Archive for the ‘media’ Category

The Trend in News Media

March 26, 2019

There’s lots of commentary about the role of news media these days, but I was startled by this quote from a very old source: Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay on the paranoid style in American politics. He was writing in the era of McCarthyism regarding the role of radio and daily newspapers, but he sounds pretty current:

The “growth of the mass media of communication and their use in politics have brought politics closer to the people than ever before and have made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved. Thus it has become, more than ever before, an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected. Mass communications have made it possible to keep the mass man in an almost constant state of political mobilization.”

Breathe Deep and Practice Kindness

July 17, 2018

We went to see the Mr. Rogers movie this week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and learned that Fred was an uncanny person—no different in real life than on TV—who remembered vividly the vulnerabilities children feel. He had been a bullied fat kid himself. Deeply dedicated to kindness, he set out to use a medium not known for kindness—television–as a national service to comfort children.

I found the movie very touching, particularly because I’ve half-forgotten that kindness is normal. If Mr. Rogers seems weird—and sometimes he does–it’s because our world has gotten so weird.

This was the message behind my niece Libby Echeverria’s “Perspective” on our local public radio station. It’s a lovely piece, worth hearing. She describes a series of encounters in her neighborhood coffee shop: an interracial gathering of young men comparing tattoos, and a homeless man who wanders in brandishing a feather. She half-expected trouble, but in fact, she was surprised to see people treating each other with dignity and thoughtfulness. The young men pulled out Bibles and launched into a study of Philippians. An older man got a chair for the homeless man. “I realized that through breathing the toxic air of our country these days, I have developed an unconscious bias that I can’t trust people to do the right thing. I am on edge….”

Mass media and politics and social media bring out the troll in us. We need to breathe deep and practice kindness. Or so Mr. Rogers would tell us.


Pulitzer Proud

April 20, 2018

I’m so proud that my local newspaper, the Press Democrat, won the Pulitzer Prize for news reporting. It’s a great newspaper, and a huge asset to our community. Take a look at  this photo, which was on the front page of the paper announcing the win. It captures joy and surprise so wonderfully! These reporters worked incredibly hard covering the fires, and as this is not the golden age of newspaper journalism, their joy has special significance to me.pulitzer

More Newspapers!

February 1, 2017

Yesterday I subscribed (digitally) to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. I already subscribe to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (my excellent local paper) and The New York Times, and I really don’t need more reading opportunities. However, as I think about strategic action in these troubled times, I keep coming back to investigative reporting. We need reporters who dig deep and present facts about complicated matters. (We have plenty of opinions already.) Sorry, TV and the internet don’t do that. Newspapers do. And they need money!

I look on these added subscriptions just like my annual contributions to the Yosemite Conservancy and my local public radio stations and Amnesty International. They are for the public good.

What To Do  

December 16, 2016

A lot of us are alarmed about the state of America, and many are asking what they can do. Here’s my answer: subscribe to a newspaper.

There are so many issues that require good reporting. Just to name a few, we have questions about whether the FBI or the CIA has been politicized, questions about whether, how and why Russia tried to influence our election, questions about the future of healthcare. None of these can be answered by pontificating partisans on TV, let alone by Twitter. They need careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting.

A bigger question is whether America has become a post-truth society, with citizens who think the world is just a big reality TV show. At the least, we are drifting that way. Countering these tendencies requires citizens who read careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting, and don’t get their information from TV talking heads and tweets.

Good reporting and reliable sources of information start with newspapers. Nothing so far has surfaced to replace them. Yet newspapers are economically imperiled, and their readership has dropped. Therefore, a very practical contribution to these difficult times is to subscribe. That way, the newspapers get your money to pay their reporters; and you get better access to information.

Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

July 21, 2015

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

Robert Schuller

April 14, 2015

Christianity Today Magazine has published my lengthy retrospective on Robert Schuller.  (He died April 2.) Schuller was an important figure in 20th century American Christianity, with enormous influence. My best line: “He did for church what Disneyland did for amusement parks.” That may sound snarky, but if you think about how Disneyland changed the image of amusement parks (formerly seedy, dirty, morally dubious) you’ll understand that it’s not. For a certain generation, Schuller rehabilitated church, making it a happy, light-filled, positive place. But did that transformation really work? Thinking  about Schuller makes you consider seriously whether the Christian faith can be managed through a marketing campaign. He wasn’t the first or the last to try, but he was purer than most–and more skillful than most–in his wholehearted commitment.


January 27, 2015

Just a note to encourage you to see Selma. I’ve spent some time in Selma, visiting relatives and also doing research for my civil rights novel Birmingham, and it was good to see that big ugly bridge on film.

Yes, the movie does distort history rather badly regarding Lyndon Johnson and his response to the Civil Rights movement.

On the other hand, it’s strikingly accurate regarding the events in Selma. For one thing it portrays M.L. King as something less than an absolute hero of the movement. Selma was not King’s finest hour and the movie shows it as such. It also accurately portrays King as the indispensable leader of the movement, a man whose voice and reputation could draw reporters and move the masses. There’s an open-ended quality to Selma’s storytelling that leaves you in some doubt as to what actually happened–why did King turn back?–and who were the people most to admire.

Also, the movie doesn’t underplay nor overplay the role of faith in the movement. It clearly shows it as a church movement, with ministers leading the way. It doesn’t make them any better or any worse than they were, nor does it overly dramatize their faith struggles. It’s just factual: this is where it happened (in church); this is who led (the ministers); this is what they said (God cares about our treatment). This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any big deal, but think about all the ways that Hollywood could play this. They were willing to distort Johnson’s role in order to make a better story; they could have done the same with matters of faith.

All that aside, it’s a pretty good movie and tells an important chapter of our history. The acting is good, the cinematography is good. The faces of the many extras they recruited in Selma are wonderful to observe.

A Good Local Newspaper

January 8, 2015

A friend’s father was murdered a few weeks before Christmas. He was shot at a trailhead after a botched robbery, with his wife witnessing his death. The murderer drove off to shoot another person a few miles away (though not fatally) and attempt another robbery before he was apprehended.

When I heard of this awful crime (through email) I immediately googled it to learn more. In subsequent days I searched the internet repeatedly. All I found, however, was one short, incomplete story from a television station. It gave no names and only the sketchiest information. Apart from that, it appeared that the crime did not exist.

I think there is a simple reason for the blackout: the area has no local daily newspaper.

I live in a community that has an excellent local newspaper, The Press Democrat, thoroughly covering local crime, local sports, local business, local politics and any other local news you can think of. I guarantee you that had my friend’s father been killed in our county, there would have been several detailed stories, with followup pieces on the subsequent prosecution and trial of the murderer.

There are many reasons to worry over the demise of newspapers. For me, most important is that the number of reporters assigned to national and international stories has plummeted, and with it the supply of in-depth understanding of complex stories. Twitter feeds are great for updates on spectacular ongoing dramas, but they don’t make up for the loss of experienced reporters.

Local newspapers don’t contribute much to this kind of investigative journalism, and never have. They have always depended on feeds from AP or the New York Times or other big media outlets for their national and international news. What local newspapers uniquely do, however, is create community. In particular, they assure us that nobody’s murder goes unnoticed by the community at large.

Double Standard

December 16, 2014

In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.

America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:

“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”

That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!

As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.

The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.

The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.

Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is  more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”

Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.

But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.