Tuesday, December 03, 2019

What we should expect from our news.

Published originally in 2011.

From time to time since February 2008, when my long article on journalism and the news media first appeared in the online version of Skeptic*, people have asked me for more specifics on what I regard as the building blocks of valid, serious-minded news coverage. This is going to be a lengthy post, so I'll dive right in without further preamble.

The News must be apolitical.

This line of thought reached critical mass in 2001 with the controversy over Bernie Goldberg and his muck-raking book, Bias**, which savaged the mainstream media for its strong (and unapologetic) leftward tilt. It's a familiar argument by now and there's no need to go into it at any great length. I think we'd get a fairly universal buy-in—at least in principle—on the idea that the News should never have a specific political agenda, Left or Right. That consensus is likely to crumble a bit when you get to a more pointed discussion of implementation. For example, we'd have no trouble finding a large group of people who think The New York Times reports the news "straight," as well as another large group who think FOX News really is "fair and balanced" in its reportage. In truth, neither the Times nor FOX comes anywhere close to objectivity; and if there are large groups of partisans who think they do, it's only because the tenor of the respective reporting coincides with their own, well, biases.

The News should not have a nationality.

Agreement here would be less widespread and/or vigorous, especially from conservatives, self-described "patriots," and others who, for example, still chafe at the multinational*** tone of Peter Arnett's coverage during Desert Storm. A "borderless" approach to news delivery has profound and far-reaching implications. It means, most conspicuously, that even an epochal event like 9/11 should not be reported as an absolute and inarguable tragedy, because it would not be received as such everywhere. After all, upon hearing of the terror attacks, citizens partied in the streets of Damascus, Tripoli and Tehran—just as Americans might party in the streets if we popped all of Al Qaeda leadership in one big whack-out. To paraphrase and extend Eugene O'Neill's savvy observation about the (deterministic) continuum of life, no event takes place solely in the present moment, but rather is a composite of all that has gone before. As in the case of a revenge killing over an ancient grievance, there is always a history that has shaped what is happening today, even if that history is generally unknown (or even unknowable). Which means that 9/11 did not begin or end on 9/11. Nor is it the journalist's job to report that history; that would be contextualizing, which journalists should never attempt unless they can be sure of doing a comprehensive job. And because that's impossible—even Mike Wallace wasn't around when the earth cooled, ineluctably setting in motion next week's playoff between the Eagles and Cards—it should never be attempted.

It is simply bad journalism to cover an explosion that kills 10 American GIs outside Tikrit differently from a raid on an Afghanistan cave that results in the death of 10 of the world's most fearsome anti-U.S. terrorists. Besides—as a practical matter—even if journalism upholds "Americanism"...whose would it be? The Left's? The Right's? Should journalism revere what America is now? What America aspires to be? According to whom? The problems are evident.

Just report what happened and where.

The News cannot and should not use existing law as the basis for its take on a story, because laws are transient, malleable and often arbitrary.

Journalism should never cover man's law as if it were eternal law (assuming any such thing exists), framing illegal activities as if they're objectively wrong or framing legal activities as if they're objectively right. (Lest we forget, Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her seat.) Historically, in fact, many might argue that journalism has proved to be most valuable when its reporting took a contrarian bent, opposing existing laws and policies. (I don't favor that, either, because journalism isn't supposed to take an active side in things, pro or con. Any changes that occur should occur "by accident," as a result of the public's response to what it hears and sees in the News. Journalists are simply conduits, providing information to a citizenry that will do what it believes needs doing with that information.)

The very foundation of American democracy, the U.S. Constitution, is itself elastic, open to interpretation and subject to amendment. And even the loftiest of ideals embedded in the Constitution and other founding documents are unproven. "All men are created equal"? It's a nice thought, and an uplifting premise for a culture...but its scientific validity remains moot.

Which brings us, finally, to:

The News should be amoral.

If by now our consensus on the aims of journalism has become somewhat fragile, this is where it really fractures. A lot of people have trouble with the proposition that journalism should not stand for good or evil, right or wrong. (Which, of course, means that journalism should not have causes.) Realize, for starters, that most political agendas are premised on notions of right or wrong; thus, morally tinged reporting too easily lends itself to political purposes. But it goes beyond that. To filter the news through a moral lens is to presume to know unerringly what the "correct" moral values are in the first place. Perhaps worse, in practical terms, news rooted in "social norms" inevitably tends to promote the notion that majority means validity. A news organization that builds its ethos around the values embraced by "most right-thinking people" is doomed from the start.

