“Farsighted” Decisions and Nearsighted News

You’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Steven Johnson has produced a book that serves as a valuable response to that celebration of spontaneity. Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most makes more sense to me as someone who has written about our need for conversations in the American “public square,” our use of information to solve problems and reduce polarization, and our responsibilities as producers and consumers of journalism in service to society’s pursuit of wisdom. I plan to ponder Johnson’s book. I Didn’t Read It, But I Did Respect the Author on Book-TV (#DRIBDRAB) when I watched him in mid-September.

Johnson said he sees the irony in the eight-year gestation period this book required after he first started taking notes on the subject. The result is a connection-making resource whose assessment of how we think—and how we should think—incorporates insights from neuroscience, psychology, probability theory, philosophy, and even literature. He suggests every high school student should take a similarly interdisciplinary course covering our thought processes at their best; it’s crucial preparation for what he calls the occasional “full-spectrum decisions” in our lives. We need to know these decisions will take some time and will benefit from a substantial mental toolkit.

This is a secular book. I don’t know whether Johnson would mind this additional suggestion: A Catholic or other faith-based school could expand this course into an exploration of “discernment,” a promotion of one’s spiritual toolkit alongside one’s mental abilities, and a revelation that the sciences, liberal arts, and humanities all belong in our high-stakes syllabus. Students and their families need this reminder today as the tendency in planning one’s college career is to emphasize particular, narrow fields of study rather than the full spectrum of learning that prepares us for those full-spectrum decisions.

Those decisions include such questions as whom one should marry, where one should live, and which job one should take. There are many variables to be considered in each of these judgments whose consequences are profound for oneself and others.

Yet, in many people’s minds, “the science of complex decision-making has been stagnant for 250 years,” Johnson points out. Most people use one form or another of the standard “pros and cons” table of two lists—an approach that is seen explicitly described in writings from more than two centuries ago.

This is where Johnson’s book starts making a world of difference. He notes that decision-making theory actually has become much more advanced in recent decades. Instead of focusing on a “whether or not” choice about one single option, today’s updated scholarship urges us to make “which one?” choices after we have expanded the number of options and made prudent predictions about the directions in which each of them will point.

Importantly, echoing the recommendations in Pope Francis’s message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, this expansion of choices and insights requires welcoming a diversity of inputs from people with different perspectives. It demands a consciousness of future consequences, not merely a snap judgment about what solves the immediate problem immediately. It requires us to think imaginatively and purposefully, perceiving where bad decisions might lead and generating alternatives that can create more freedom and clearly better outcomes. The reading of great novels, Johnson points out, boosts our imagination by helping us see how a variety of characters in different situations handled their life choices in distinctive ways, with a range of results.

We often trap ourselves inside one story, our own self-centered and pre-shaped narrative, he warns, when actually we need to spin many stories that incorporate the possibility of good or bad or even “weird” outcomes. (For a related exploration of maximizing our freedom to choose wisely, sometimes by thinking outside the box, check out the “Ted Radio Hour” program on “Decisions.” That recent NPR show, especially its discussion of “choice architecture,” reveals how careful we should be in managing our decisions and our contexts for making them.)

Saint Francis of Assisi was all about generating alternatives so as to nurture good decisions. He accepted God’s call to “rebuild my church.” At first, he expressed his acceptance in a personal, material-centered, arguably narrow way—namely, by repairing a broken-down church building. But God set him free to view his mission more imaginatively, allowing both constructive sacrifice and contrarian joy, and even a willingness to look “weird” in the eyes of others so as to offer them truly “alternative” information and formation. Embracing the Gospel, with its wealth of stories about good choices and bad choices, and especially about the overriding choice to pursue Christ’s peace and human wholeness, he cultivated “full-spectrum decisions” based on a full-spectrum toolkit.

His litany of remedies is expressed in the much-loved Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which is very Franciscan even though it was not written by the saint. That source of connections between the City of Man and the City of God, with its ability to transcend the instinctive, self-centered “pros and cons” way of thinking, must have influenced Pope Francis in his World Communications Day message on journalism. As I say in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the Pope concluded his message with a paraphrase of the Peace Prayer focused on news as an aid, not an obstacle, in society’s pursuit of healing and peace.

