Television Journalism – an Oxymoron?

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Did you know that in the not so distant past, television networks were required by the FCC to broadcast a minimum 30 minutes of news programming per day? This is because in the days of Walter Kronkite, news programs did not make money for the networks. News shows generally consisted of sober, dispassionate reports on national and world events.

The likes of Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley were distinguished, mostly unemotional, anchors who provided facts, not drama. Programs such as the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour had in-depth reports that were never very sexy, but always informative and thoughtful.

In the 1970s, network news executives began to see the money-making potential of their news programming. With the advent of CNN in 1980, the 24-hour news cycle was born. This beast required constant feeding with dramatic footage and more colorful personalities that could keep the attention of the TV audience. Thus, we had the networks beating the dead horse of such events as the high speed chase of O.J. Simpson in his Ford Bronco (pun intended).

As news became less about informing the public and more about entertaining the masses, the sound bite became ubiquitous. Instead of those in-depth reports, we are now treated to numerous short segments and the repetition of key clips that will outrage, amuse, or titillate the audience. How many times did we need to hear Bill Clinton claim, “I did not have sex with that woman”?

These developments have led to the trivialization of the news and the increasing unprofessionalism of news personalities. In the past few weeks, for example, we have seen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly being accused of exaggerating or outright fabricating their involvement in certain high-profile news events. We have a Cleveland morning show news anchor using the racial slur “jigaboo” on live TV.

The ideals of journalism are still alive and well in print and online form. There are many distinguished newspapers, magazines, and online sites. But the vast majority of American citizens get their news from television. And that is why the state of TV news is so disturbing to me.

I get teased because I never know the latest news until I have read about it the next day in the newspaper. But until television news gets more professional and informative, I will stick with the less sensational daily paper.

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Above the Fray

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You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.
-James 1:19

The other day I posted what I thought was a humorous dig by satirist Andy Borowitz on my Facebook page. It hit back at conservative accusations that President Obama does not love America. So I felt justified about the mud-slinging. On reflection, though, I decided to remove the post.

I thought about Pres. Obama himself and realized that he has always – at least publicly – stayed above the fray in attacks on his citizenship, religious beliefs, and patriotism. It is tempting, and all too easy, to call someone names or cast baseless aspersions at the person. More than ever, though, in this age of instant communication via the internet, it is important to heed the wise words from the Bible’s book of James.

Recently a Facebook friend has been posting information about a Bible study series called “Keep It Shut.” It is based on a book by Karen Ehman that encourages women to think before they speak and, in some cases, know when not to speak at all. Clearly, people are seeing the need to start taking the high road in our online (and offline) communications.

I am not advocating silence in the face of injustice. I am not saying people shouldn’t share their opinions and ideas on Facebook. But we could all stand to be a little more thoughtful in the way we communicate our point of view.

As the title of my blog indicates, I am quite opinionated and more than happy to share my opinions with everyone else. But I resolve to avoid ad hominem attacks and name-calling while doing so. I may still chuckle when I read a clever put down by Andy Borowitz, but I will think before I Share.

Happy Anniversary

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A year ago today, I began this blog. Filled with excitement and determination, I declared to the blogosphere my decision to pursue my writing. Every week for the past year, I have written at least two blog posts, and as I have gotten used to that minor discipline, I have found it much easier to put my thoughts in writing.

I also began writing once a month for my hometown newspaper The Hinsdalean. Having come up with all kinds of ideas for blog posts has made it easy to find subjects for my column as well.

There have been failures and frustrations. One is that I have fallen off from daily work on my memoir. Doubt has crept into the process, and I feel certain what I have written is nothing but garbage. Today is a good day to recommit to the process. If you are a writer, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I think it might be time for me to revisit that wise book of advice for artists.

The one thing I am proudest of, however, is that I have ventured out into the public sphere with my own beliefs and opinions. I have tried to be as authentically me as I can be. If that is one of the goals of life, then I am on my way.

Thank you, readers, for taking the time to hear me out. I love getting comments, both here and on Facebook. And I look forward to sharing a part of myself with you in the year to come.

Scout’s Honor

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I have my philosophical differences with the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, I never encouraged my own boys to join a troop while they were growing up. But a story in my local paper has given me a new respect for some of what Boy Scouts teaches.

Mark Doose, a 19-year-old college student from Hinsdale, Illinois, was recently rescued after spending 48 hours lost in the Swiss Alps. With no working cell phone and no food, Doose made his way toward safety after becoming disoriented while skiing in heavy snowfall.

What saved him were the lessons he learned in Boy Scouts. He knew to use landmarks such as the pylons for chairlifts to head toward town. He also slept in a snow hut he made because he had learned the insulating properties of snow from his Clarendon Hills, Illinois, Scout troop. Eventually his calls for help were heard, and he was rescued by helicopter and escaped permanent injuries.

Perhaps the most important thing Boy Scouts taught Mark Doose was confidence and persistence. He says he never gave up because he was focused on using the problem-solving skills he had learned in Boy Scouts.

I would love for the Boy Scouts of America to make changes that would be more inclusive and also more transparent in order to protect the well-being of young boys. But I cannot deny the benefits of the survival and life skills acquired from membership in Boy Scouts.

(Photo and story details from The Chicago Tribune, Feb. 12, 2015)

Brutality Meets Blessedness

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The world was saddened Tuesday with news of the death of young Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker who was taken hostage more than a year ago by Islamic State terrorists. Kayla’s young, smiling face has been gracing the covers of newspapers and online news feeds since the tragedy was made public.

