Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Citizenship and Belonging

essaysbysean.blogspot.com

Headnote: This month’s cover story (April) for Oprah’s magazine is, “What would you stand for?” 
Closely related, in my mind, to: Of what would you say, “This I believe?”


Hello Reader,
Got citizenship?


On the Internet is an old radio broadcast by a science fiction novelist, and Saturday Evening Post short-story writer, Robert Heinlein. His brief talk was part of the old This I Believe radio series where plain speaking folks, some of them everyday citizens, some of them famous like Helen Keller, would read a brief essay on what they believe. Heinlein’s piece, by the way, was on how his neighbors, like Americans everywhere, were good and honest. 

(Note: You can find two collections of these pieces currently in print, one of original pieces, one new, published with the hope that everyday citizens will be inspired to come up with their own “This I Believe.” The series was started by journalist Edward R. Murrow, a household name in his day)

Although I had read Heinlein’s piece previously, I went onto the Web to hear what his voice sounded like. What surprised me was not his voice but some comments by puzzled people below Heinlein’s piece, comments that left me puzzled. Some folks truly didn’t understand why, back in the days of vacuum tubes, Robert Heinlein, or any man, would say, “I belong to the United States.” 

Clearly the commenters did not understand the classical citizenship of the ancient Greek city-states. This was the same citizenship envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, being acted out at town hall meetings in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution.

To me, getting to know idealistic classical citizenship is useful, like how an athlete, at the beginning of every season, finds it useful to be getting back to the fundamentals. In fact, Heinlein and his wife used to “get back” to reading the U.S. Constitution once a year, on the fourth of July. I guess picking a regular calendar date is one way to stay informed, eh?

Now, before I attempt an essay about classical citizenship, I would say to you, dear reader, “let’s be cool.” Relax. No one is saying we should return to the days of my father, born 1919, or Robert Heinlein, born 1907. It’s all cool. As I write this, I am merely agreeing with a young history major I know who said “You need to know your past to know where you’re going.” This I believe.

The post-modern model for citizenship, I suppose, would be where a nation-state is like a ship of state run by a crew of executives, or board of directors, and therefore, as regards the rest of us, our responsibility begins and ends with voting. Just like in a shareholder’s meeting. That, and maybe glancing at the company annual report. In contrast, classical citizens would have to be alert and active all year round. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

The problem with waking up to vote every four years (or six years, for certain less democratic national leaders) is simply this: Over in Russia they have voting too. It’s not working out very well for them. No, and it’s not working out very well in China either. You may have heard about “The Great Firewall of China.” In place of the World Wide Web, and world wide “free trade” of information, the Chinese have a cyber wall, interrupting all Internet cables into the state, a blockade monitored by dark computers, to keep out any Internet articles that contain, say, the words “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Free Tibet.” I’m serious: in China you cannot use a search engine for “the man at Tiananmen standing bravely standing in front of the tanks…”

It’s so easy to control a public who have been blindfolded. As a character said in Robert Heinlein’s novel, “If This Goes On—“ (from memory) , “I came to understand that the greatest weapon of any tyranny is secrecy.”

As for China, what the Women’s Liberation Movement said during my youth applies: “The personal is the political.” Long after the rest of the world has let go of communism to grasp for the brass ring of democracy, the Chinese regime will whirring along like an evil clockwork. Not advancing in freedom, not advancing in having citizens feel ever more personal responsibility, but instead going backwards. Backwards! This year their current leader is changing the constitution to be “leader for life.” 

As with all dictators, with increasing power he would become an increasing threat to peace. Then what? I am sure he must feel threatened by the ethnic Chinese of Taiwan, over on the nearby island of Formosa, “Chinese” who have grown up from beloved babies to becoming senior citizens, all the while passionately loving the green hills and flag of their island-state, never knowing anything but democracy. He must grind his teeth at the living example of freedom that the republic of Taiwan represents. No doubt he would deeply desire to conquer Taiwan, and absorb the people into China, blindfolding their innocent children and raising them to know nothing but communism and tyranny… But it will all work out. As long as the Taiwanese are willing to defend themselves, to throw their first punch, America and the free world will always be there at their side. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.”   

The classical model for democracy would be the forum: A vast stone roof held up by majestic marble pillars letting a breeze blow through. No firewall. There, citizens who passed through the city gates from their farms would meet and mingle with the city folk, discussing the political issues of the day. They would do this feeling a sense of personal “agency” and responsibility. This was, of course, before newspapers. “A citizen’s duty is to be informed.”