"Well wait just a damned second now!" you exclaim. [Hence the exclamation point.] "At the very least, journalism can safely uphold life over death! 'Thou shalt not kill' and all!" To which I would reply: You're kidding, right? We can't even agree as a society on whether "life" is the ultimate value. Think: abortion, capital punishment, right-to-die issues, wars. (We view the wars that we decide to wage as "just" and the loss of life that results as a "necessary evil" or "collateral damage." We forget that bin Laden felt similarly justified in attacking the World Trade Center.)

Clearly all loss of life is not equally tragic to all journalists, all everyday Americans, all Afghani warlords, all practicing physicians (who must make so-called "end life decisions") or anyone else. Thus we are left with the problem of deciding which deaths are "objectively" tragic and which aren't. Those are value judgments, and the media have no business making them. As soon as the journalist starts rationalizing, qualifying, parsing, hair-splitting or performing other ethical gymnastics in order to force-fit some types of death into this moral framework (but not others), he has abandoned objectivity and devolved into the realm of partisan politics and/or religion.

Or let's take homelessness. We look around us and sigh, "There should not be millions of homeless people in America." We may agree on that as private citizens. The news cannot project that ideal, however, because it is but a short step from "there should not be homeless" to "we need to do something about homelessness," and the latter is, of course, a political agenda. And journalism, as we've said, has no business "going there."

The objective newsperson must start from the premise that there is no absolute right or wrong, at least that we can all know and agree on. In the journalist's world, there is no justice or injustice. There are only events. From my point of view, it is never the media's job to tell us how to think or feel about a story, and it certainly isn't the media's job to "reflect traditional values." Slavery once was a traditional value. So was homophobia. So was the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. And on and on. And I'm not saying those things should be recognized as objectively wrong now. I'm saying that it's not the media's job to weigh in. In the end, the only workable approach is for the news media to project no values at all.

Nor can we turn to "God" for answers here, because the existence and nature of God are controversies unto themselves. Besides…whose God? Osama's? Jerry Falwell's? Joel Osteen's?

In the end, the media must learn to embrace, in practice, the catchy ethic that FOX news disingenuously preaches: We report, you decide. That's all there is to it.

* The piece was then republished in the print version, with slight alterations.
** Interestingly, or maybe sadly, enough, Goldberg then took a job as a FOX analyst and forswore any further pretense to objectivity. That doesn't necessarily taint his book, which was an outgrowth of a highly courageous column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal while still employed at network (CBS), and which I think stands on its merits. It just depresses me to see him trumpeting the party line night after night on O'Reilly or wherever. How does he not feel hypocritical?
*** Some prefer the word traitorous, and have never let Arnett (or his bosses) forget it. Here's a typical example.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

HWJPI? (Or: How Would Jesus Pitch It?)

"AND SO IT WAS written, as the ancients foretold, that the evolution of religion and self-help towards some common ground would continue, rendering unto God that which had previously been found only in the annals of viral marketing, and rendering unto you a new Rolex..."

The conceptual similarities between self-help and today's more "secularized religions" were always striking. We've been tracking the phenomenon for a while on SHAMblog. But even your host didn't realize the degree to which today's religion is being explicitly repackaged in self-help terms. Such at least is the message of this cover story by Scott Bass, which I found in a Virginia alternative weekly.*

The "relevancy movement" in American churchdom is nothing new, and has been most immediately noticeable in the music. Anyone who's listened to gospel music of late (or almost any music emanating from the so-called megachurches) will have a hard time distinguishing it from the genres that have parents screaming at teenagers to "turn that down!" The lyrics are more tasteful and "godly," if you will—but there's no mistaking what the actual music and underlying rhythms owe to R&B, alternative, and even rap. In effect, the pastors (and, increasingly, boards of governors) of these "enlightened" churches are turning weekly services into concerts, hoping to make the experience more tolerable for the younger generation that churches desperately need to attract in order to survive. As one of Bass' sources puts it, in a line with both literal and figurative meaning, "You can't play the old music and get the new folks." Especially in larger, nondenominational houses of worship, services have become multimedia extravaganzas worthy of a Tony Robbins seminar, featuring live performances on-stage (which may include dance routines), and even light-hearted, pre-sermon "warm-ups" by the nation's growing roster of Christian comedians.

