American Media: Other Half of the Story

For those of you dear readers who presume that I am going forward with more stories about the dastardly behavior and stupidity of reporters as a way to illustrate what’s gone terribly wrong with American media–you are about to be disabused.  I am not.  And for the record, most of the newsgathering reporters I have met–well, it’s been an honor and a privilege–and they work long and woefully underpaid hours, under pressure to do more and more work across more and more media platforms, at greater speed–and during most of those hours (if not every single minute, but then we are all human, yes?) they try their damnedest to be fair.

Good reporters cannot rest until they feel they have found the whole of a story, as if such were the holy grail, the righteousness after which we are supposed to hunger and thirst and then be fed.  I know, I know, immediately appearing in mind are any number of well-known pundits, bloggers and cable TV personalities who do not seem to fit my description.  But now take a minute and think about it.  Every profession has its hacks–law, medicine, mechanics, priesthood.  It’s a rare and precious day when you encounter someone who has a calling to do what he or she does.  My latest is a dentist in New York, a Ukrainian immigrant–so, yes, now I will be going to NYC for my dental work.  I don’t know about good dentists (paucity or plethora), but I do know, having met them, that there are enough fine reporters laying down for posterity the American narrative that I can assert, as I did yesterday, that bias, liberal or otherwise, is not the problem.

If there are so many honest reporters, you well may ask, then why is there a widening gulf between the world of media and the world in which the rest of us live?  Why hasn’t the full and fair reportage been able to build–at least, help to build–a bridge of respect and trust?

The big reason–and this is the other half of the communication & connection chasm:  you, American consumer of news, you are the problem.  You are not listening.  You are not joining in that hunger and thirst for the truth.  For the record–and symptomatic is my need to say this–I am pointing to Democrats and Republicans alike, to atheists and believers, to all, including me.

An oddity of our American life right now, still in the early years of a new century, is our satiety.  This is a strange problem to have, considering that the American standard of living is declining and job insecurity is likely to be a defining characteristic of the younger generations coming along.  But we no longer hunger and thirst.  We are accustomed to so much that we have lost the ability to acknowledge the abundance we take for granted.  In my life, moving back and forth between California and Texas, I meet many, many immigrants who have done well in this country, and often one reason they work so incredibly hard at jobs native-born Americans would never deign to consider is that they have an acute, visceral memory of real stomach-clenching hunger.  In the same way, through the lives of my daughters, who are peripatetic academics living and working here and there around the world, I hear about their peers, in these other countries, who are aware, acutely, of what it means not to enjoy freedom of the press.

We no longer thirst for the truth.  Yes, this is much to do with larger forces than choices we each make.  We no longer gather around the radio in the evening to get the war news, as my parents’ and grandparents’ generations did.  We no longer congregate so habitually, as if we were all one big American family slowly being introduced to a kind of national disturbance, in front of the home television for the half-hour dinner time report, in color, from that ABC, NBC or CBS man in Vietnam.  That was the defining American news experience of my teenage years.

On the contrary.  We are inundated with news, opinion, statistics, faux news, breaking news, tweets, text messages, social media pings, friends’ email links, frantic doomsday scenario letters from politicians and their celebrity flacks–and just plain salacious gossip.  It’s too much of a good thing.  But at the end of the day, if we do not hear, it is our fault.  All the freedoms with which we Americans have been blessed are based upon personal responsibility.

Therefore, dear friends, if you believe that American media has a liberal bias, or if you believe, to the contrary, that a nefarious conservatism is gripping the nation, you have become a news couch potato.  Life is so easy, even pleasurable, validated, your own fears and suspicions and experiences confirmed, when you return again and again to the cosy nest of Fox News or MSNBC.  To The Nation or The Weekly Standard.

Let me be clear.  You are not getting an adequate daily dose of news if you watch only Fox or MSNBC, read only liberal or conservative blogs.  If a major source of your news (be honest) is email–specifically, the links sent around by like-minded friends and their friends. If you read and listen to people like you only.

When you consider just for a minute, you will realize that the charge of liberal bias in American media is quite ridiculous.  The Wall Street Journal is the second-most influential paper in the country.  It is profoundly conservative.  I can think of only one editorial in the last few years with a bit of grudging praise for President Obama.  Furthermore, the WSJ is on a roll.  I say that because in Silicon Valley the WSJ weekend edition has become a must-read.  (All that conservatism must “bleed through”–to use Arthur Brisbane’s verb–the glorious articles on houses, food, books and culture.)  In our pre-eminent paper, the New York Times, the columnists hitting their stride right now are David Brooks and Ross Douthat, both conservatives, with what influence, from their op-ed page perches, we can but imagine.

I am going to close for the day with a widening of our lens, because the disconnect between media and public is really only a harbinger of the larger challenge facing the United States in this century.  That challenge is globalism, and the need to embrace it, ride it, wield it for our best uses.  So far, we Americans are not doing very well in coping with the new dynamic.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the iconic American song “Shenandoah,” recordings of it, and how they illuminate our difficulties here.

