gutfeld of the Fox News Channel joked that, nowadays in our contentious political culture, “every day is the Jerry Springer Show.”

Gutfeld, in the monologue for his own program on July 7, went on to put that joke in a context echoing Pope Francis’ message for the 2018 World Communications Day (at least a little, if you take out the off-color language and humorous hyperlinks). He suggested that our society work harder at understanding and managing its contention.

“Politics always causes friction,” Gutfeld pointed out. “We just have more places to see it,” such as round-the-clock cable news and social media which seem to hold captive our thoughts and conversations.  “We get it. The country is divided. But that’s actually good: It’s better to have two sides than one.”

theGGshow

He acknowledged that we see more friction because journalists’ cameras are attracted to it. Among news consumers, annoyance comes naturally because we think we’re right and the people who disagree with us think they’re right.

“We should admit that we see things through different filters” and temper our own discussions with politeness, compromise, and forgiveness, Gutfeld said. You can hear the noteworthy monologist say it in this video. He called for a “conservative peace movement” where those toward the right on the political spectrum proactively “take the high ground.”

This proposal might have been directed more toward the consumers of media content than toward the generators of it–after all, a lack of friction in the world could translate into a lack of viewers for Fox and all broadcasters.

But, as Gutfeld knows, and as Pope Francis pointed out in the message (plus accompanying prayer for journalism) he officially released on May 13, the line between producers and consumers in today’s information world is practically invisible. There are millions of self-publishers. Alas, I’m one of them.

All along the media spectrum, and the political spectrum, we do need to collaborate in a movement informed by the pope’s call for “a journalism of peace.” Cheers for Gutfeld–and perhaps for Springer!–as they contribute in different ways to this movement, which can benefit from the pope’s paraphrase of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.

That’s the widely honored prayer which, in both its original and paraphrased forms, envisions all of us as “instruments of peace.”

The notes of wisdom in Gutfeld’s monologue made a sweet sound.

(With this post, I am beginning an additional blog at this site–intended as an ongoing expansion of the reflections in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? — The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism. Find the blog as part of the main navbar at OnWord.net.)

 

 

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“When Headlines Hurt”–A Guide to Buying and Reading My New E-book

When Headlines Hurt CVR_final_smaller

Update: 6-26-18: I hope you enjoy this book of reflections on the hope for renewal in journalism, drawing upon the recent World Communications Day 2018 message (and prayer) presented by Pope Francis. See my earlier blog post or my LinkedIn profile for a fuller discussion of the book and its subject.

This post has two purposes–first, as a tool for readers who wish to buy my e-book (with additional iterations anticipated in the future) in various formats, from various vendors; and second, as a companion to aid your own online research, utilizing links I included in the original text.

Purchase the book for $2.99 from:

  • Amazon (for Kindle devices)
  • Barnes and Noble (for Nook devices)
  • Smashwords (for several document formats, including pdf and html, as well as .epub, which can be read on Apple products–iPad and iPhone)

 

Use the following links if your e-book format does not connect the links automatically. These will send you directly to material I highlighted–expert insights that informed the perspectives I pursued in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Please invite these experts’ observations into your own reflections! The links are sorted according to the chapters in which they appeared:

Chapter One.

Chapter Two.

Chapter Three.

Chapter Four.

Chapter Five.

Chapter Six.

Chapter Seven.

  • News media “over-covering the crises of the world and under-covering the major trends”: correspondent Georgie Anne Geyer in panel at University of Notre Dame
  • Journalists’ own critiques relevant to news coverage in the 1980s and perhaps still today, extracted from scholar Robert Schmuhl, The Responsibilities of Journalism
  • A 2013 report finds 27 percent of Americans think journalism contributes “not very much” or “nothing” to society, according to the Pew Research Center
  • People are bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2467)

Chapter Eight.

  • “News transparency’ helps to bridge gaps between news producers and consumers, says a Washington Post reporter; she also cites public mistrust of media in 2017
  • Other reports on the spread of “news transparency” efforts come fromNiemanLab, a National Public Radio ethics handbook, and New York University
  • “News literacy” is an effort to improve relationships between producers and consumers of journalism, especially young audiences, says News Literacy Project
  • Our society’s sloppy communications styles “make us careless and so make us care less,” says Marilyn McEntyre in her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.

Chapter Nine.

Chapter Ten.

[Please send me your comments at billgerards@gmail.com]

[Also, peruse some more of the content you’ll find in earlier posts on this OnWord blog. Please visit the “I Link, Therefore I Am” biographical page connecting to dozens of articles, online posts, books, videos, podcasts, and other recordings–many of which I’ve been blessed to produce, or contribute to, in recent months.]

 

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Taps for My Dad: A Memorial Day Parade Film

Dad as sailor

I had never been in a Memorial Day Parade before–at least not as a participant who was fully engaged in the honors being bestowed, the opportunity to contribute one’s talent, and the importance of such an event for individuals and communities.

Thanks to the City of South Bend, The Music Village, and local filmmaker Chuck Fry, I was invited to be one of the local musicians playing Taps in prominent places along the parade route. You can see Chuck’s excellent short film at vimeo, as well as South Bend’s facebook page and mine. All posted in just the past few days.