The flow of news, when it is prudently managed and shared generously, with a love for people and their diverse stories as well as an accountability to past, present, future, and the timeless, with the goal of seeing connections and starting conversations, can be an excellent tool for society’s decision-making. It might even help us realize that more of our decisions are more important to more people than Johnson assumes in his book. Whereas the “Blink” approach is well-suited to the mind frame of breaking news, speed, and excitement, the “Farsighted” approach is the better one for discerning about things that matter—and, more basically, respecting communication because things do matter.




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Echoes of Hope from a Journalistic Legend: Seymour Hersh

hersh   Book TV’s coverage of a June 2018 interview with veteran New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh, discussing his book, Reporter: A Memoir, yields a video that is compelling almost to the point of exhausting.

No action-hero scriptwriter in Hollywood could set a pace as fast as Hersh’s mind, which can hyperlink from idea to idea a few times in the space of one sentence. His memories deliver a human context behind major national headlines. He clearly cares passionately, still today, about the news he’s describing. At one point, interviewer Paul Holdengraber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, notes that Hersh described himself as an “aggressive learner,” and that fascination with facts definitely comes through. Also, part of the energy and suspense Hersh provides is his refreshing unpredictability, in which he criticizes President Trump sharply but also pulls no punches in critiquing the past behavior of Democrats and non-politicians. #DRIBDRAB *

The other riveting feature of this video comes from occasional quotes Holdengraber occasionally throws into the mix. An excerpt from early in the memoir reminds me of Pope Francis’ May 2018 message about journalism, about which I reflected in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? Hersh is recalling the different journalistic environment in and around the 1970s, when his editors allowed him to invest time and corporate money in digging for interesting, important stories and there was less competition from the endless punditry and round-the-clock news cycles of cable TV.

Today, he comments, “We are sodden with fake news, hyped-up and incomplete information, and false assertions delivered non-stop by our daily newspapers, our televisions, our online news agencies, our social media, and our president. Yes, it’s a mess.”

Hersh is quoted as recalling that people used to trust The New York Times on the basis of hard work and sound judgment that went into stories–even the stories that disturbed them or with which they disagreed. Nowadays, many news consumers trust only the news providers who hold perspectives with which they agree.

At another point in the discussion, Holdengraber quotes from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

Another quote comes from a 1946 essay by George Orwell: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

A gadfly might say that the “post-truth” era had already begun in Orwell’s eyes.

You can make your own judgments about Hersh based on his reactions to comments like these and the many tales and insights he offers. You’ll find several points of intersection with the insights of Pope Francis from his message for the 2018 World Communications Day, about which I have written. These points include the need for trust and truth, a love of the role of journalism in empowering citizens, and boldness in seeking the truth while not feeling “possession” of the whole truth or contemplating its weaponization against “enemies.”

Reporter: A Memoir. * Didn’t Read It, But Did Respect the Author on Book-TV. #DRIBDRAB.








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Accordion in “Africa”–Truly the World’s Instrument

Here’s something you don’t see–or hear–every day! A great performance of the great Toto song, “Africa,” with an accordionist in the band. And not just any accordionist, but the one and only “Weird Al” Yankovic. Enjoy it, courtesy of the Nerdist site.

And I do think you’ll enjoy it because I’ve become more and more of an advocate for the accordion during my 2017-2018 year of personal growth, career expansion, and so-called “refirement.” My embrace of the accordion–you really do embrace it, you know–has included a return to performing the accordion as a soloist and group member, as well as teaching the accordion with The Music Village around this region, offering an accordion course with South Bend’s Forever Learning Institute, and even writing songs again like I did during my young adulthood on Long Island.

The accordion is such a versatile instrument, beloved in many cultures! I’m inspired by one of my students, who grew up listening to Tejano music and wants to learn the accordion so he can bring that vibrant Hispanic sound to others. I’m learning about that from him! Want to hear some Tejano music? This video by Siggno was recommended to me.