By most accounts, Kayla Mueller led a life defined by service to others. She went into poor and war-torn areas to give aid and comfort to those suffering, whether it be from wartime displacement, AIDS, hunger, abuse, or neglect.

A letter published by her family also reveals the deep faith that inspired her to give her all to service and helped strengthen her during her months-long ordeal. She wrote, “I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no one else.”

If Kayla were Catholic, she might one day be a candidate for sainthood. Certainly, most Christians would call her “blessed.” In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he describes the qualifications for blessedness.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Kayla recognized her helplessness and relied on God.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” Kayla suffered primarily by worrying about the anguish her captivity was causing her family.

“Blessed are the meek.” Kayla sought work in the most unglamorous locations in the world. Most of us would never have heard of her had she not been killed.

“Blessed are the merciful.” Kayla ministered to the sick and downtrodden.

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” Even in captivity, she tried winning over her captors and teaching them crafts.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.” Aside from some hateful naysayers, most of us would agree that her heart was as big as an ocean. How else to explain her contention, while being held hostage, that “there is good in any situation”?

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness.” There is a strange irony in the fact that Kayla was helping Syrian refugees when abducted by ISIS.

A favorite hymn of mine has the words, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” I can’t help but hope that at least some of Kayla’s captors will be transformed by her self-sacrificing love and move away from violence and hate, toward peace.

Religious Intolerance

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President Obama’s remarks about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast last week have been fodder for conservative critics since they pounced on his words immediately afterwards. Never mind context. Nuance is for suckers, apparently.

The statement was part of a broader plea for religious tolerance and understanding as we face the rise of Islamic extremism in our world. President Obama’s suggestion that we get off our “high horse” and recognize the terrible deeds that have been done supposedly in the name of Christianity speaks to the hypocrisy and danger of recent anti-Muslim furor.

I find it interesting that conservative critics seized upon the Crusades comments while ignoring Obama’s reminder of the home grown terror whites have visited upon blacks from the time of slavery. We don’t have to go back even to the days of slavery to find instances of cross burning and lynchings on the part of the “Christian” terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan.

After the horrific immolation of a Jordanian pilot by ISIS, memes started popping up on Facebook with quotes such as “I will kill his wife and his friends,” purportedly stated by King Abdullah of Jordan. Violent revenge is not a useful strategy for defeating an enemy, yet the comments following these memes were heartily approving.

I do not necessarily object to a military operation to defeat ISIS. But the point that the president was making is that evil lurks in the hearts of most human beings. Stating that Christianity has also been used as a pretext for barbarism does not excuse Islamic extremists. And I do not think President Obama was trying to excuse it. He was merely appealing for a measure of calm, indeed a humbling of ourselves before the Almighty, before we sharpen our swords.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.” (theatlantic.com, Feb. 6, 2015)

The rise of Islamic extremism poses great dangers and challenges for us as a nation. Let’s keep the politics out of it, and let’s not lose our humanity in the process.

Those Ubiquitous Book Lists

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The internet is filled with lists: top 10 places to retire, 15 life hacks you will love, the 12 worst fashions making a comeback etc. I find these lists kind of interesting, but the ones that bother me a bit are the ones related to books.

Recently on my Facebook news feed, I have seen such lists as 23 Books You Didn’t Read in High School but Actually Should, 32 Books That Will Actually Change your Life, and the 18 Greatest Books Ever Written (or something to that effect). My reaction to all these lists was, Really? On whose say so?Purporting to know the greatest or most life-changing books strikes me as a bit on the arrogant side. Some of the choices seem so arbitrary.

Aside from the fact that people have their distinct preferences and tastes in types of literature, is there a way to determine which books throughout history are the best? When I was teaching at an elite girls’ school in Los Angeles, we in the English department would have disagreements about what works to include in our curriculum. One of the teachers asserted that there are certain “chestnuts” of literature that all students should be required to read. I disagree.

Often this attitude is used to justify a canon of literature that includes only “dead white guys,” so to speak. In the 80s in particular, so-called reformers like Bill Bennett took aim at more inclusive reading lists that featured writers of different colors and ethnicities. They revealed a clear bias in favor of a Eurocentric, Western approach to studying literature. I’m not saying that works like The Scarlet Letter or Plato’s Republic are unimportant. I just think there are so many different works that are rich in meaning and language that it is wrong to narrow our lists into those “chestnuts.”

So how do you judge a book? Not by its cover, certainly. As an example, a best-selling author named Kristin Hannah publishes novels with romantic-looking covers that make the books seem like light fluff, a beach read, if you will. Yet Hannah tackles serious issues, such as an injured pilot returning from Iraq, and detailed historical accounts of such events as the siege of Leningrad. Her books are deep, well-written, and anything but fluff.

I do think there are literary standards one can use to decide whether a book is good. (Hint: Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t meet these standards.) But a book’s greatness can only really be judged by time. A good example is To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s only novel (though as I write this, news has come out that a second novel is to be published after all these years). Generations have loved this deceptively simple tale of a young girl growing up in the South and experiencing the narrow-mindedness and prejudice, along with the moral courage and kindness, that can exist in a small American town.

Still, if TKAM doesn’t float your boat, that doesn’t mean you are a literary heathen. There are numerous “classics” that I, a former English teacher, have no intention of reading. I find Herman Melville’s writing to be hopelessly dull and James Joyce’s to be impenetrable. I don’t think this makes me a philistine.

I guess there’s no harm in this never-ending parade of book lists. At least we’ve got people who spend a lot of time on the internet talking about books – and, I hope, powering down the devices and picking up one of them.