Friday, October 22, 2010

NPR, The Left-Right War, and The American Project

It seems that every 4.5 weeks or so, a major media war breaks out in America because someone said something ill-chosen about a certain group of people, whether the remark contained a core truth or not. The point of this essay will not be to determine whether NPR was right to can Juan Williams; the fact that a public-broadcasting entity (not a cable network or a newspaper) occupied the center of a firestorm is what makes this issue worth blogging on at appreciable length. In this blogsite's ongoing attempt (albeit very occasional during college football season, when carpal-tunnel syndrome is a very real threat for me...) to foster Left-Right dialogue in the service of America, it's important to take the Juan Williams incident and use it to unpack macro-level concepts about a good society, and how Americans of all political leanings can participate in the struggle.

First off, let's clear the air about some misconceptions that might exist in the immediate aftermath of L'Affaire Williams. (If I was talking only to NPR listeners, I would have said, "Let me be clear," because, as we all know, that's Obama-speak and a coded attempt to rally the liberal base... *pause*... okay, did you think I was being serious there? That was a joke, just in case you were wondering. I'm wanting to defuse tensions here.)

I do not think that Williams deserved to be fired for the remarks he made. I do not think that NPR is terribly ethical, or that its national political coverage is particularly distinguished. I don't think the current reality of public broadcasting in relationship to public affairs programming - on television or radio - reflects a healthy or ideal situation. The work that C-SPAN does, and the coverage C-SPAN provides, should be provided by public television. The irony is that it actually once was, when the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour grew out of Robert MacNeil's and Jim Lehrer's coverage of the Watergate hearings.

PBS and NPR are at their best when covering all the bookish, cultural, artsy, science-rich discussions, talks, lectures, Q-and-As, and like events that, taken together, offer a rich font of public education outside a classroom setting. I owe much of my educational enrichment not just to St. Thomas the Apostle grade school and Brophy College Preparatory (located in Phoenix), plus Seattle University as well; I also owe my education to my two parents, who were both college linguistics professors (mom taught English, my late father taught Spanish), and to public television.

I learned about the history of the Kennedys on the American Experience in 1994.

I learned about the history of the city of New York in a Ric Burns documentary in 1999.

Bill Moyers' interviews with Joseph Campbell in the late 1980s have been repeated on public television pledge drives over the years, and I was able to catch several sessions in 2004, to my great spiritual enrichment and edification. (I recently tucked a Joseph Campbell reference into a review of a college football weekend, as a matter of fact.)

Bill Moyers' roundtable with various religious scholars on the Book of Genesis provided a stimulating, multi-layered exploration of Scripture in all its nuance, lending insights on the Christian, Jewish and Muslim monotheistic traditions.

I've watched several different documentaries on United States presidents, on Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; I've watched documentaries on baseball, jazz, and the Civil War; I've watched documentaries on World War II and profiles of countless figures in the world of American culture, from Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin and from Marvin Gaye to Carol Burnett; I watched Sesame Street at my grandparents' house and 3-2-1 Contact at home; I've watched many dozens of Masterpiece Theater series on the great books from the canon of English literature, enabling the dense writing of Charles Dickens - hard to grasp as a sixth-grader - to come alive in pictures and spoken words.

So much of what I've learned in a narrowly educational sense has come not just from textbooks and teachers, but from PBS programs. In the realm of expressly non-political, non-editorial content, PBS has made information - on culture, the great ideas, and fields of study - available to the masses. The realm of what Juan Williams stepped into - and which political bloggers of all stripes are arguing about - is a different matter, and one that the term "train wreck" would adequately describe. While C-SPAN provides the coverage model PBS and NPR should be using, the non-political realms of public broadcasting have largely fulfilled their mission of making vital information more accessible to the common person.

With all this having been said, here's where the discussion becomes necessarily political:

Other people I come across on Twitter with varying degrees of consistency - Brendan Loy, Cari Gervin, Amanda Carpenter, and Dan Collins, to name a few - could give you four nuanced and distinctly different takes on the particulars of public broadcasting, government funding, and what money goes where in what proportion. My task here is to not get caught up in those molecular or granular details and take the discussion to a more expansive place. What we should be asking ourselves in the wake of the Juan Williams/NPR incident is this: Is there a place for public broadcasting in a healthy democratic society?

The answer doesn't have to be "yes" - conservative friends might be surprised to hear that, but of course, I'm not going to let my friends on the Right get off that easily. Regardless of your answer to the question "Is public broadcasting necessary?", there is certainly a moral dimension to the ways in which a society makes information available.

