When Headlines Hurt (blog)

Blog posts directly related to the book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? — The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, can be found in the OnWord.net front-page blog: purchase and links to resources, first publication, basic concept of the book.

The blog posts below represent ongoing reflections about the everyday connections between the Pope’s message and our world of information.

A News Media-tor for a “Peace Movement”

July 8, 2018

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 remarks 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.”

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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 title as part of the main navbar at OnWord.net.)

No Civil War, but a “Civility” War?

July 9, 2018

“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 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.”

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

July 26, 2018

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.

 

Let’s Make Our Peace with Paradox

August 12, 2018

One contribution the Catholic faith can make to the flow of information and conversation in our polarized society is the ability we can show, when we Catholics are at our best, to accept paradox.

I learned a lot about paradox from the great British writer G. K. Chesterton, who lived early in the 20th century. Some of what I learned came from reading his books, which are chock full of paradoxes that often make the reader stop and think, and even smile. I also learned a lot from the series that ran for several years on the EWTN Catholic TV network, “G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense.”

Many people in our country, starting with opinion leaders, need to “chill” and accept the fact that reality is packed with apparent contradictions. Human beings themselves are packed with contradictions; they  sometimes behave well, sometimes badly. They are flawed, even though they spend much of their time making themselves look perfect on Facebook. Paradoxes arise in the world because two statements can both be true—that is, accurate reflections of reality—and still be contradictory.

The TV show about Chesterton, hosted by American Chesterton Society president Dale Ahlquist, points out that their hero’s writings are filled with hope-filled, wonder-filled paradoxes, and so is the Bible.

In the case of the Bible, we see such paradoxical situations as a virgin giving birth, Christ’s promise that the dead shall rise, those who are persecuted being called “blessed,” and accepting trials and persecutions with joy.

In the case of the British journalist, who was also a poet, essayist, book author, illustrator, and playwright, we are given paradoxical statements that stop us cold but also brighten our darkness. Chesterton says things like:

  • Man is superior to all the things around him, but is also at their mercy.
  • Men can always be blind to a thing so long as it is big enough.
  • The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.
  • “We cannot imagine courage existing except in conjunction with fear.”
  • Men tire of new things, such as fashions and products that are, as they say, “new and improved.” But old things “startle and intoxicate,” the legendary author points out.

Truth is strange, improbable, and paradoxical, Ahlquist points out in his program’s “Riddles of God” episode, echoing Chesterton’s insights. (The insights are repeated in Ahlquist’s book, Common Sense 101.)

I would add that St. Francis of Assisi, as evinced in the original “Peace Prayer of St. Francis” (which he actually did not write although it is a good mirror of his viewpoints), also saw reality as paradoxical. Indeed, he saw Jesus Christ—the way, the truth, and the life—as a paradoxical figure. Certainly, the prayer suggests that peace will come from our emulation of Christ, which requires us to be contrarian and contradictory (or, as I would argue, disruptive in the best sense, bringing a complementary counterforce to a situation in a surprising, salutary way.

  • We pray that we might sow love where there is hatred;
  • We pray to bring hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness;
  • We quell our natural desire to be understood so we can focus on understanding others;
  • We acknowledge that it is in giving that we receive, in dying that we are born to eternal life.

My whole point here is that conversation often gets shut down today because participants can’t imagine that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true—whether they might be observations of people or situations or society at large. Some people see the addition of a contradiction or a question about one’s argument as an obnoxious act, as a violation of today’s rules of non-engagement.

Perhaps opinion leaders feel too much pressure to be clear in their soundbites and to conform to labels or truisms or “party lines.” In these cases, they act more like opinion followers, and those “news consumers” who embrace (and perhaps re-tweet or otherwise spread) oversimplified statements continue in the “follower” mode. No one is really leading by simply observing and pointing out a more complicated reality. These complexities—or overlooked points of possible agreement about truth—may be the very points where conversations can be sustained and can even yield solutions to today’s problems.

So, here’s to paradox. We may not be comfortable with it if we are determined to be seen as completely, immediately correct or certain or in control of a situation. But Chesterton knew that our human flaws and our fallen state  require us to be humble, more willing to learn or at least discuss. That helps explain the quote from him in Chapter Six of my When Headlines Hurt book, where he defines journalism as the art of “pretending to know.”

The pleasure and the potential of discovering paths toward solving problems and unlocking mysteries may be found in the paradox of a situation, in the “rest of the story,” as radio journalist Paul Harvey used to say. Acceptance of this fact will often preclude our society’s current love for the simplified shortcut through an argument or the prefabricated understanding readily consumed and regurgitated. Recognition of paradox will make news consumption and conversation more challenging. But, as Chesterton proved a century ago, it will make for good reading, good writing, good exchanges of insight, and good hope.

Echoes of Hope from a Journalistic Legend: Seymour Hersh

August 22, 2018

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.

 

“Farsighted” Decisions and Nearsighted News

September 17, 2018

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.