Most singers do versions of the first verse–and a magnificent capturing of the American experience it is:

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you/Way, hey, you rolling river/Oh, Shenandoah, I long to see you/Away, I’m bound across the wide Missouri.

Today most Americans probably couldn’t point to the  Shenandoah Valley or the Missouri River on a U.S. map if their lives depended upon it.  But we all get, in our gut, the song.  We are a journeying nation, always on the move, many of us from someplace else.  We are a people who feel pulled forward, upward or downward, but always away, by something larger and more powerful than ourselves.  The price for that is homesickness, for where we were born, for our childhood, for who and what we left behind. The song is great because it captures perfectly that moment when innocence is not quite relinquished but the premonition of its loss pervades all.

Few singers do the second verse.  Here is Connie Dover’s version of the lyrics:

For seven years I courted Nancy/No other girl would suit my fancy/She would not have me for her lover/But I never courted any other/One day she went to Kansas City/And there she had a little baby/She must have had another lover/It must have been that cavalry soldier/Oh Shenandoah, I loved your daughter/Though she’ll never cross your shining water.

Huh??? Kansas City? Not a place with a particularly salubrious reputation, back then.  And a baby, out-of-wedlock?  So, wait a minute.  Are we singing about a place we left behind or some girl who broke our heart?  Is she dead now?  Or something?  Who, or what, or where, was Shenandoah, anyhow?

The song is no longer simple and straightforward.  The narrative has gone messy on us.  We Americans, just like most humans, move towards the simple and straightforward.  We do not like messy and confused.  We are not at ease with complication.

This is why we are having so much trouble with embracing globalism.  Globalism entails complexity.  Other peoples–from necessity, or seizing a moment, or the toughness of spirit that arises from being a nation of survivors–have found their sea legs here.  I am always struck by how much more easily my daughters’ colleagues from the countries of the former Soviet Union, and my husband’s colleagues from South Asia, move and work around the world with such assurance and aplomb.  The people, and their leaders who will ride the wave of globalism are those men and women, from any and everywhere, who can handle the complicated and the ever-more interconnected.

In this new world, it is not surprising that the facts and contexts of news stories are ever more multi-faceted and nuanced.  We want–oh so dearly we want–choices about business regulation, delivering health care, providing jobs to be simple.  But we longer live in society that can solve problems with WPA projects.

Good journalism, therefore, is increasingly infused with nuance and detail that can be difficult to assess, to consume, to build upon.

I have never been a believer in American exceptionalism, but I do believe that we have a reservoir of resolve waiting to be tapped.  Ironically, it is our great good fortune as Americans (our geography, our wealth, our immigrant heritage, our multi-culturalism, our free press and legal system, the fact that our homeland was spared the horrors of the last century’s wars) that hinders us now.  We have grown spoiled, soft.  We cannot wrap our minds and will around a great change:  being American is no longer enough.

Personally, I believe in a teleological universe.  But its laws are pitiless.  Those who can adapt to global complexity will thrive.  My daughters are part of a new generation of internationalists whose breadth of experience and knowledge and acceptance of difference, not to mention mastery of languages, are gradually drawing them away from that identification with nationhood that has driven western history for almost half a millennium.  I can hardly comprehend the scope of their lives.  For the rest of us, we will adapt as we are able.

American journalism would be remiss if it did not reflect this new complexity.  You don’t want to have to deal with it?  Stick with Fox or MSNBC.  But the real story of women and the Republican Party?  Not one-sided.  President Obama’s European-style socialist agenda?  Yes and no.

As a sometime-reporter, I follow the persecution of  journalists in China and Turkey.  Not to mention the astonishing number of journalist executions in Mexico.  Labor Day approaches here–always convention time–prompting patriotic reflection–and so an occasion to honor our freedom of press.  Not to say that we don’t self-censor.  It always amuses me that the press, at large, pretends that the Fourth Great Awakening, which is the fount of so much in current politics, never happened.  American reporters today are not comfortable writing about religious events.  A lapse with consequences–always, always consequences.  But,  meanwhile, we live at the end of a golden age of American journalism.  A golden age!  Did you know that?  We are fortunate.  So very fortunate.  Let us celebrate this time of ours by going online and reading more and ever more from the great range of the American reportorial voice.


Tomorrow:  where to find good reporting.  great reporting from Tampa.  the lesser forces weakening American journalism.  all the more reason to celebrate Tampa.  and you opine journalism is meretricious now–let me tell you about the American nineteenth century paper.  Weekend:  the choices reporters make.  why don’t we listen to Robert Darnton on the role of the press in the French Revolution? could have been a corrective to a choice we made in 2008. looking forward to Charlotte:  will there be consequences then of that choice we made?







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