Saturday, February 25, 2017

I Love the Enemy

            I fell in love with journalism early in my middle-school years, when my parents began subscribing to the New York Daily News, and I started reading the hard-edged sports columns of Mike Lupica and the cartoons of Bill Gallo. At around the same time, my parents bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated, my grandmother signed me up for National Geographic, and I started reading my grandparents’ copies of Time magazine. By age 12, my brother and I were writing our own neighborhood newspaper, which we sold to the families around our block.
            Ten years later, I was a full-time newspaper reporter, and was studying great journalism morning, noon and night. In my late 20s, I moved from writing newspaper stories to teaching journalism and English, while continuing to write as well. In the classroom, I’ve helped many teenagers discover more about their world and themselves through journalism. Never in all these years has the subject of a story or a reader or a student told me that I represented the enemy of the American people. Never.
            When my students and I walk through journalism history, we talk about the two most influential American journalists during the profession’s formative years – Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. While these two men delivered plenty of sensationalism and, yes, some definite “fake news,” they also established the power of the press to investigate and report on issues that informed and enhanced the lives of everyday people. Before the era of Pulitzer and Hearst, newspapers were often owned by political parties and were not affordable to everyone. But when the New York Sun started the first “penny press” and when Pulitzer and Hearst followed up with papers that gave readers more than their money’s worth, American journalism became a true check on the powers of all three branches of government, as well as a constant source of essential information for all readers.
            The past century has brought us numerous technological enhancements, and with each one we’ve seen the news media broaden its reach. Each step along the way has seen new journalism heroes surface and deepen the importance of reporting. Edward R. Murrow stood on London rooftops and described the bombing of Britain for radio listeners around the world. Then, to top that off, he risked his career as television’s most valued news source to challenge the fear-mongering of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare. Walter Cronkite put his reputation as the most trusted man in America on the line when he gave an honest critique of the Vietnam War stalemate, one that led President Lyndon Johnson to decide against re-election. Johnson’s words were simple: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”
            In the 21st century, there are no more Walter Cronkites. The internet and cable TV have brought us a wide variety of media choices, and we can select sources that confirm our personal biases. We can watch the right-leaning Fox News or read the far-right Breitbart News. We can watch the left-leaning news of MSNBC, or we can read leftist critiques from The Nation. The polarization of news is a danger to our depth of knowledge, but it is very much protected by free speech.
            As for myself, I still love the work produced each day by the many news media outlets that carry not a liberal or conservative bias, but a democracy bias – a desire to use that First Amendment to cover this world around us as thoroughly as possible. They cover wars, Watergate, Wall Street and women’s rights. They give us sports, social issues and science. They cover corruption, crime and compassion. The work of our experienced, dedicated journalists is among the most important components to a democratic society.
            Just yesterday, for instance, my college friend and Newark Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi co-wrote a news story about international basketball players who have surfaced at a high school in Paterson, N.J., apparently living with coaches and lacking proper immigration status. The situation seems more like trafficking than recruiting, and the city’s school district has already announced several penalties to the athletic program and to individuals in the wake of the Star-Ledger report. In today’s New York Times, there is an equally important story about the murder of one Indian man and the wounding of another in Kansas this past week, in which the alleged gunman was reportedly telling these two men they didn’t belong in America before the shooting.
            Both of these stories need to be read, known, and discussed. One of them reflects poorly on the tone the current president has set, and one does not. But they are both so essential to our understanding of one another. I could list so many other reporters and stories I’ve read that enlighten me and so many others every single day. These stories mean even more to me now than they did back in middle school, and I will read, watch and listen to great journalism for as long as I live.
            I guess the president has some sort of game plan that involves reorienting our approach to media, asking us to look elsewhere for the messages and news we seek. I don’t pretend to know the content of his thoughts. But I will tell you this: The journalism that awakened my sense of what America is, of what it can be and of what it struggles to be, is not “the enemy of the people.” It is the opposite of that. The polar opposite.
            But if he wants to call it the enemy, then I need to alter my own language. Mr. President, I love the enemy. I love journalism.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Alternative Facts & Us

            OK, so let’s talk about alternative facts. But we’re not going to start with Kellyanne Conway, or Stephen Bannon, or even Donald Trump.

            We’re going to start with Pokémon.