It’s hard to blindfold everyone mingling in a great forum… not when everyone is insisting on their “freedom of assembly” and “freedom of speech.” 

Now, what if some fellow named Vladimir Putin, or Julius Caesar, was getting “too big for his toga,” too ambitious, posing a threat to peace? Folks had a custom in Greece, (but not in Rome, poor Caesar) of allowing people to write a person’s name on a piece of broken pottery, or “potshard,” something more common than paper litter is today, and then dropping the potshard onto a ballot pot. If a fellow received too many votes then he was “ostracized,” excluded from society for a time. As I say, they didn’t do that in Rome or the American colonies, nevertheless the custom of ostracism makes a point: The Greeks, even without newspapers, kept themselves keenly informed about the news of the day.

Part of what made Greek democracy possible was the same thing that made some of their farmers able to walk to the city: Their human size. Not a nation-state, but a city-state. Perhaps the smaller size was what made it possible for folks to meet and greet, observe how people are pretty much the same, and feel their civic actions mattered.

The divine spark of democracy, from the Greek word “demo” meaning people, came from an exciting, new improved idea: …The people are “good enough”…. 

No need for rule by the “real Muslim” clerics of Iran, or by those of hereditary noble blood, or by the membership-by-invitation-only Communist Party Members of China, or by any elite. “Our betters” did not have to rule us “for our own good.” (Putin says democracy is too disorderly) I myself have a university degree, and a nice job, so maybe, in theory, I would like an educated filthy rich elite to run things, but no: As someone once said (I forget who) “The people may not be the wisest repositories of power, but they are the safest.”

In classical Greece, the people would not prefer to be relieved of their burden of responsibility, preferring instead to all gather together to meet in a great stone amphitheatre. I suppose a city-state is small enough for such a “town hall” meeting, such “government of the people”… yet perhaps too big to meet except for simple questions of, say, “go or go-no.” I imagine needing an amphitheatre meeting for unanimously deciding to go to war—and if, after discussion, the people are divided, then obviously they won’t choose for some of them to march off to go form up, knees trembling, for battle. On that day, war would be a “no-go.” As Lincoln quoted, “A house divided cannot stand.”   

When a mass meeting wasn’t practical, the concept remained. If, say, the entire elected government magically sailed to Atlantis, or vanished in an earthquake, a fresh bunch of “good enough” citizens would step into the vacancies. Similarly, during my boyhood, the modern U.S.A., for the atomic age, had a long legal line of succession—president, vice president, secretary of state, and on and on down the line, listing everyone who, in the event of atomic casualties, would fill in as president until the next election. In the post 9/11 TV series Battlestar Galactica, after an atomic blitz, folks have to go pretty far down the line until they find a former school teacher, the surviving Minister of Education, and make her the president. (played by Mary McDonnel) Democratic-wise, although the survivors are in a permanent state of crises, (making for great television) they move with due deliberate speed to have an election

(Note: Even after an atomic blitz there would nevertheless be a “next election”—no “emergency” dictators. Even during hot war time, as gentle Abraham Lincoln insisted, the people have the right to a federal election, so that, if they so chose, they could elect a man who would end the terrible bloodshed and make peace with their brothers to the south, allowing those brothers to maintain their racial slavery. 

Near the end of the war, when Honest Abe Lincoln was asked if he wanted the confederate president, Jeff Davis, captured for trial, Abe said he would be OK “if Davis slipt away, unbeknowst.” Plainly, unlike Arabs of the desert, Lincoln thought a democracy was no place for old hatred and old feuds. He symbolized this, immediately after the war, by asking the band at the white house to play the marching song of the south, “Dixie.”)   `

Believing that “citizens” could fill in as president is not at all like in certain modern countries where everyone agrees that no one is even remotely as capable as the “dear leader.” But as for the U.S? “Even the president puts on his pants one leg at a time.”
  
In early America the self-respecting citizens could delegate individuals to be, say, the sheriff or district attorney, (elected positions) but they would not abdicate their responsibility to accomplish the work of those worthy people. (a responsibility normally discharged by exercising oversight and the vote) 

No point in being like a dispirited worker in a Russian communist factory, comfortable-as-a-cow, saying “I only work here,” and “I only live here.” How sad, for any Russians to think they “only” live in Russia, thinking “It’s not “my” country, no, it’s THEIRS: Putin and his lot…” … How happy: If you define leadership by the willingness to accept responsibility, then for any classical democracy every citizen is a leader. Not a cow. As a school teacher, who mentions cows, tells his civics class in David Gerrold’s science fiction novel A Matter for Men, “Citizenship is the willingness to be uncomfortable.”  