But we now seem to have reached that point where many religious leaders are dropping all pretenses, talking openly and unashamedly in a lingo borrowed from consumer marketing. They speak of smart merchandising and brand identity, marketplace differentiation and expanding their franchise; parishioners are consumers of religion. Here's one of the pastors in Bass' piece discussing his church's promotional efforts: "We've done billboards, we've done movie ads…. We believe we have the best product in the world." You listen to that kind of talk and you wonder: Is this dude selling God or a new-and-improved grease remover?

Traditional religion, you see, has a major image problem: It's "fighting 2,000 years of bad marketing," as Bass phrases it. All that fire-and-brimstone stuff doesn't connect very well with today's self-centered, hedonistic audiences, who expect religion—like everything else in life—to meet their needs and speak their language. Today's pastors, in their effort to distance themselves from religion's hell-fire heritage, even try to look different: tres Joe Vitale-like, they're increasingly inclined to wear such get-ups as jeans and Hawaiian shirts. During the worship services, hosannas have yielded to high-fives; a collective chorus of "my bads!", followed by an instant, blanket absolution, is gradually replacing the penitent Hail Marys I remember from the confessions of my youth. Some churches, reports Bass, have even taken their crosses down. Crosses are bad karma, after all. Crosses make people think of suffering. Crosses make people think of obligation. And the only obligation that matters these days is your obligation to yourself.

Behold the church of the here-and-now! "Escapism," writes Bass, "is as much a part of our psyche as capitalism or democracy, freedom and equal rights." Yes, and more so all the time. And what today's, ahem, worshippers mostly want to escape from is any judgment or condemnation from on-high. (This, in the same way that today's highly empowered self-helpers want to escape liability for the harm they cause in the course of their unapologetic pursuit of personal fulfillment.) Hence the most successful churches jettison such off-putting, uncomfortable notions as sin. Or what used to be thought of as sin. To be sure, greed and avarice are totally off the table nowadays as tickets to hell. Preachers even build their aforementioned franchises around an end-user-driven liturgy—what Bass calls a "self-help gospel"—that warmly embraces the pursuit of ostentatious material wealth. We've also talked in this blog about Joel Osteen and his Gospel According to Ralph Lauren. (That's a joke, but it's one of those jokes that's awfully close to the truth.) As Bass writes, Osteen "epitomizes the what-God-can-do-for-you movement. [He] has grown his Houston-based church into the largest in the country, with 47,000 members." Osteen's latest book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, sounds like something that easily could've been written by a Stephen Covey or a Phil McGraw.

Nor is it just greed that's been air-brushed off the signpost to eternal damnation. I think it's safe to say that divorce by now has been totally destigmatized (and I'm not contending that it shouldn't have been; I'm just saying that for better or worse, religion has grown steadily more forgiving of human foibles than it used to be). Premarital sex is not the taboo it used to be, either, in church or out. Unwed motherhood?** Hey, if it works for you... Even the Episcopal church in my neighborhood (which is hardly in the category of the churches Bass writes about) has no particular stipulations when it comes to the circumstances under which kids are brought into the world, or into "the light of God's love."

Interestingly enough, as religion grows more lenient, self-help becomes more dogmatic. In their own smiling, uplifting ways, the likes of Vitale and Rhonda Byrne can be as demanding of loyalty to their particular "scripture" as the Catholic Church of my boyhood ever was. They'll threaten non-believers with their own versions of Hell, and not just figuratively. We saw the extent of Vitale's quiet wrath in his recent attempts to draw a linkage between positive thinking and whether or not a person's home survived San Diego's wildfires.

If the day comes when religion and self-help are all but indistinguishable...when it doesn't really matter what you worship, as long as you worship something, and it makes you happy...what then?

Something to think about, maybe, over Christmas.

* I've often said that some of the best stories are not found in the august national media like The New York Times, but rather in small-market publications.
** Wait, let me rephrase that in more culturally relevant terms: single parenthood.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Dog Story.

Published originally in August 2014.

Somebody told me a story today and it's one of those stories I'm sure I'll remember till the day I die. We tend to say such things too off-handedly and unthinkingly. Not so here. 