In order to get at this question about the (lack of a) need for public broadcasting, let's realize that we are not just biological animals, but cognitive and emotive beings, linguistic beings, sexual beings, spiritual beings. We are not the hunter-gatherers our biological predecessors were. We are domesticated organisms immersed in cultures and belief systems and ways of life.

Differentiations in cultures are most profoundly felt from country to country and from continent to continent, but in America, the diversity of regions offers, ironically enough, a fairly substantial set of alternate universes in its own right. From Mississippi to Maine and from Ohio to Oregon, where you grow up (and, of course, how you grow up, but that's a different matter for another day...) determines a lot of the things you're exposed to at various stages of life - certainly not everything, but a fair amount to be sure. Variations will, of course, apply to specific individuals, but on a larger level, it's fair to say that the American South and the coastal/non-inland areas of the Pacific Northwest are very different places. The same dynamic applies to densely-populated urban centers and small towns throughout the Rocky Mountain, Central Plains, and Upper Midwest regions.

The point of outlining these basic facts of human life (within a specifically American prism) is to show that there are many highly conditional and culturally unique aspects of our lived-out existence as Americans. Growing up in one city or state never guarantees an outcome for each and every individual on a whole host of levels, but viewed collectively and taken on a wider scale, these things do matter and they will carry more than a little weight in shaping the futures of persons and, by extension, America at large.

From this diversity, this reality of geographical and cultural differentiation, one must be able to reasonably access - with minimal cost and effort - different perspectives if one so chooses. For the person who grows up in a liberal household but feels stifled and needs to break free (Andrew Breitbart felt this tension in his younger years), there needs to be a well of information and perspective that will provide an alternative viewpoint. For the person who grows up in a conservative household but feels the tug of competing views and needs to know what life is like on the other side of the divide (my mother would qualify here, although I hasten to say that my late maternal grandfather was a principled and honorable conservative; we simply had some VERY contentious Sunday lunch arguments over hamburgers and potato salad in my childhood), a good society should offer a portal to the expansion of the mind.

This is not a question of what kind of punditry or analysis a person receives. This is not a dissection of the Sunday talk shows or the way a moderator performs at a given debate. What IS being discussed here is the notion of having information that is not shoehorned or ostensibly linked to a given viewpoint. This is indeed about having a public font of information - on science, on the arts, on culture, on religion - in which ideas are not so much validated or pronounced to be good (or bad), but are instead merely presented and explored. The viewer of the PBS program, the listener of the NPR broadcast, should make the judgment about the content being provided.

Hopefully, you can see at this point that a sufficiently diverse amount of information should be there for people who grow up in contexts - both hyper-liberal and hyper-conservative - where cultural winds and market forces plus family dynamics can do and limit one's exposure to certain views. And in the expressly political/public affairs realm, American citizens should simply be able to see government as it operates and for what it does, i.e., as C-SPAN shows it.

Here's the real heart of this essay: I could perhaps be loud wrong on this, but it's my sense that we, as human beings (not Americans, but as human beings in general), most instinctively and reflexively think of food, water, clothing and shelter as basic needs, the things every society must attempt to provide for each and every person, at least as a starting point. (If people want to forfeit those provisions through autonomously-made dysfunctional choices that are unaffected by outside factors, that's a different discussion.) However, information - or more precisely, easy access to it - really should be considered just as essential.

For instance, how can you eat if you're an unemployed homeless person who doesn't know how to access food stamps? Educating single moms from high-risk demographics has been a big problem here in Washington State; getting single moms and other people to public seminars on those kinds of topics - at community centers and other public kinds of facilities - represents a non-TV, non-radio form of the value of what can be called public education in a more expansive sense of the term. Private corporations should be able to make a buck, and private broadcast entities - i.e., private cable or radio networks - should be able to broadcast what they want. All this essay seeks to ensure is that there are at least a few outlets - national, accessible, low-cost, and non-partisan - which can disseminate not speech, but information; not ideology, but vital statistics and advisories; not indoctrination, but details about basic services; not expected behaviors, but opportunities for cultural and holistic enrichment.

As I have said before on this very blog, my Catholic background leads me to embrace the concept of subsidiarity, which is one of the pillars of Catholic social teaching. Subsidiarity is the principle that something should be done at the most localized level possible, with responsibility and action going up the food chain only if absolutely necessary. The desire of conservatives to localize and de-centralize government is noble, valuable and laudable. A good society should aim to dispense services and information in more localized ways. If liberals do militate against this goal, those liberals are wayward and misguided.