For citizenship, it’s instructive to consider a good high school: Some students will be mere lazy drones, with apathy, (from the Greek “a” without, and “path” spirit) thinking “I only attend here.” There is nothing you can do for those children; motivation is a door that is locked from the inside. Other students will get involved in clubs and activities, such as varsity sports, and then feel a sense of proud school spirit, proudly wearing their school crest. Just as the Greeks were proud. 

Perhaps the Greeks kept their pride to the bitter end. Eventually, just as Rome did later, the Greece would decline and fall. I believe Edith Hamilton was writing of the young men of Athens when she wrote, “When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

Ancient Greece was city-states: Corinth, Athens, Sparta, Thebes and many more. Of course the citizens of each city-state thought their city was the best. Citizens each thought they “belonged” to the best state there was. As would members today of a good boarding school, or a good regiment. A shared delusion? Perhaps, but a useful one.

God bless those old Greeks. One day, one of their descendants would be a spirited American who got involved in his community, and volunteered with a political party, and read the Constitution once a year: A man who would say, “I belong to the United States.”


Sean Crawford
Phoenix and Calgary,
April,
2018

Footnotes: 
~With its small screen view of how a society is organized, with the eternal balance of freedom versus security, democracy versus anarchy, and the requirement for civilian rule over the armed forces even during desperate times, the TV series Battlestar Galactica was only possible because the American people were temporarily ready to face certain things. Ready in light of the horror of 9/11. As the actor, Edward James Olmos, who played old Commander Adama said, “You will never see another program like this in your lifetime.”

~I have three essays with Battlestar Galactica in the title archived in August of 2011, and another in August of 2012. Reminder: It’s OK to comment on my old posts. 

~I won’t apologize for offending Muslims and Chinese, any more that Peter Capaldi would apologize “for offending the Nazis” while in Berlin: The 12th Doctor Who admitted to a German reporter’s question that yes, the Daleks were based on the Nazis. Capaldi related this on the Graham Norton show. Anyways, here are two quotes from the Internet, (link)  spoken by the hero in the theocracy:
  • I think perhaps of all the things a police state can do to its citizens, distorting history is possibly the most pernicious.
    • “If This Goes On—” Chapter 6, p. 401; originally published in Astounding Science Fiction (February - March 1940)
  • I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy...censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.
    • “If This Goes On—” Chapter 6, p. 401

Literary Side Note: There is a scene in Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel The Puppet Masters where one of the scary invaders is captured for questioning. He crudely offers to make Americans into slaves, or puppets, in return for taking away their burden of responsibility. The old man doing the questioning makes a grim face: “ He spat on the floor. “You know,” he said slowly, “me and my kind, we have often been offered that bargain. It never worked out worth a dam.” ” 


Heinlein, as I noted above, also wrote about a good man feeling guilty while reading forbidden knowledge in “If This Goes On—” published as part of Revolt in 2100. The man comes to appreciate how plain democracy, the opposite of governance by clergy, was once entirely practical. How ironic, then, that writer Robert Heinlein is accused of “being a fascist” by some readers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ethical Journalism and Bias

Hello Reader,
Got ethical journalism?


Proper, real reporters, as part of their felt profession of ethical journalism, make a huge effort to be unbiased. 

A student taking a diploma in journalism told me, that his college professor told his class, that if an editor was ordered, by the newspaper owner, to be biased, or in other words, to go against journalistic ethics, then he would resign, and if the order stood, so would his replacement. I believe it.

Some columns, while not purely facts, are much closer to news than mere opinion, as the writer is presenting a context for the news by “connecting the dots,” or, say, explaining the implications of a new court ruling. Syndicated columnist Gwynn Dyer, who made the 10-episode CBC series War, is a man very knowledgable about social studies and armed forces. Dyer once offended the owner of a chain of Canadian newspapers because Dyer was honest about Israel. The owner, not being a journalist, ordered the editors to drop his column. As Dyer tells it in the forward to one of his column collections, while the editor in the city where the owner lived toed the line, most of the editors across Canada quietly kept him on, for as long as they could. They didn’t like being told to enforce a bias against unfavourable news.