The pattern of American immigrant groups bringing their accordions with them is repeating itself. On Long Island, lots of families with Italian and German heritage made sure their kids learned the accordion. In South Bend, the large Polish heritage population flocked to a wonderful accordion teacher, the recently deceased Gene Van, to make the accordion part of their life in America. Weird Al’s father, Frankie Yankovic, used his polka music to become something of an American celebrity in his day, half a century ago.

That brings me back to my “accordion advocate” role. To sample how the versatile accordion can connect generations, world cultures, and musical styles with a virtuosity and wit that creates absolute hilarity, catch this video of Weird Al and two celebrity friends performing his polka version of the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”

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All Politics Is Local? That’s News to Me!

I grew up reading the New York Daily News and other local papers available on Long Island. Perhaps the biggest take-away message from my newspaper habit–and the most influential message, since I wound up becoming a journalist–was that local news is fun.

The clever headlines were fun. The mix of content, from serious to light-hearted, from dense text to compelling pictures to so many other eye-catching elements, was fun. The flow of lively local news–on TV and radio, too–helped to convince me that New York City was a great place, despite all its problems (from which I was isolated). There was energy in the air, some of it foul-smelling but always ripe for communication and conversation.

I came to believe the policies and politics which kept cities vibrant, as well as the civic life of everyday citizens whom I met vicariously, were things I could and should learn more about. The essay I wrote as part of my successful application for graduate study at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs comprised my reflections on a Newsday special report critiquing Long Island’s local governments.

Many aspects of my life were steered by the good news and the bad news I digested in a local context, feeding my imagination and aspirations to empower me for the world. No less a leader than Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill assured me that “all politics is local,” so it made sense.

This came to mind recently when I read about the slashing of jobs at the Daily News, with something like a 50 percent cut in the newsroom staff and an expected re-focusing on “breaking news.” It doesn’t make much sense. From my new vantage point in Indiana, it seems there’s a glut of “breaking news,” and much of it is actually predictable and repetitive, or distasteful and disempowering. Much of it comes from Washington, where the news is often broken–in more ways than one. (Earlier in my career, I loved covering government news in Washington, so you might say today’s brokenness breaks my heart.)

Some breaking news is wonderfully exciting to report and to read, but that occurs more at the local level. This breaking news comes with context, prompting intelligent conversations and challenging us to take intelligent actions as a community.

I expect this kind of breaking news–and local news in general–are going to keep shrinking because cities have fewer local reporters and the national media prefer national stories, commented upon by national celebrities, on shows featuring national advertisers with big budgets. Newspapers like the Daily News will have their distinctive voices further overwhelmed by remotely activated multimedia megaphones that either make information all sound alike or make it sound astoundingly different from one network to the next, leaving audiences and communities unsure what to say or do.

This reminds me of the principle of subsidiarity, a key component of Catholic social teaching, which says higher levels of government ought to let lower levels of government handle the situations that can best be handled locally. This allows for exceptions when larger crises demand the support, or subsidies, that only larger organizations can provide, but it celebrates the empowerment of civic life that more directly engages individuals, families and communities to get them talking and acting together. The local level is where Pope Francis sees much of the missionary work of the Church taking place, where people leave their pews to go out to neighborhood peripheries and accompany their brothers and sisters on complex journeys of joy and sadness, sin and saintliness.

Journalism and news organizations would benefit from applying the principle of subsidiarity more often, with locally owned media covering local events and supporting the processes by which families and community organizations work together to encounter the problems, pleasures and people they can understand best.

As section 1879 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.”

That resonates with me. In a sense, I found my vocation in the newsstands, newspaper racks, and local news shows of New York. There, I sensed society and social cohesion were being celebrated. Even during those years of my youth when society’s cohesiveness was said to be breaking down, the message in the media–at least in a Marshall McLuhan kind of way–honored the goal of social cohesion, the fact that life goes on, the idea that it’s a crazy, needy, newsworthy city in which we all should get along.