A remarkable combination of developments gave me a chance to use my musical abilities to honor my father as a deceased World War II veteran and as the man whose own simple but joyful accordion playing inspired me to become an accordion instructor and performer, sharing music with the community these days. You’ll see that the film allowed me to tell a personal story connecting past, present, and future.

A big thank you to everyone who was involved. That definitely includes my dad and all the veterans to whom our country owes so much.

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My New E-book–“When Headlines Hurt”

When Headlines Hurt CVR_final

Update 6-26-18: My new e-book recently became available through Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.  This book, with further iterations anticipated, is a set of reflections and resources connected to the 2018 World Communications Day message officially presented by Pope Francis on May 13. You’ll see that my commentary builds upon the prayer with which the Pope concludes his message–a wise and inspiring paraphrase of the famous Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.

I couldn’t resist pondering how we–as producers as well as consumers of news–could serve as “instruments of peace” by renewing journalism.

Let me know (at billgerards@gmail.com) what you think after you’ve purchased my brief book. Discussions about how to heal our polarized nation and its contentious conversations have to start in earnest among all of us. This does not require the compilation of detailed tomes, so I’m happy with this “day of small beginnings” through the medium of e-books. My thanks go to the talented folks at Electric Moon Publishing for helping me to e-navigate.

We need new voices and informed viewpoints in all media, plus a refreshed sense of trust, hope, shared purpose, and human dignity among participants in the public square. It is my modest goal to raise awareness of the insights Pope Francis is contributing to the discussion. He has stepped forward as a world leader whose concern about news extends to what I call “headlines that hurt.” Where there is injury, he wants to shape a more forgiving world stabilized by truth, understanding, mercy, justice, and charity.

The reflections I offer are hardly “breaking news.” They’re informed by my own background as a Catholic, as a fan of both Pope Francis and his namesake St. Francis, and as a long-time journalist (in the secular and faith-based arenas) who honors communications and all professional communicators of good will.

I sense part of the cure for our tendencies toward disinformation and division can come from benevolent sensibilities that embrace both faith and reason. But, in the research underlying my commentaries, I am grateful to have learned from a variety of experts in journalism and other fields. They point us toward the cure, regardless of their own faith backgrounds or their attitudes toward the Pope’s stance. I recommend that you also tap into the wise people of good will whom I quoted and linked to in my original text.

 

We’re welcoming everyone into this conversation because we can’t afford a stand-off between the producers and consumers of our daily information diet. Nowadays, many news consumers are also the gatekeepers and purveyors for their own recipes of reality. Journalism must put us all to work for the common good, in the light of shared truths. It’s not a tool to merely entertain or “engage” or enrage us. That’s why I like the Pope’s decision to include a prayer we all can say, in solidarity, as we “press on” in our journey toward a more peaceful society.

Please say a prayer for me and for all people who would like to advance the cause of “a journalism of peace” for ourselves and future generations. As you’ll see in the original Peace Prayer of St. Francis, becoming instruments of change requires self-sacrifice and a humble willingness to admit our own failings. Our communication will need to be more interpersonal and more contextual, incorporating more listening and more outreach. Pray that we become more understanding even as we ask more questions, tougher questions. We’re looking for less news that “breaks” and more news that builds, fewer headlines that hurt and more headlines that help.

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Happy World Communications Day!

Pope and Communications

 

Of course, the most important fact about this day is that it is Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day to all moms, including my own mom in heaven and my wonderful wife Eileen, who is the world’s best mom to our outstanding daughter, for whom we’re lobbying to establish a tradition called Daughter’s Day.

But I want to wish all of you a Happy World Communications Day. This day of remembrance and edification was established 52 years ago by the Catholic Church during Vatican Council II. Its existence on the Sunday before Pentecost every year–and the tradition of annual papal message that accompanies it –are statements of the importance the Church gives to varied means and media of cultural expression.

This year’s message from Pope Francis found special resonance with me because it speaks from his heart about the need to renew the communication of news and the conversations of trust and common cause so necessary for our society’s future. I thought it was a great touch that the message ended with the Pope’s own paraphrase of, or sequel to, the beloved “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis.” I decided to reflect in a structured way on this “Peace Prayer version 2.0,” and my thoughts grew into a book I am preparing to share with a larger audience. The book’s working title is Headlines That Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?  The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism. 

As my World Communications Day gift to all of the good folks whom I welcome as readers of my OnWord blog and as my connections on LinkedIn, I offer a preview of the book. Please go this site’s navbar and click on “Headlines That Hurt.”  Please take a look at the (copyright-protected) thoughts and send me your feedback at billgerards@gmail.com. Perhaps you’ll also consider doing those “friend” and “like” and “follow” and “connect” favors to help me market the finalized book.

When Headlines That Hurt comes out later this month, probably first as an e-book, please consider buying it. I’ll welcome your support if indeed you think, in the spirit of Mother’s Day, my reflections can help give birth to big-picture, faith-and-reason-based discussions about a renewal of journalism, words, conversation, truthfulness and trust in our society. When you click for the preview, don’t worry about this book being too heady or ambitious. As the accompanying photo suggests, I’m striving for a sense of Franciscan joy and keeping it light-hearted.

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