But you ask, isn’t it human nature to have an opinion? A bias? Especially from your religion? Especially if Muslim? Wouldn’t a Sunni Muslim refuse to report anything good about a Shia Muslim? (and vice versa) Or anything good about a “person of the Jewish persuasion?” My answer is one phrase: “Allah bless Al-Jazeera.” Trained by British journalists, Al-Jazeera is now doing trusted, balanced, unbiased reporting throughout the Middle East and beyond.  

Of course, every steam engine needs a release valve. My local newspaper includes outlets for biased emotions by the staff, in the form of editorials, headlined as such, and by personal opinion columns, marked as such, by having personal photographs attached. 

In my town, the broadsheet daily (thicker, with broader pages) would have its editorials made by a “committee,” which I guess still further smoothed out bias, while the tabloid daily (smaller, with tabloid sized pages) had it’s editorials written by one man, the chief editor. He told me during a phone interview, back when I was a campus reporter, that part of the value of having him write the editorial, besides having individuality, was that he would have a single topic. The readers knew what he felt to be most important thing that day. Meanwhile the broadsheet’s editorial committee would have several topics on the same page. I remember he laughed with me to say he was not trying to be like the Daily Bugle’s editor, J. Jonah Jameson. (The boss of Spiderman)

Alas, the tabloid has since gone to using an editorial committee. But at least I notice an attempt at “balance” to smooth out bias: It has columns from both leftists and rightists, both local writers and reprints from other newspapers, both Canadian and foreign. Here’s a sample paragraph from a column, with subjective words like ‘hankering,’ ‘scandal generator,’ and ‘enemies.’ These words are not, as in news reporting, “just the facts, Ma’am.” (Catchphrase of Detective Friday on Dragnet, the radio series, later a TV series)

"If only Barrack Obama's enemies had known what a scandal generator the Nobel Peace Prize would be, they'd have been hankering for him to win it last year."
Lisa Van Dusen, Calgary Sun Washington Bureau, October 14, 2009


Now, U.S. citizens, with their backslapping and craving to be popular, might crave to know what others think, but truly, in a Canadian or British newspaper, the reporters would be very careful not to speculate or mind read the public, in case they were untruthful by accident. They could report the “facts” of an opinion poll, but if they gave their own opinion of “what everybody felt” they would be “editorializing.” Sometimes they might do so, as in reporting on a scandalous serial murderer, but always very carefully. (Another cultural difference, by the way, besides valuing conformity, is that U.S. reporters are allowed to use deceit, as in not telling anyone that they are reporters. That paper airplane wouldn’t fly up here.) 

While newspapers set the gold standard for journalistic ethics, what about Television?

The first TV newscasters were from conventional journalism, such as Edward R. Murrow. You may remember his final words in the movie Goodnight and Good Luck where, in his capacity as a broadcaster, his told his audience to step away from “the box.” Not the advice anyone with a regular job in Hollywood would give today. My point is that the idiot box is a different medium than newsprint, for reasons I won’t go into here. If you’re interested, Neil Postman explains it very well. See his How to Watch TV News and Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book where the opening chapter has been published as a stand-alone essay.  Postman has noted, for one thing, how the words spoken in a standard half-hour TV “Six o’clock News” broadcast would be fewer than the words on just the newspaper’s front page. 

If I keep referring to newsprint, it’s because I gather from my reading that ethics in print were always the standard, the standard most important and the hardest to reach, like ballet is to the dance world, or poetry to those who write great novels and plays.

Suffice to say, the two mediums of journalism diverged. To my mind, part of the difference is that television was descended not from newsrooms, or from dramatic stage plays, but from vaudeville, where people would go out to relax and see the guys with funny hats and canes, going out to be entertained, not to think. As for “the box,” I can sometimes hear a TV announcer’s voice slowwwing down, as the camera pans… because for consumers of the boob tube the emotional  picture is more important than… cramming in wordy information and facts.

As for newspaper ethics, I guess it helped that, in contrast to TV networks being so focused on ratings, at newspapers the profit center, that is to say, the folks selling and drawing up advertisements, would be in a different room or on a separate floor. Not part of the culture of the reporters.