At least some of the breaking news suggested that conversation was still possible, thanks to first-hand evidence that a critical mass of folks embraced the goals of truth and trust. Journalists cultivated big ideas with big possibilities when they covered local news–and when we read it. They were having fun, and so was I.

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Society’s High Stakes, High Tensions, High Hopes

A Reflection from C-Span’s BookTV

“We’re at a point in the course of social evolution when the demands of survival converge with the higher ideals of humanity and the well-being of human society.”

That’s an observation at the close of A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, a book begun by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk and completed by his son, psychiatrist Jonathan Salk.  The recently published book, which has nothing to do with polio or the father’s career in medical research, offers a scientifically guided look into societal forces that help to explain our polarized culture and the stultified state of conversation in the public square.

I didn’t read it but did respect the author on BookTV.  Jonathan Salk’s comment resonates with me because his (and his late father’s) perspective complements social science-informed answers to the two-part question I love to ask: How did we get to this point of sharp division and uncivil discourse, and how do we get beyond it to a state of more constructive communication?

Here’s what I take away from the comment, which Salk read to his audience. The tension level in our exchanges of information have been ramped up because we believe the stakes are much higher nowadays in our interactions as individuals and groups. Discussions with political and policy implications–which we must conduct in order to be a sustainable society–not only engage our higher ideals and our visions of human well-being, but also engage our survival instincts in more intense, visceral ways.

A critical mass of people today feel they are in crisis, in one way or another. We sense a vacuum where previously our shared values, our families and faiths, our civic institutions, our economic conditions and cultural traditions, and other connective forces helped make sense of reality and reinforce our own self-confidence.

Salk describes our current times as “a point of inflection” between two “epochs,” each of which has its own basic values. Also, the first epoch is a setting of rapid growth and perceived abundance, while the second is one of slower growth and greater constraints. The two value systems are different in some basic ways, and they both have committed adherents.

I would say that, when these adherents interact with each other, they now see the other value system as a source of competition or threat, and this threat often seems existential in nature. They feel backed into a corner because, in lieu of connective forces that offered a hope for cooperation and mutual enlightenment and a productive pursuit of happiness, adherents caught in a vacuum must fight for what they have selected as their remaining sources of self-confidence.

We need to get past this inflection point in order to reach a new stability, Salk says. As I understand his argument, this might be aided by a more overarching existential threat, such as global climate change, which prompts us to see that our real hope for survival lies in banding together against a common enemy.

At no point in his BookTV presentation does Salk speak in confrontational terms involving enemies or alliances, and indeed I believe he is a person of peace who sees the human intellect’s capacity for reason and civility as a vehicle for gradually passing through this inflection point of deep change.

I share this same basic hope that we can get beyond this tense time of transition. But I wonder if this book explores considerations that reach into other aspects of human interaction which go beyond science (without in any way mooting its reasonable approaches).

My addendum to the book would warn that our culture must offer us positive alternatives to an alliance-and-enemy mindframe, to the bifurcation of old versus new, to the cultivation of conflict and existential threats as the basis of news and entertainment, and to the vacuum of values that leaves many people grasping for any self-defined anchor in a stormy sea of angst.

Values that will bring us into a new stability are not new concepts waiting to be discovered. We will have to be willing to look back toward at least some values that have been proven to offer peace and help us transcend feelings of isolation and danger. We will have to be willing to teach each other and learn from each other in renewed conversations based on truth and trust.

Faith in something–indeed, someone–bigger and more complete than ourselves will also help. Many people testify that God has taken them through inflection points in their own lives. He asks us always to be receptive to positive change and conversion in a process of continuous quality improvement that is certainly compatible with scientific thinking.

News media and all venues of information and conversation will find themselves more compatible with scientific reasoning–and with the values that can carry us through profound social changes–if they rely less on doctrinaire labeling, deconstruction or destruction of insights from the past, and the weaponization of self-confidence. These are obstacles of small-picture, fragmented thinking that can make important inflection points impassable.

#DRIBDRAB — I didn’t read it but did respect the author on BookTV.


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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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