            It was a July afternoon, and I was walking past the water tower in Cape May, NJ. Behind me, I heard cars honking, as a young man nearly caused an accident while driving carelessly through an intersection with a cell phone in his hand. This driver, you see, was playing Pokémon Go. You might remember this game taking the nation captive for a week or two in early summer last year. The Cape May water tower had a Pokémon there, so this driver had decided not to worry about the real traffic, but to focus instead on the cartoon character dancing around on his smartphone. He pulled his car over, put it in park, and captured his tiny monster.

            They called this enormously successful game an example of “augmented reality.” It’s a kind of technology that mixes the real world with digital technology, and we haven’t seen the last of it. In the case of Pokémon, it involved following a real navigational map on your phone in search of cartoon creatures who only surfaced on the phone when you were near certain spots.

            America seemed to love the idea of blending truth and fiction back in July. Of course, they could put the phone down whenever they wanted and get back to real life. The same applies to so many of the Instagram and Snapchat photos we send and receive each day. They are often another form of altered reality, with staged photos that reveal us in ways that may not be genuine or tell the full story. But, again, we can dip in and out of our friends’ lives or Kylie Jenner’s world whenever we want. It’s not forced upon us.

            So that brings us to February 2017. America has branched out from its social media-fueled, Pokémon-popping, fantasy football-playing alternative reality and voted a president into office who is a “reality” TV star, meaning he spent years hosting a show that featured staged competitions. We have voted in a man who has mastered a form of social media that engages in alternative dialogues that don’t involve real conversations, and that often end with the words “So sad!” Many people keep saying they’re shocked that he is now president, but you could argue that we chose this path a long time ago, the moment we stopped looking at one another and started living in part through our phones and tablets.

            Now this president holds us captive, breaking news every hour so that we can’t stop checking those phones again, this time in order to keep up with the alternative reality that is his presidency. We keep reading stories and watching videos about him – some of us pleased, some disgusted. But either way, we’re living in a Truman Show­ world in which we are the puppets, while Christof looks down upon us and smiles.

            During these past two weeks, some of us may have come to the realization that neither Siri nor Alexa nor any emoji we can find will get us out of this world. And Barack Obama is no longer here to take care of business while we OD on Candy Crush. It’s up to us now. Alternative realities and alternative facts are everywhere we look. If we wanted that world, then we’ve got it. But if we are appalled and angered and demand better, we’ve got to do more than bash Donald Trump. We’ve got to start with a long, hard look in the mirror.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Democracy Bias

            The president of the United States and his chief adviser both called America’s news media “the opposition party” in interviews this week. As I prepare to start a new semester with my journalism students in the days ahead, I anticipate them asking me what a journalist’s role is in this country right now.

            And I am so ready with my answer.

            Let’s start with the more reasonable question: Do some news media outlets have a liberal or conservative bias? The answer there is sure, but how one uncovers that bias is more subtle. If a news outlet has a liberal or conservative opinion staff, this just means that the opinion writers and commentators are liberal or conservative – not the news reporters themselves. Gail Collins of The New York Times is a liberal columnist, while George Will of The Washington Post is conservative, and they will always be so. Both of those newspapers have a more liberal op-ed page, while a publication like The Wall Street Journal has a more conservative opinion page. But again, that’s just one section of the news outlet’s coverage.

Biased news reporting is much more important to detect, as this means the publication is trying to influence you as it reports. In looking for this, it’s important to study the types of stories the news outlets are choosing to pursue, not the material they gather from that reporting. For instance, when my seniors interviewed students around the country asking their opinions of the new presidential administration, this was balanced (and well-executed) reporting. The fact that more teens and young adults were critical of the new president than complimentary of him was more a result of the average young adult’s political persuasion, rather than any bias on the part of my students. However, if my students had gone out of their way to look for Trump opponents, that would have indicated a liberal bias in the reporting.

In the 21st century, we have seen changes in the presentation of news coverage that requires the consumer to pay more attention to whether or not a news outlet is biased in its reporting. The cable news networks, for instance, go from reporting a story to gathering pundits’ opinions so quickly that news and commentary may feel like they’re blending together, while technically they may not be. On some reputable news outlets’ websites, headlines for opinion stories are listed next to headlines for news stories, and this can lead a reader to think the website is trying to force an opinion, when in fact it just has a messy homepage. And, of course, there are many other nascent news websites that are biased in every way, filled mostly with opinion-based reporting and making no apologies for it. These publications exist to meet the consumer demand for news that reaffirms the political beliefs the readers or viewers already had.