Now, with that having been said, here's the counterbalancing point: The desire to bring about more subsidiarity - more localized delivery methods for services - does not inherently or automatically mean that every situation or problem can indeed be addressed at a very localized level. Subsidiarity points to the most localized solution possible; sometimes, it is simply the case that the most localized solution simply isn't able to be terrifically local.

Maybe, if you're a conservative, you think that there's absolutely no place for public broadcasting. Given that NPR has been manifestly unethical in many different ways for quite some time - in ways that have upset liberals as well as conservatives - that's a perfectly understandable point of view. The actual reality of public broadcasting's performance in the coverage of current affairs certainly has not matched the standard set by C-SPAN, a private entity that has carried public television's water in the political world. Point conceded.

However, if you do think that there's no place for public broadcasting in a good society, a healthy democratic commons, here's the larger principle that must still be upheld: If government is to be de-centralized and if freedom of speech is to be truly honored - which it wasn't in the most granular aspects of the Juan Williams case (but was in a larger context beyond the immediate incident itself) - the flow of information, while justifiably privatized for most broadcasters, must find some kind of home that is not subject to the profit motive.

Before cable arrived in 1979 thanks to Ted Turner and CNN, there were five basic television options for the American television viewer: A local independent/unaffiliated station in your own market, along with ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. The first four options were privately owned, meaning that a combination of personal preference and market forces determined the kind of content a viewer would get on that given channel. For many years, the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) sustained a high level of journalism because they maintained a commitment to doing journalism as the public service that it is and was always supposed to be.

Today, however, things are different. It's true that even Edward R. Murrow fought market forces at CBS, but the folks at Black Rock under Bill Paley still produced and broadcast a lot of public-affairs programming at their own expense. Today, there is no genuine attempt on the part of the three broadcast networks to perform journalism as a public service. Journalism today is a profit engine - that's what it's set up to be, and that's what moves the needle in boardrooms and programming departments.

Therefore, if you are a person whose household stands on the edge of financial ruin, and if you can't afford anything more than the most basic, bare-bones cable package possible (in other words, getting an HD converter and nothing else), where are you going to turn for objective, spin-free information in various aspects of life and culture? If ABC, CBS and NBC are market-driven, and if your local unaffiliated television station has an owner who fills the days with Judge Judy or Rachel Ray, where are you going to learn about history or find appropriate viewing content for your children during the afternoon hours? There should at least be one outlet for this kind of person, and public broadcasting was always meant to fill such a need. In non-political realms, it has done so with great distinction and consistency, and that's why I will go to the mat for public broadcasting in expressly non-political forms of programming.

Here's what I want to get across to my conservative friends: As I mentioned earlier, the free flow of information - and more particularly, its liberation from the profit motive - serves to promote a more localized and subsidiarity-based society because it reaches past culturally and demographically specific situations pertaining to various cities, states and regions. To amplify my point - in relationship to the above paragraphs on the shift at the broadcast networks from public-service journalistic outlets to profit-driven outlets - it simply needs to be said that the quality of journalism today is awful. You surely agree with that; otherwise, mainstream media criticism wouldn't be honest. (I also think mainstream media is horrible, and I dare say most liberals would agree. The Left and the Right are surely in agreement on this larger point, just for very different sets of reasons.)

So, given our shared disapproval of the performance of mainstream media, it bears mentioning that mainstream media - while including PBS and NPR - is predominantly privately owned and operated. The irony of this week's NPR-created firestorm is that NPR is associated, and understandably so, with the rest of privately-owned mainstream media, whereas privately-owned C-SPAN performs the true function of a non-partisan public broadcaster.

Indeed, one of the great ironies of contemporary American broadcast media is that NPR has its own political identity and branding, which is exactly what public broadcasting, writ large and viewed on a conceptual level, was never intended to have. Public broadcasting should be cleaned up; PBS and NPR should be cleansed of expressly political taints in both directions - surely from its real and pervasive cultural liberalism, but also from its Establishment-friendly opposition to the use of the word "torture" to describe American military policy. NPR should not be in the business of providing news opinion or commentary - as Jay Rosen tweeted last night - but NPR should also ensure that its employees, left or right, are not associated in any way with expressly ideological organizations. (See "Mara Liasson" and "Barbara Bradley Hagerty" for examples of this.) There is much that needs to be reformed about the way public broadcasting is structured, and to not acknowledge this is to do a great disservice to the conservative viewpoint and its proper advocacy for both subsidiarity and the need for governmental restraint as a default position.