There's this buddy of mine, a guy I never got to know all that well. (I'm not sure anyone knows him all that well.) Yet I know him well enough to like him and admire him as a person and a man. A man's man, though such characterizations are no longer fashionable, or even politically correct. So just keep in mind as you read that my buddy is a serious, no-bullshit kind of guy, a mountain of a homo sapiens who was once tasked with doing things for our government, fixing things, shadowy things that he still can't admit to on the record a quarter-century later. That's not some bar line in his case, it's the god's truth. I checked him out to the extent I was able (and he also wears the scars, an ugly bullet wound among them). In an era when masculinity is considered "toxic," my buddy would be regarded as a walking bio-hazard. We'll leave it there. Larger point being, he is not easily given to sentimentality. 

Rewind a dozen years. My buddy had rescued a gigantic hybrid wolf-dog that people initially warned him not to bring into his life. Unpredictable temperament. Why take that chance? 

Wolf-dog turned out to be a wonderful addition to the family, striking the perfect balance between pet and protector. The creature loved his adoptive family from the first, and like most watchdogs, had that sixth sense that enabled him to know beforehand when trouble was afoot. All visitors who were expected were welcomed graciously onto the premises during daylight hours...but one did not dare go near the property at night when all were asleep inside, especially if my buddy was out of town. The lone exception to the latter caveat was kids; wolf-dog loved children. My buddy would joke that some 9-year-old miscreants probably could've crept into the place at midnight, made off with all the electronics, and 125-pound wolf-dog would've cheerfully accompanied them on their mission into and out of the house, "smiling" and nuzzling the intruders' legs the whole time.

The beast also played tennis. He'd fetch the balls my buddy hit to his wolfy side of the net, race back to center-court, somehow spit/toss the balls a dozen yards over the net in the general direction of my buddy, then run back toward the baseline, poised for another volley.

For more than a decade my buddy and wolf-dog criss-crossed America. As my buddy's life grew more prosperous, wolf-dog went from watching over the picket fence of a modest tract home to patrolling the grounds of an authentic horse farm; he performed his chores with obvious pride and purpose. Each morning wolf-dog would amble out to the stable and say hello to his equine pals, then survey the property and eventually return. The dog never complained, was content to take on whatever role my buddy assigned him, even if it meant sitting in the front seat of a moving van with basically nothing to do but watch the landscape gradually transform: cherry trees giving way to cacti or vice versa, as my buddy took his family from west coast to east coast, then back again, then east again.

Shortly after arriving in Pennsylvania this last time, my buddy began to notice the changes. They sneaked up on him, as changes in a family pet almost always will. My buddy would notice them mostly when he returned from being away for a week or so. Nothing you could pinpoint at first—and still wolf-dog never complained, never made a sound in protest—but just a subtle difference in gait and demeanor. And now there were times when wolf-dog would come back to his favored resting spot, a cushion on the ground near the barbecue pit, before finishing a full survey of the property. One day my buddy was watching from the deck as wolf-dog turned and started back to his resting spot before even saying good morning to the horses.

They went to the vet. Bone cancer. Advanced.

"Do you know what we're we talking about in terms of time?" my buddy asked.

The vet replied, "Likely not very long. The dog will let you know." 

Despite the circumstances, my buddy allowed himself a small chuckle, thinking, You don't fucking understand this animal, doc. Wolf-dog had been stoic from day one, never showing fear, never showing pain, not even for a moment; not even after getting hit by a car, once, back in those early California days. He just went about his wolf-doggy business with purpose and self-possession.

One morning a few weeks later wolf-dog struggled getting to his feet from his backyard cushion. He shot my buddy a faltering glance and emitted a short whimper. My buddy had never heard that sound emanate from his pet before, not in all their years. Wolf-dog then bowed his head slightly, as if embarrassed at his momentary lapse, or so it seemed to my buddy. 

But then the huge animal lifted his regal head, fixed my buddy with an unblinking stare and whimpered a second time, briefly. Stoic again now, still proud. Holding eye contact. Just sharing the needed information.

It was time.

My buddy said good-bye to his beloved wolf-dog the next morning. 

He tells me he has never been the same since that day, and never will be. I believe him.

Monday, November 04, 2019

When even yes isn't yes.

Published originally Feb. 16, 2018

In the beginning, there was “No means No.” Simple, direct. Which, of course, meant it couldn't possibly stand. Thus did it beget “Yes means Yes.” And now the noisy, inefficient engine of sexual politics has spewed into the dating environment a pair of new doctrines that further pollute the meaning of consent: "the enthusiastic Yes" and "sex after Yes." Taken together, they represent something like sex as Rube Goldberg might design it.