In a newspaper, hard news is in the A section, while sports, entertainment and lifestyle will be buried further into the paper. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with a marked off opinion having a bias. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier blog post:

During a discussion on "journalism" a friend made reference to the Fox TV news. I didn't have the heart to tell him "Fox isn't real," that I didn't know of any city daily that was a Fox-style newspaper. It's too bad. If you don't read, then you don't have the same expectations for "real journalism." You won't even have the term "infotainment" in your vocabulary. This I know because the word was new—caused a burst of laughter—when I said it to my night school class of older university students during their final semester. It's too bad: during their university education they had missed out on grasping everyday media.

... Fox News executive Michael Clemente said, "The average news consumer can certainly distinguish between the A-section of the newspaper and the editorial page, which is what our programming represents."
Only it's not called Fox Opinion, it's all called Fox News.
Lisa Van Dusen, Calgary Sun Washington Bureau, October 15, 2009


Sean Crawford
Arizona
April
2018
Footnote:
~Clay Shirkey explains dwindling newspapers well and at length: (link, remember to scroll down; his second article is much better than the first, and he has a newspaper funding piece at the very bottom.)
http://www.shirky.com/weblog/

Idiot note: 
~That newspaper owner has censored before. One time an ethical cartoonist responded by depicting her with a flame thrower, as one of the censoring firemen out of Fahrenheit 451. 

She had a hissy fit, saying the big nose on her meant anti-semitism. (since stereotypical Jews are known for big noses) 

Of course, the classic sin of the censor is to not read—if only she had read the cartoons in her own newspapers of, say, the cavemen in B.C. —with the self-described “fat broad” and the cute one— or Blondie and Dagwood, or Hi and Lois, she would have known that the less dainty person gets the bigger nose, just as Hi’s neighbour Thirsty has a bigger nose than Hi. The neighbour was portrayed as alcoholic, to be sure, and as a typical suburban fellow, not as a typical Jewish guy. 

Stupid @#& censor!  

Farewell to all that:
This is my third recent essay on journalistic ethics. If the golden age of journalism is passing away then I wanted to write about newspapers one last time. Now I have. 


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Joy and Time Travel

essaysbysean.blogspot.com

“Anticipation,
Antici-pa-a-tion …
These are, 
the good old days.”
Carol King, singing outside (link)


Hello Reader,
Got a past? Sans joy?


This happened at our weekly Toastmasters meeting, for learning public speaking. 

…A lady who was not a time traveler stood on a slightly raised stage before her peers. She told us she didn’t have joy. 

Call her “Shauna.” An intelligent, white collar, working wife and mother, able to smile and gesture, but lacking joy. Shauna was asked to speak impromptu, for a couple of minutes. Her lack was important to her, and so she told us, explaining she “didn’t even know what joy was.” Wishing she did, telling us so with a smiling humor, without self-pity, with a dash of despair.

Shauna was not a time traveler, not if that meant visiting her past by using her memory, because her past was an emotionally cold place. Not nurturing. You may remember, from my essay Abuse Science (archived November 2017) my theory: Any human interaction, and any span of time, that is not nurturing is abusive. No middle ground. No wonder Shauna, during her cold span, never learned about joy. So how does anybody learn?

While learning at college, I remember a friend, Ann, who seemingly didn’t know what relaxing was. This was when I was taking an Introduction to Drama class where we had to really tighten each muscle group, one at a time, before we relaxed them, one at a time. “Tense-tense-tense… a-a-and relax…” said our teacher. We had to do so, she explained, instead of solely relaxing, because some people needed to feel the extreme difference in muscle feeling—to help them learn what relaxing felt like. My friend Ann was one of “some people.” (She learned)

As for muscles, sometimes there are things I can’t do consistently, like a good basketball layup, until I have learned the muscle memory. I would guess one needs to feel “joy” a number of times before one can call it up from memory, or begin to seek out joy on purpose. 

Tense and relax. If relax-joy is, say, winning the lottery, then our everyday life could be the “tense.” Just by comparison. It follows, by another comparison, that if my earlier life was awful then I would be joyful a lot today. And I am. How awful was it? I don’t tell anyone. Put it this way: For several seasons I was in a self help group and a big part of the benefit for us was we could share things society would never believe—and we would believe each other.

Today one of my little joys in life is time traveling. Like in the TV series Odyssey 5 (uncut) portraying five people who, just like my self help group, are folks from different backgrounds, who would, otherwise, never normally get together. But they frequently meet in a Houston diner because they all believe one impossible thing: That the earth will be utterly destroyed in five years. They know this because, being from the future, they have time traveled into their bodies from five years earlier… No wonder the cheerful waitress who fills their coffee says, “How come you folks always clam up when I come by?” 

