Monday, October 26, 2009

The Real Color of News

Last week while getting my urban fix in New York City, I stepped into a church a block from Times Square. The doors were wide open and this sign ("Sinners Repaint") was posted at the aisle. And I confess, the sign—not the stained glass or the cathedral ceiling—grabbed my attention.

I was impressed by its creativity and though the parish leaders probably only hoped to raise renovation funds, I couldn't help but take up its cause. I'd been troubled by the recent media obsessions with non-stories (flying hoaxes, slimy talk show hosts) and more troubled still by the blatant ideologies behind which many television stations hide in the name of ratings, playing to party lines that reinforce what people want to hear (as opposed to what's true). So I decided this nifty little sign could indeed be a call to today's journalists to get back to the business of painting the truth as it is, not as a prop for an agenda. I know there are thousands of reporters out there doing good work but the corporate execs who run the Fox 'news' shows, the MSNBC's or CNN's of the world, too often slather on a lot more color than story, burying the truth beneath distracting hype. 

Granted, no news can be 100 percent biased-free. It's impossible, because the folks who write and report it are full of opinions and experiences that have shaped their perspectives. We all are. It's the lens through which we view the world. Even so, journalists—by definition of the vocation—are required to lay aside as best they can their values and views to get at the truth for the good of the people they serve. The methodology of reporting, then, actually can be  more objective than the reporter himself, even in television. (Think Murrow or Amanapour.) But the second any professional journalist reveals his position, he knows (or used to anyway) he's got a credibility problem. It's called: conflict of interest. 

In other words, citizens don't need to know what a reporter believes or what political party she subscribes to in order to a make sense of the details and information the reporter has provided in a story. Which means, we don't need to know that the president of Fox news is a staunch supporter of the Republican party (recent 'reports' have linked him as a possible presidential candidate). In fact, I'm worried about any news outlet that publicly promotes its colors. (Don't we cringe when we hear of ideologically-driven media in other countries controlled by political or government thugs?) When it happens here, and it does every time we flick on the television set, the lines become blurrier for citizens who already struggle to discern truth from opinion, fact from agenda. And that's dangerous for a culture which relies on news like an artist does his muse.

So we need to roll up our sleeves and repaint our newsrooms with truth—not slogans. Or at the very least, find the sources that still value truth—not agenda—as the real color of the news.

Monday, October 12, 2009

In Defense of the Prize(s)

What an irony that the recent announcement of this year's Nobel Peace Prize has created such a war of words. Between the canons shot across various Web sites and blogs, the bombs dropped in countless opinion columns, and the bullets shot from thousands of Tweets, the online news world is experiencing a 21st century battle of sentences and exclamation marks. Again. It was too early, many say, and too ridiculous; or too exciting, too cool, too soon or too hard to live up to; between the soldiers of campaigns, the bloggers with agendas, the professional reporters and the engaged citizens bent on adding to the barrage, all have pulled the pin of a grenade and tossed it online.

I, for one, couldn't be happier. At the discussion, that is. Such explosive discourse is the stuff of free speech and democracy after all. We need it. We need to challenge opinions, argue points, investigate new territory. Each step on the battlefield helps us decide for ourselves and come to our own conclusions about how we, too, can work for peace in our own worlds and spheres of influence, that is, if we can actually decipher the authentic discussion beneath the attacks.

Still, for all the digital combat about President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, I wonder if another bias is behind the rhetoric. Is it more about utilitarian functionality than character? Does it reveal a preference for the ends while ignoring the means? Put another way, does all this angst say more about how Americans are addicted to end results with little regard for process? What has he done, for Pete's sake, we ask? Not what has he been.

Is it too simplistic to consider if the new president has promoted global peace—simply by being new or by having the same skin color as many of the world's population or by using his gift of language to inspire anew? Which brings us full circle in this war of words: Isn't peace-making as much about challenging perceptions and attitudes as it is about ending wars?

Then again, maybe all this smoke had nothing to do with the Nobel selection. Maybe the naysayers just wanted another reason to toss their grenades. At which point, the prize of genuine discourse gets blown to pieces. So much for world peace.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

When Hard News Gets Too . . . Hard

This is Bob's car. It's parked next to his garden and his 100 year old house, which you can't see here but I'll report to you that it's in need of a paint job. Bob—who is 87 years old—lives just around the corner from my husband and me, and only has so much time and energy these days for a couple of things that matter to him. Painting isn't one of them. But his award-winning dahlias are; he grows them every year and enters them in the Topsfield Fair. They're glorious flowers, and it's not hard to figure out why he wins (and why he neglects his house).

Bob also makes time for visits everyday; he climbs into his funny little Chrysler box car, drives about a 150 yards, parks and then hobbles up the steps to visit our neighbor Mary, who's 92. (She insists they're just friends.) Bob's mission is quick and simple: he's delivering bananas that were on sale, or soup he made for Mary and his brother, or a sandwich. She opens the door to greet him, he talks about the news (I can hear them from my porch across the street). They exchange food and health reports and then he turns to his car to drive the 150 yards back to his dahlias and brother. It's a five minute story I watch regularly. I can't help myself.

This past week I also read about other stories: the horrors of Sumatra's earthquake; U.S. unemployment climbing to 10 percent; Samoa's tsunami devastating villages; and young American teens gunned down in 'can't make sense of it' violence. There are health care concerns dividing our country, increasing casualties in Afghanistan, and rising suicides in western countries like France and England linked to economic woes. Maybe there's more than one reason it's called hard news. And you don't have to search very long—on Internet sites or broadcast programs or in the paper—to find it. I'm glad to have such immediate access these days to the events that happen daily beyond my neighborhood.

But some days, I could use more stories like Bob's. I suspect we all could. Not that the others aren't crucial to know. They are. And technology has made news more accessible to us than ever, shaping our roles and responsibilities as global citizens. Still, the view from the porch is equally important. It links me back to the stories around me, to the dahlias which can soften even the hardest of news—especially when they're just around the corner, like this one in Bob's front yard.