What we are left with is - surprise, surprise - a very difficult tension point, which is frankly what all political disagreements are all about: There is a definite need to localize government and make it more responsive to the workings of subsidiarity. Yet, there's also the equally powerful need to make information both accessible and free from the constraining forces of the profit motive. When activists stormed the mandated Federal Communications Commission hearings - held in several U.S. cities including Seattle (I was there) - in the fall of 2007, they might have felt they were sticking up for independent and alternative journalists from their own political/ideological camp, but they were in fact standing up for bloggers and local outlets with different views as well.

The debate about NPR in the wake of L'Affaire Williams (such as it is; it hasn't been much of a debate on either side of the aisle) has acquired the dimensions of a debate about government control versus a lack thereof. What we should be focusing on is the need to have at least one non-cable broadcast outlet be reserved for the sharing of educational material without expressly political or partisan components, so that economically limited parents and households can access information. When our poorest and most under-resourced citizens can access information without excessive or unreasonable hardship, and know that the broadcaster's content is not predicated on a desire to gain ratings points or market share, the public commons is enhanced. If America ensures that every single television in every market - on the most minimal cable package offered by any provider - has at least one channel that provides what PBS has provided in non-political realms (Sesame Street, Nova, Nature, American Experience) plus public-access-type content that simply points out the availability/eligibility updates for basic services, we can develop a country in which people are more empowered to make choices and exercise their democratic franchise at localized levels, without worrying that the information they receive is compromised by a private agenda or a profit motive (or both).

You don't have to be a conservative to realize that NPR is highly unethical, identifiably political (to its detriment), and actually quite capitalist in much of what it does, all of which undercut the whole point of public broadcasting itself.

You don't have to be a liberal to realize that the free flow of ideas and easy access to information are cornerstones of a society in which the populace can be more informed at localized levels, thereby creating a country in which a more de-centralized government can exist and, in turn, offer local community solutions to problems within a climate of subsidiarity.

If the Left and Right want to use the NPR/Juan Williams kerfuffle as a reason to only deepen animosities and reaffirm the worst stereotypes about their views of Muslims or Jews, well, we can continue that corrosive, soul-hardening, spirit-stifling, life-squelching, progress-inhibiting drama of mortal combat and mutually-shared hatred that will only lead our country into a deeper ditch and a darker place.

Or, perhaps, we can turn in another more constructive direction. Maybe we can use the NPR-Williams dust-up as a chance to reassess current weaknesses in the public broadcasting architecture so that we can revive long-dormant notions of giving all citizens the access to information, which is as basic a need as food, water and shelter.

It's your choice, America. It's your choice, lefties and righties. It's your choice: Are we going to have worthy public debates about the tension points raised by the very existence of NPR and PBS, or are we going to stand pat and not move one inch off our respective dimes?

The American Project, whatever we might think or feel about it, certainly won't be advanced if the Left-Right firing squad continues its crossfire without cessation.

Moreover, I think Juan Williams would agree.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sending Rain On The Just And The Unjust

Scripture, that source of ancient wisdom and literary richness, reminds us that "God sends rain upon the just and the unjust." (Gospel according to Matthew, 5:45) We all live on this planet and share its land. People of every race, language, and way of life are thrown into this crazy, mixed-up world and are forced to make sense of the particular path they've been given. We all face circumstances that are unique to our corners of the world and the families to which we're born. We come at life from 6.4 billion (and growing) different angles. Our stories - while sharing the same fundamental tensions - manifest those tensions in different forms and fashions.

This is at once the beauty and the sadness of life, its sweet poignancy and its aching incompleteness. Hope and despair are bound up in the yawning differences between and among various groups of people. In our best moments as human beings, we feel a shared unity which stretches across the gaps; in our most difficult moments, we feel we will never be able to make common cause with large segments of our fellow-travelers on this planet.

These fascinating yet wrenching aspects of the human condition were very much on display today, September 11, 2010. They surfaced most powerfully in America's remembrance of the day nine years ago when our sense of life was permanently altered; they emerged most personally for me when a riveting high-stakes tennis match broke the way I hoped it wouldn't.