But let’s get back to those news sources that have been considered “reputable” for many years – the major networks, CNN, The Times, Post, Journal and so many others. They are taking a lot of heat for their coverage of the new administration right now, and that will continue. The reason for this is not because they are revealing a liberal bias. The issue here is much more basic, and it’s completely defensible: The news media has a democracy bias. The First Amendment, which gives them the right to investigate the news and report it freely, is a pillar of the ideals that guide our country. We entrust our journalists to pay close attention to these ideals, since their very existence is representative of these freedoms.

Right now, the new administration is altering the way we approach democracy. There are individuals sitting in airports as I write this, unable to re-enter the United States because of new rules that regulate who gets to come here and who does not. There is a country south of ours that is preparing for U.S.-ordered construction of a wall between it and America. When our government changes the way our democracy is carried out and presented to the world, our news media have the responsibility to cover the hell out of that. For reporters, this means asking tough questions, yet not telling the reader what to think. For opinion writers, it means writing whatever they believe, with evidence to support their points. For publishers, it means spending more money on overtime and hiring of more reporters, because if we don’t cover the mechanisms of democracy while the wheels are being re-oriented, then American journalism has no purpose.

            So what is a journalist’s role in America today, class? It is what it has always been – to gather, write, edit and spread the news. But sometimes, high-quality news coverage can help us through our deepest crises. When Edward R. Murrow asked tough questions of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, the stakes were high. When Walter Cronkite, David Halberstam and many others reported vividly about Vietnam in the 1960s, the stakes were high. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein outworked the country in covering Watergate in the 1970s, the stakes were high. Right now, in America, 2017, the stakes are high again.

             So “opposition party,” really? I do beg to differ, Mr. President. If your goal is to shuffle the deck on democracy, I really need to know how that’s going down. Your tweets do not suffice. I need to read the news. And my students need their reporter’s pads. There are questions to ask, and responsibilities to fulfill.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Our Differing American Opinions

            I was speaking with a colleague today about the Women’s March on Washington, which she had attended on Saturday. She was telling me about how inspiring, peaceful and effective it had been, and how great it felt to march with her daughters. I had heard similar praise for the march from others who had attended, from students to fellow teachers to my own wife and daughter.

My journalism students also received a lot of praise this weekend for their special inauguration edition of our school paper, in which they reached out to teens and young adults around the country and the world for their opinions on the new president and the issues that matter to them. The issue featured a variety of viewpoints and priorities, all of them shared respectfully.

One of the stories in that inauguration edition was about a “Love Trumps Hate” sign that had hung on a resident’s fence, but had been defaced and vandalized. A variety of neighbors, from both political parties, stepped in to replace the sign, and spoke to our student-reporters about the importance of working together. It was a tremendous story, one that served as a metaphor of sorts for the past two months in our country.

The same day the story was published, the replacement sign was stolen.

I’ve come to the realization, as many others have, that the disagreements we see now in American society will not be ending anytime soon. This is not necessarily a cause for concern; vigorous debate is, after all, the lifeblood of a democracy. Of course, the concern is typically over the issue that’s being debated, be it war, policy, individual rights or, in this case, the words and actions that leaders choose to define the course of our republic.

As I spoke with my colleague about the march this afternoon, I asked her for some perspective. She is a generation older than I am, so she was around for Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. Did this feel similar, I asked? Yes, she said, it did. During Vietnam, you had disagreements within your own family, she reminded me. This is much the same. She was not trying to compare a new president to the deaths of young men and women in Southeast Asia; she was simply trying to explain the extreme differences of opinion visible in society itself.

            As I spoke with my student-journalists today, I asked them to think about the issues they want to address in the weeks ahead. The kinds of stories we might typically cover, such as school policies and student achievements, will remain important – but they’ll likely be overshadowed by the next march, or the latest online dispute, or the words and decisions of our leaders. These are extraordinary times, I told them. It’s time to start making a list of the stories you want to cover. What does “America first” mean to different individuals? Is our news media indeed biased? How do the women who marched around the world plan to follow up Saturday’s powerful step? What do the words in the inaugural address mean to different people?

