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.