It is one of life's great ironies that the ultimately important and the fundamentally trivial can both teach the same lesson, with the trivial entity often being the more effective teacher because the space in which it conveys its lessons is safer and happier. Tough truths aren't as threatening to the soul or the ego when they surround a little yellow pill that's being whacked, as opposed to an atrocity in which roughly 3,000 people lost their lives, and in which hundreds of thousands more were wrenched from a peaceful internal life for the rest of their sojourns on earth.

It was so strange to contemplate, as I discharged my duties at work on Saturday yet monitored my Twitter feed, the multiple cross-currents of a very emotional day. Keeping up with tennis tweets from the Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic U.S. Open men's semifinal was exhausting enough, but as the day wore on, I also noticed some comments about the ways in which various people around the world respond to acts of violence in their own land.

Americans remember 9/11/2001. Other peoples from other nations with different ethnicities and cultures recall other dates from their past. All of us - depending on where we were born and how we grew up - assign different levels of meaning to the course of human events. Depending on our circumstances and our parents, plus other factors not our choosing, we latch onto particular moments and points of passage as central to our identity and the values we seek to promote. The great majority of human beings all sincerely want the same things, but the points of emphasis we place on certain groups, methods, aims, and ideals are always creating friction in our common attempt to come together. The perplexing yet undeniable truth of the matter is that this friction is at once necessary and painful. We aren't all the same and were not meant to be the same. Yet, from our differences, a respect for our commonality is supposed to be fostered. Scripture once again offers us a glimpse of this, the peaceable kingdom, in which "the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat." Just and unjust - those whom we like, and those whom we've never cared for; those who turn us on and those who turn us off - are all under the same sky and made part of the fullness of creation.

No life is more important (or less) depending on its ethnicity or any of its other circumstances. This is not to say that there aren't moral dilemmas or questions in human life, as messy situations arise. The act of stressing the equality of all lives is not meant to ignore certain moral questions; rather, it is intended to be a fundamental statement of value... value which is not contingent upon isolated scenarios or precise, multifaceted hypotheticals. All life is valuable, and so it becomes important to see the plight of a victim when you are free. Conversely but no less necessarily, it is essential to embrace the joy of a flourishing human person while you live in chains. The joy of a just-married couple should not produce resentment in the still-single person with few prospects for a life partner. Yet, the attainment of prosperity for a household should not lead it to forget and neglect tending to the difficulties of people in need.

When life stretches in certain directions, the place in which we emotionally reside should be acutely connected to life on the other side of the spectrum, the other end of the pole. Moments of fullness should give rise to an awareness of the many who are empty; moments of emptiness should - for the spiritually mature - make us grateful that others are filled with nourishment. This is the wisdom of the ages. This is the teaching of Jesus, the one who taught that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first," and that "the one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Plainly put, these thoughts and the values which underlie them are very much at the core of what it means to remember 9/11 prayerfully as a citizen of the world. These values are also at the heart of what it means for a fan of Roger Federer to be gracious in acknowledging the beauty and transcendence of Novak Djokovic's achievement on Saturday afternoon in Flushing Meadows, New York.

For me, the knowledge of how blessed and prosperous a life I've had in America has made me mindful of the dire poverty so many people face around the world. The horror of 9/11 made me realize what it must be like to live in fear of terrorism all the time, such as an Israeli citizen in Tel Aviv or a resident of Baghdad who can't know where the next suicide bombing will come from. 9/11 showed me what I lost (a sense of innocence and comfort), but it also showed me what I must never lose (a core integrity and a way of nonviolence in dealing with all manner of human problems). 9/11 felt so personal because America was brought in touch with an evil that had previously visited other shores. Yet, that personal wound only magnified the hurts other peoples and nations have been absorbing much longer than America has in its (relatively brief) 234-year (post-Declaration of Independence) history.

Such is the paradoxical nature of life in its weightiest dimensions.

And then there is the not-so-consequential realm of tennis.

For so long, Roger Federer - my favorite professional athlete of all time - has won the kinds of matches he played on Saturday (a match I didn't get to see, but a match that has played out before). He pulled out five-setters at the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Opens en route to championships. He won a five-setter over Juan Martin del Potro en route to his history-making win at the 2009 French Open, just days after escaping Tommy Haas in another five-setter. Federer danced out of five-set trouble against Haas and Nikolay Davydenko in the 2006 Australian Open and versus Tomas Berdych at the 2009 Australian. True, it's technically more accurate to say that Federer has excelled in grinding four-setters rather than five-setters at majors, but the bottom-line point is that, yes, Federer has usually wriggled free from trouble on so many occasions, setting a standard of high and entrenched expectations.