            And perhaps most important of all, how is each individual planning to navigate the reality of our differing American opinions? Friday’s inaugural address followed by Saturday’s march clarified the state of our nation right now: The idea of a country divided is no longer confined to the ballot box or to Facebook; we saw it in person this weekend. And we will continue to experience it with our friends, family and peers – both in person and online. It’s time to determine how we’re going to step into these waters. Because they are rising, and unless we’re taking a boat to Canada, we’ve got to steer our way through using the tools of democracy that generations past have used. No one promises it will be easy, but these tools have been tested before, and they have worked.

            As for my students and me, we will get back to the tool we know best – a free and responsible press – and we’ll go from there.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Nature of Service

            Yesterday, I brought 13 teenagers to Newark, and our destination was a half-block away from the Prudential Center arena. As we arrived, families were hustling into the center for a Disney on Ice event titled “Dare to Dream.” As vendors sold Disney accessories outside the arena, we turned onto Edison Place and pulled over alongside a group of adults and children standing in line.

           There were about 100 in the line, standing quietly alongside a chain-link fence as the teens, parent drivers and I hopped out of our cars and began hauling boxes of lunches over to them. We were delivering meals and clothes to these individuals along with Bridges Outreach, an organization that brings meals, clothing and toiletries to homeless and other low-income individuals in New York City, Newark and Irvington. For the next hour, my students handed out lunches and shirts, poured hot soup and hot chocolate, and talked with the men, women and children in line. Those in line were bundled up, with temperatures in the 30s, and they expressed gratitude for the food my students were giving them. Many returned to the back of the line for seconds, should we have any extra meals.

            It is now five days until a new president takes office, and there are vast disagreements throughout our nation as to the competency of this president-elect. While the people in line for lunches surely had their own opinions on this matter as well, their needs yesterday transcended politics. They are struggling to get by. As the teens from my high school interacted with these individuals, they were clearly moved by the degree of poverty they saw, just a few yards away from an arena filled with families watching Micky, Minnie and the Disney Princesses.

            “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said. King, who would have been 88 years old today, would not care much about our president-elect’s income. He would, however, care a whole lot about that president’s desire to serve – not just the individuals who voted him into office, but the rest of the nation as well. King would want to know how dedicated that president is to justice, acceptance and equality, as well as to peace, compassion and understanding. The president would be of no use to King unless he was committed to a nation in which a diverse citizenry seeks progress together.

            King would be thrilled to know that my students gave of their Saturday morning to deliver lunches. He’d be interested to know how this trip impacted their societal views. He’d also encourage the students to keep reading about issues of inequality around the world. He might repeat the words he spoke in an Oberlin College commencement address more than 50 years ago: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals.”

            Some of my students will return tomorrow to the organization that took us to Newark, to help sort donations as part of the National Day of Service. They see work to be done, and they are persistent and dedicated in their service. I didn’t have to tell these teens to join our school’s community service club; they did it themselves. Two of them are even helping coordinate a conference on homelessness for teens in the region.

            When we had handed out the last lunch and shirt, we packed everything away, then huddled up and discussed all that we had done and seen on this January morning. As we got ready to leave, we realized that we had some extra bread, so a student ran up to a person we had served and gave her the bread. We took a quick picture outside the yellow Bridges Outreach truck, cleaned up any extra soup cups left behind, and hopped into our cars.

            “Mr. Hynes,” a student asked me, “when are we going on another Bridges run?” He wants to go back again, and soon. As I thought over this young man’s question, I recognized that there is one thing he definitely has in common with the president-elect. Both of them are officially engaged in service – one a community servant, and the other soon to be a public servant. If I can wish our country’s incoming chief executive one thing, it is that he commits to the public service, rather than the public relations. There’s just so much real work to be done.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fake News