By the way, a similar mode of travel was also used—for just one person, not a group—in the major motion picture where a housewife jumps into her teenage body: Peggy Sue Got Married. Nice movie.

In my own past the people in my reality, who were later the “committee in my head,” often made it unsafe to smile or feel joy. (Of course you don’t have to believe me) So I don’t go back; I go forward. Last year I jumped from my past into my present. 

Suddenly I was in a car, driving. I looked at my hand: same scar, it’s me whose body I’m in. Looked at my sleeves: A parka, in camouflage pattern. Obviously I was still a romantic for the army life, except it was coloured like a swamp. Civilian pattern, surely; maybe I had taken up duck hunting. Naw, probably just me being romantic. Through the windscreen I saw no mountains, no hills. I was on the plains. Maybe I had stayed in Edmonton with the Canadian Airborne Regiment. And I was rich: Not just the fancy parka, but the car was obviously bought brand new. The dashboard was futuristic, far beyond what you might see in the screen of a calculator—and the speedometer! It was in the middle of the dashboard, not blocked by the stupid steering wheel at all! How long did it take society to make such a daring yet super-sensible change? Or did I have a special car? …

… Of course I did. In our present day, if you check Consumer Report magazine, for their yearly vehicle issue, my car is one of the few to get a “check mark” meaning excellent in every category. A Toyota Prius. “Saving the planet” because it’s so awfully good on gas.

My present is good. I remember, years ago, sitting in a bar with a blond once who abruptly said, “I feel like making a list of my accomplishments.” So we both did. That was a joyful night. Similarly, a “gratitude list” can be a thing of joy. Building the joy muscle. Not just for listing material things like parkas, but for emotional things like self confidence, and “hands on” things like skills. Such as: “Hey, I can drive a standard transmission, on the superhighway, while barely white knuckling at all!” 

You see, one day my mechanic’s daughter was trying to sell her sports car cheap, with no luck, so I grabbed it. I knew for sure it was very well maintained! And no, I didn’t buy it out of any silly midlife crises. I just needed a new car, that’s all. It wasn’t something I had ever dreamed of buying. Is that a joyful thought? A funny one, to be sure.

Happy travels to you.


Sean Crawford
April
Mesa, 
Arizona
2018

Footnotes:
~I once essayed On Gratitude Lists, archived July 2010

~As an artist, I am grateful for my surroundings. The poet Rumi said:
The garden of the world has no limits…
Its presence is more beautiful than the stars
With more clarity
Than the polished mirror of your heart

~My essay Review of Odyssey 5 is archived February 2016.

The phrase “Odyssey 5 uncut” was always spoken on the TV commercials because it was an experimental show: Portraying an old fighter pilot with authentic-to-him swear words, not cut out. This was not to be gratuitous, but to be true to his character, impatient and decisive: For him, even if it was “certain” that the Earth would be destroyed, he would keep struggling, making reflex-quick “pilot decisions” in a tight spot. He led the four younger survivors, who were not-so-quick, to keep trying too.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Real Journalism and Balance

essaysbysean.blogspot.com

We have civil rights - not only to protect us from bad people, but to protect us from good people as well, from people who think they know what's good for us. Tyrants have always acted in the best interest of their people, or so they thought.

From Derek Sivers’s notes on Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson 


Hello Reader,
Got real journalism?

Besides being excruciatingly accurate, real journalism is balanced and unbiased.

As a former reporter for my university student newspaper, and a believer in citizenship, I utterly believe in ethical news reporting. Call it “real journalism.” Maybe ethics are vanishing along with newsprint, but still, I think we all need to know what was once expected. You might associate reporters with crowded coastal cities, like in the Hollywood movies, but newspaper journalists are working all over this fair land. I live on the Great Plains in Alberta, a province of beautiful crops and fields of contented cows.

Imagine Southeastern Alberta, near the badlands and the old coal mines. Two small towns each have libraries. Go to either library on the weekend, and it’s queer: If one’s closed, the other is open. Turns out they share the same library staff, who alternate. It’s a conservative land: All the librarians are female. You might expect the ladies would think alike. After all, it’s a rural land, in the Bible belt, with harsh winters that confine people together. And of course, librarians who share a livelihood probably share similar values. So then, which books do they stock: Leftist or rightist? Advocating communism or fascism? Abortion: For or against?