Saturday, Federer did not escape the clutches of a man who allowed the Swiss to pull multiple Houdinis over the years, especially that the very U.S. Open being contested in the Big Apple. In each of the last three years, Federer outlasted Novak Djokovic in a late-stage Open match, but this time, the Serbian stalwart didn't blink in the heat of battle. Two saved match points - one of them on an 11-stroke rally - carried Djokovic to 5-all in the fifth set, an eventual break of Federer's serve, and a 7-5-in-the-fifth triumph which defied recent U.S. Open history. This time, Djokovic didn't wilt after falling behind Federer. This time, the level of belief which wavered in the Serb's past was sustained from start to finish. It was - though I never saw it live - an evidently glorious moment in which a young person of 23 years grew up before the world's eyes... and in the eyes of a peer who used to look down on him, but now respects him as a man in full.

We don't see odd displays of behavior from Novak Djokovic anymore. He used to think - much like an aggrieved party in an international dispute - that everyone was against him and that he needed to maintain a bunker mentality. In the past 18 months or so, however, Djokovic has shed his family's more strident qualities and become a consistent gentleman who has nothing but warm smiles and genuine congratulations for Federer and the rest of his competitors on the ATP Tour. It is not an idle coincidence that Djokovic has become a more consistent player this year, and that he now finds himself in his second U.S. Open final after having played the most remarkable five-set match of his life (his most remarkable three-setter being the 2009 Madrid semifinal against Rafael Nadal).

Here I was, wanting Federer to reach his seventh U.S. Open final so badly. Here I was, wanting with uncommon intensity to see the Swiss meet Nadal in the final. I wanted Federer to be able to become the first man in human history to reach seven straight men's singles finals at two different majors (did any of you know that?). I wanted Federer to join Nadal as one of the only two men to contest all four major finals. I wanted these distinctions so badly for my favorite professional competitor.

And yet, walking into the midst of these hopes, Novak Djokovic played the kind of match that will make him smile with fondness - with a rich and lasting satisfaction emblazoned in the memory - for the rest of his life on earth.

Just when I wanted one form of beauty and enrichment for myself and for the man I so ardently support, another form of beauty emerged from a rival who had so rarely sipped from the nectar of ultimate joy against Roger Federer.

On 9/11, perhaps the task was made easier, but I am reminded that we should be at our best selves and maintain the best and noblest aspirations each and every day of our lives, not just some. On this 9/11 anniversary, it was somehow easier to not only concede, but celebrate, Novak Djokovic's day in the sun. The rain fell on Roger Federer, who had unjustly denied Djokovic (as he has so many others) a great many days in the bright sunlight of glory.

I began this day with the hurts of 9/11 and the still-visible divisions it has sewn in the human family across the continents and oceans. I ended the day deprived of Federer's "double-seven-final" achievement at majors plus his seminal linkage with Nadal in Grand Slam finals. Yet, I find myself moved to celebrate Novak Djokovic's breakthrough moment, a moment which doubles as a peak experience for his long-suffering fans who held out minimal hopes when this semifinal pairing was officially established.

Somehow, letting go of the unavoidable "what-ifs" of two match points lost... and of a dream moment denied when it was so close to fruition.... feels just right.

For once, the heavens kissed the just challenger who finally climbed the mountain, not on the heavy favorite I've cheered (the only heavy favorite I've ever rooted for in my adult life) since 2004.

I have learned to see life from the viewpoint on the other side of the table, the viewpoint of the nation/culture/athlete/fan base that has so often tasted bitterness more than joy.

That makes me sleep peacefully on 9/11 instead of lamenting Roger Federer's near-miss, a miss that - a few years ago - might have kept me up until 1 a.m. without any comfort in my heart.

Human beings are strange creatures. So is the sense of perspective which weaves its way through national memorials and tennis matches, and somehow knits them all together.

The same spirit which moves me to wish for peace in every land is the spirit which enables me to fully and wholeheartedly congratulate the devoted fans of Novak Djokovic, and to allow those sentiments to dominate this day instead of other, darker human impulses.

My wish for you is that you might find the spirit which looks at the unfortunate other when you're flying high, and which celebrates the fortunate other when you're brought low.

Peace and blessings to you all.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

So, Why ARE Liberals So Miserable?

We arrive at another Twitter-inspired blog post, tailored for one portion of the national population. Today, Dr. Melissa Clouthier, a conservative libertarian blogger, straightforwardly asked me: "Why aren't lefties happier?"