            My phone’s screensaver reveals a photo I took this summer at a campsite in Maine. It shows a homemade wooden sign leaned up against an RV, and the sign features seven simple words: “Believe There is Good in the World.” It’s safe to say that 2016 has tested that belief for many of us. The latest reason to hope for a swift end to 2016 comes in the form of two simple words: “fake news.”
            The flurry of stories about make-believe news stories has been fast and furious in recent weeks. As a teacher of three levels of journalism classes, I have been on top of addressing it. For all three grades, we discussed the reality that entrepreneurial writers from America to Macedonia are creating fake news sites that pop up on our social-media feeds, and which people are either believing without question or sharing with the knowledge that others will believe fall for the con.
The 2016 version of fake news has been political in nature, and it’s much different than the satirical fake news of The Onion or The Daily Show. In this case, the point of the fake news is to convince you that it’s real, through disguise. Check out the real ABC news site, at abcnews.go.com, then click over to a fake ABC news site, at abcnews.com.co, and you’ll see the difference. One site informs, while the other misleads. The consequences of this storytelling was made clear last Sunday, when a man showed up at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, armed and ready to take on the restaurant. The reason? He had read fake news stories alleging that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief of staff were running a child pornography ring out of this pizzeria.
By the time the pizza story broke, my Journalism II students were ready to write. They crafted opinion pieces about fake news, and in their stories they took on all responsible parties – the writers of fake news, the social media outlets that serve as a conduit for the sharing of such news, and the readers who fail to fact-check before passing the stories along. Many of my students were angry that journalism, a profession so important to our democracy, could be tarnished by such unethical practices.
They made connections to The Crucible, which many of them had just read for their English classes. Just as those in Salem, Mass., who accused others of witchcraft in 1692 were able to insist that they saw the devil next to the accused, so can conspiracy theorists of 2016 insist that the fake news is really based in truth, and that traditional media just don’t want you to know about what’s really happening. They can insist that all news is fake, and that we can trust none of it. And as this spirals on, the mischief-makers are not held accountable, and we grow even more polarized and angry at one another.
My senior-year journalism students put two reporters on the fake news story for our school newspaper, and they got in touch with one of the more prominent fake news writers in America. He told them that fake news makes people question their news and fact-check what they read, and that he’s still thinking about its impact on the election. When asked if he regretted what he wrote, his response was clear: “No.”
As educators, our focus is on the kids we teach every day, and in that I see a path forward. Our humanities instruction focuses on reading, writing and history, but it’s time that we add a strong media literacy component to that equation. We have students who can analyze the symbolism in a novel incredibly well, but who struggle to identify reputable sources and who gain their news from social media sites that traffic in incomplete stories and, yes, fake ones.
If every high school student took a media literacy course, we’d be taking a giant step forward toward ensuring that American teens know the difference between what’s real and what’s not, not to mention who owns the media they consume, how their privacy settings work and how they are tracked each day on those devices they love so much.
So back to that screensaver with the hopeful photo on it: Is that, too, an example of fake news? Is the good really out there? After watching my students learn, think and write about this divisive and toxic news phenomenon this past week, I can tell you that I absolutely do believe there is good in the world. Knowledge is power, and knowledge with integrity provides hope for the world, young journalists included. That’s the real scoop. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pen Pals

            During the summer before my freshman year of college, I received a letter in the mail with the name and telephone number of my soon-to-be college roommate. When I called this young man, I learned that he hailed from a rural community in eastern North Carolina that was hundreds of times smaller than the New York City borough from which I hailed. On paper, we were clearly coming from two different worlds.

            Once we arrived in Chapel Hill, my roommate and I talked about the numerous differences between life in Blounts Creek, N.C., and life in Staten Island, N.Y. We also discovered many things in common, such as a love for late-‘80s pop music, a craving for pizza, and a passion for baseball and Carolina basketball. By early December, we were decorating our dorm together with holiday lights and watching Christmas Vacation.

            My old roommate still lives in North Carolina, and I’m back in the New York area now. We still keep in touch via Facebook, and share a friendship that connects back to those formative days when we were embarking on the early stages of adult independence together. As we stand in our mid-40s now, staring at the divided nation around us, I think there are pieces of what my roommate and I experienced back in 1989 that all of my students could use today.

            Not everyone gets to be a rising freshman with a roommate who grew up in a different part of the country. But teachers can help their students find “pen pals” in different parts of the United States. All it takes is a little communication, and that’s one thing we know our students are well-equipped to do. Whether it’s email, Facetime, Snapchat or even – gasp! – regular mail, a 17-year-old New York City kid can connect with a 17-year-old from Wyoming. A 15-year-old from Massachusetts can meet a 15-year-old from Alabama. A 13-year-old from Chicago can meet a 13-year-old from West Virginia. These pen pals can spend time sharing their stories, asking questions, and listening. They also can agree to discuss politics, and learn more about why their areas have been leaning in different directions politically.

            There is a lot to unpack in the aftermath of Nov. 8. But as we move forward, it may benefit us to encourage our students to reach beyond individual political figures and seek a better understanding of one another by connecting with peers around the country. It’s just a tiny step toward a deeper understanding, but tiny steps can go a long way.