The two ideologies have long percolated in online feminist forums and academia's Women’s Studies wing (which sometimes seems to exist solely to make men out as criminals and make women feel guilty about bothering with us at all). They were brought to the fore by the controversy over what did or did not occur on an ill-fated date between actor Aziz Ansari and a pseudonymous woman, “Grace.” By now you almost surely know what Grace says: that Ansari repeatedly misread signals, pressuring her into unwanted sexual activity. Worse, feminists have painted him as an archetype for men as a class. As Emily Reynolds writes in the Guardian, “Ansari’s behavior was normal—and therein lies its true horror.” Reynolds and others insist that Grace's nonverbal cues should have alerted Ansari to her unease. In his defense, he might have been misled by the fact that Grace, by her own admission, accepted oral sex within minutes of arriving at his apartment after dinner and then reciprocated minutes later; perhaps Ansari interpreted those activities as nonverbal cues. Be that as it may, feminist theorists claim that such contretemps could be avoided by the requirement for men to receive the sort of ecstatic, unambiguous Yes that Grace never spoke.

One has trouble seeing how. Suppose a man intuits that a woman’s Yes is sufficiently forthright; are we to infer that if he honestly overestimates her ardor, he has become guilty of assault? It seems bizarre to put men in the position of having to decode the enthusiasm of a Yes rather than instructing women to bellow forth with an enthusiastic, unambiguous No.

But let's say the man does indeed think he detects a note of ambivalence in his partner's Yes. Is he obliged to function as human chastity belt and moral overseer for an adult woman who has indicated, however subtly, her agreement to sex? Even in healthy marriages, if both partners had to swear to giddy anticipation before each bedroom episode, conjugal intimacy would likely cease forevermore. For that matter, any given virgin couple (I'm told there are such things) will feel a surge of trepidation on their wedding day itself, after years of a well-considered relationship that presumably led them to this halcyon moment. Are those ad hoc qualms to be perceived as a talisman of doom that warrants more debate and procrastination?

Women will retort that men need to understand the nurturing, conciliatory nature of the female psyche: Here's the Washington Post's Molly Roberts on the Ansari controversy: “We know how it happens. A man wants sex after an evening out, and a woman feels obligated to comply... Even when she’s not enjoying herself, she thinks she should be, and she tries hard to convince herself nothing is wrong until—maybe that night, maybe the next morning—it becomes too clear to ignore.”

So there you have it. A woman acquiesces to the most intimate act between two humans—with a human she's not that into, no less—and it's still the guy's fault.

But that's not even the full extent of male culpability. Reynolds' emphasis on the woman's lack of enjoyment hints at the second postmodern wrinkle in the bed-sheets: sex after Yes. This paradigm, championed by leading feminist writer Rebecca Traister and a cadre of other young female voices, indicts the so-called “orgasm gap,” edging us ever closer to a definition of consensual sex wherein a woman's Yes is conditioned on the man's ability to provide a quality sexual experience. 

A man who falls short has, in failing to satisfy the woman, also failed to satisfy the terms on which the sex was premised. 

He is guilty of, retroactively, nonconsenual sex. 

Canadian writer Tamar Dina further argues that consensual sex in which the woman does not thoroughly enjoy herself is dehumanizing and akin to assault, because it reduces her to little more than a “gatekeeper to men's desires.” Or As Sady Doyle puts it in Elle, genuinely consensual sex “requires all parties to be visibly happy, turned on, and vocally expressing enthusiasm throughout the encounter.” 

Without a doubt, millions of women commit to sex during which they are never visibly happy or vocally expressing enthusiasm, then wake up hating themselves for going along with a man's seduction. 

But they went along

Ambivalent or not, they agreed to sex. Moreover, buyer's remorse is hardly unique to the bedroom. Many of us experience transient misgivings over virtually every meaningful decision or discretionary purchase. And lest you think it unseemly to compare sex to buying a new car or big-screen TV, consider: It wasn't so long ago that leading feminist voices were exhorting women to indulge their physical desires without strings or regrets: 

“It's just sex!” 

Today some of those same figures would complicate the sexual experience with a manifesto of caveats and assurances that not only require men to be psychic but, for sheer sobriety, rival the vows exchanged before couples say “I do.” 

All of which could be avoided by exhorting unwilling women to state, unequivocally, “I won't.”