Indeed, why aren't we on the Left happier? I think Dr. Clouthier is right on a general level. Naturally, there are many happy liberals and some frustrated conservatives; moreover, our two-party system unavoidably masks the more complex politics of various individuals, making it hard to determine what kinds of liberals are especially grumpy (or, conversely, more cheerful). This question and the topic attached to it can easily devolve into broad stereotypes and bland generalizations. Neither items are helpful - the former fail to respect individuals, while the latter paper over differences and squelch the meaningfully revelatory dialogue we need in America. I know I won't speak for every single liberal or capture the entirety of what it's like to be a lefty, but I'll try to be as honest as possible. I want conservatives and right-libertarians to see lefties as we are, with our good motivations and reasoned thought processes but also with our manifold weaknesses, sins and failings.

So, on with the show, a brief essay that will only hit on some major points and not go too deep in any one direction (out of respect for everyone's time during the middle of the week). I do welcome comments, and would be perfectly happy to field a boatload of questions from members of the conservative blogosphere and conservative activists in general. If a follow-up essay is requested by any conservative readers, I'll write it and will sincerely try to address relevant questions/comments/tension points in a meaningful and transparent way.


Why are lefties not happier? As with almost all complicated realities in life, there's no one answer which will fully satisfy, but there are a few factors that emerge more strongly and broadly than most. One factor is religion. It's not so much whether religion is good or bad - that's the clash between the secular Left and the religious Right - but more simply, how religion is interpreted and emphasized.

I consider myself a progressive Catholic. I've been in the middle of multiple sociocultural crossfires. The secular Left thinks I'm too religious, while the Right thinks I'm not religious enough (generalizations to a point, but again true for the most part). Speaking from a place of progressive Catholicism, I'm aware of the difference between much of liberal and conservative forms of Christianity. The issue of Biblical inerrancy (whether the Bible is literally true or not) has, matter of factly, carried enormous implications for the ways in which one receives the Christian faith as a young person and then carries it as an adult. Leaving opinions aside, it is simply a reality in American life that the question of Biblical inerrancy strongly affects the rest of a person's religious mindset (if one remains religious to begin with). Liberals and conservatives both have sex and raise families and want their children to do well, but they acquire different points of emphasis that, over time, branch out into still more differentiations that create different kinds of people.

To directly address why lefties aren't happier, "we" (broadly defined, at least within our Christian adherents) think that human beings, while indeed flawed, are basically good. We acknowledge that human nature is frail in the face of temptation and vulnerable in the face of manipulation, but we lefties feel that if a person grows up in good circumstances, with a good upbringing and solid social supports, s/he will ripen into a contributing member of society and a fundamentally decent person. This is why we are: A) very sad when a person doesn't have strong social and familial support systems in childhood; and B) fervently desirous of changes to laws and policies that do not remedy the problems disadvantaged youth face. Our (theological) belief in the goodness of the human person clearly makes us lefties more wounded than, for instance, a Southern Baptist or non-denominational evangelical who believes in Biblical inerrancy and views human nature with a more sin-centric framework emphasizing the fallen nature of the human person. There are so many finer points that could be fleshed out here, but (for the sake of time/length) won't be. I do think the basic outlines of the matter do help to establish why lefty Christians (and certainly some lefty secularists) are less happy than righties.

Another core factor - which flows from everything just said - is that because conservatives cast a more skeptical eye toward human nature, they are much more willing (from the interactions I've had with conservatives on blogs since 2003) to simply say, "Life isn't fair - deal with it." Conservatives get frustrated just like anyone else, but it's been my experience that they are, on balance, better able to vent their anger, let it go, and move forward. Their skepticism of human nature allows them to possess and sustain a cultivated awareness of life's difficulties, which then enables them to develop a tougher and more resilient attitude to life. It's not cold - surely not to conservatives themselves - but merely a steely defense mechanism, a necessary survival tool that liberals would do well to cultivate on a more consistent basis. Lefties aren't as ready to admit that life isn't fair; we want to make life fairer! Again, I won't flesh out the policy merits (or demerits) which issue from such a dynamic; merely understand that this is how we generally think, and why we are less happy than righties generally are.