One might think the old birds who sew quilts together, and flock together, would think together. Maybe they do. But you wouldn’t know it by their books. Take your the scales of justice to their shelves, grab their books, and put them in the pans: In equal balance would be books leftist and rightist, books for and against abortion.  That’s what being a trusted librarian means, according to a friend getting a college librarian diploma. A banker once wrote that democracy is not served merely when a communist and then a fascist can each book an evening at a community hall to spout their views: It’s when the same citizens can attend both nights, to weigh and balance their arguments.

Ethical journalists, like librarians, are in a position of trust. A “balanced” news story is where the reporter takes the time and effort to track down people representing “both sides” of a story, and then letting the readers decide for themselves. (In some countries they believe the readers can’t be trusted, meaning they believe their country has no place for democracy) 

I remember reporting on stage plays. Afterwards, in the lobby, eager theatre goers, who knew I was a reporter, would ask, “What do you think of the play?” Having taken my notes in a removed, objective way, my honest answer, and it’s a cliche, was to reply, “I won’t know until I go home and write my review.” In a way journalists must sacrifice themselves, like a sports referee, or a judge at the county fair, by standing back from the contagious excitement that everyone else gets to enjoy. 

It’s nice to belong to the herd, but — If a lady is reporting on a potential new river dam that everyone is excited about, then she can’t join in. Balance means finding the cranky old farmer who says, “Everyone is so excited over building a new irrigation dam for crops, but my daddy warned me: The land can become salty, salt leached, I mean, and unfit for agriculture.” What a downer of a quote, when everyone is excited, but it must be included. Then building the dam will be from an informed choice.  

As for news with balance, consider the context: Not just news among an informed citizenry, but news within a democracy, where the people feel a sense of safety and freedom to speak and reason. Statistically, there is a link between a strong GDP (gross domestic product) and freedom of thought. Maybe freedom is not an effect of a strong economy, but a cause. Maybe, by having our reporters keeping society accountable, we have more decisions, business and political, being made not by corruption but by merit. Everybody wins.

We are so lucky, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. I knew a boy killed in action in Afghanistan. Knew his parents, stayed at their ranch. Right now those countries with terrorism are the same ones that lack freedom of speech and press, lack civil liberties, and are the same ones where people have violence and intolerance towards each other. And corruption. The extremists think they are doing the right thing by not allowing freedom of thought, but too often it’s all too easy to put extremism above democracy, too easy to be actually serving the rulers when you think you are serving God. (No, I won’t make links to support that last sentence—for Allah’s sake, we at war on terror! There should be oodles of links you can find! If not… then a boy I knew was too good for you)

“Ethical journalism” is not a matter of degree, but an absolute. I believe such ethics are not solely of today’s time and place, nor specifically European, nor “decadent western,” nor “western plus Japan,” nor— never mind. Ethics, like the U.N.’s Universal Human Rights, exist already, in potential, for each country in the world. And in fact, there is excellent journalism coming out of the Arab world—what Arabs might call the Muslim world—called Al-Jazerah. They don’t make newspapers; they use modern electronic media. Ironically, the home base, the patron of Al-Jazeerah, is Qatar, the country that some other Arab countries are right now ganging up on. I would hope that ganging up is just coincidence, and not for the purpose of suppressing the best news outfit in the middle east. (link to Al-Jzerah)

Ethics. My young friend was a reservist with token pay, in a country (Canada) that does not have conscription, and needless to say, he surely did not die for a “job,” but for a cause. If journalists are being murdered in Russia and Latin America, it is NOT because, for a job, they are putting food on their table by reporting on dull, safe things, but because they are bravely reporting on risky things. To them, real journalism is worth it.

On this continent we have learned how to be safe in our everyday lives, after first learning “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Here I expect ethical journalists, including “Al-Jazeera in America,” (before it shut down) to make an effort to be accurate, balanced and unbiased. The least I can do, in return, is to humbly accept my role: “A citizen’s duty is to be informed.”


Sean Crawford
Calgary,
March 
2018

Afterthought: I have to stop writing now, because I am at over 1,000 words for writing about “balance.” I have no time to explain how a journalist, clever like a fox, can produce news that is “unbiased,” just as we did at my university newspaper. That is a subject for another day.