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.