One other major determinant of conservative happiness and liberal misery is also connected to (broadly outlined) religious experiences. The specific factor in play here is the difference in interpretations of salvation. The liberal Christian experience generally holds that people are saved communally, and lefty Christians will often stress the need for works to accompany faith. The conservative Christian will place more emphasis on individual salvation, a personal decision of faith, and the need to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Obviously, lefty Christians don't discount pure faith and interior belief, just as righty Christians don't dismiss the need to do good works. Nevertheless, there are differences in emphasis, and because your typical lefty Christian will see salvation through a more communitarian lens, s/he will weep more when s/he sees social dislocation, cultural drift, war, economic injustice, and other things that - in a lefty's mind - most centrally tear at the fabric of humanity. The conservative Christian - understandably upset at many of the injustices s/he sees in the world - does manage to walk with far greater internal confidence and assurance of personal salvation, bolstered and given ballast by a less-shaken belief in Jesus. Mel Gibson's The Passion certainly tapped into this vein of feeling and revealed the consuming confidence and happiness of many evangelical Christians who reside well to the right of the political center.

Well, I said I don't want to take up too much of your time. That's it for now. Again, follow-up questions or even requests for follow-up essays on uncovered terrain would be quite welcome, even encouraged. My e-mail address:

In a closing postscript that should not be diminished by its place at the very end of this post, I want to add: Just in case you have never heard this before, dear conservatives, I want to say it clearly and publicly: You are not the enemy. You are not evil. You've simply had collections of experiences and contours of existence which are very different from mine. If you and I swapped life stories (as is true for any two people who come from different backgrounds and face different points of poignancy along life's road), we'd probably be on the other side of the aisle. I'd be the conservative libertarian in Houston, and you'd be the progressive Catholic and former soup kitchen director/Dorothy Day admirer in Seattle. Peace be with you!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Special Edition: Twitter Follow-Up on Shirley Sherrod

Twitter's great limitation is that 140 characters cannot fully unpack conversations on matters as complex as race. Yet, the virtues of Twitter outstrip the limitations because we can at least initiate exchanges that - courtesy of blogs (and e-mail, and other media) - are able to be extended.

Here is one such attempt to take a brief Twitter dialogue and elaborate on it in the blogosphere. I appreciate the comments made on Twitter, and will attempt to address them concisely in a post of modest length. (Feel free to respond in the comments section. If you want a longer follow-up essay, I will honor your request and provide it, all while trying to answer the more specific questions you have.)

The first thing I must do is to perform the task of any newcomer in a conversation: Mention who I am and where I come from (geographically and, of course, in other senses as well).

I'm a white male, so immediately, I know that I cannot fully relate to the experience of Shirley Sherrod or other people of color. I grew up in Phoenix - which exposed me to hostile conservative speech - and moved to Seattle, a place which has exposed me to a hollow lip-service form of liberalism mouthed by whites who might talk a lot about diversity and pacifism, but who fail to walk the talk (by a wide margin) on both levels.

I consider myself a progressive, but definitely not a Democrat. (I'm fed up with that party, which does not stand by progressive values.) I disagree with conservatives on fundamental questions of policy, but because of my experiences of faux-liberalism - or liberalism that trips lightly off the lips but is not followed up with action - I think the Right has a point when it accuses the Left of failing to live up to its ideals.

Though progressive, another thing which puts me in the middle of many national debates is that I'm Catholic. For conservatives, I have not been Catholic enough; for Seattle liberals, I've been far too religious, too intolerant of secular viewpoints. I can't understand what it means to be discriminated against on the basis of race, but I have tasted discrimination based on religion (albeit less than severe).

So, that's my background in brief. I'll now share just a few thoughts about Friday afternoon's conversation with Professor Blair Kelley, whose force of conviction is admirable, substantial, and rooted in a very strong moral foundation.

My views of Shirley Sherrod are, on the whole, quite positive. This is an inspiring woman whose story is exactly what enlightens a nation and moves an issue forward into a more enriching space and context. Such a notion is easy to understand; one doesn't have to tell a predominantly liberal audience why Sherrod's journey rings with resonance and beauty.

What understandably got lost in my criticism of Sherrod is that I was only criticizing her for one action on one localized level. The entirety of her story, and her full body of work this week in the national spotlight, rate high marks. Naturally - rightly - you were puzzled at best, and very possibly miffed, that I would criticize her.

Well, there's this (admittedly) nagging part of me that, in a forum like Twitter, will cause misunderstandings if not unpacked in a more expansive setting: I often respond to generally positive pieces of work by mentioning the 1 or 2 ways in which they could have been better.

Thursday night, for instance, Joan Walsh of Salon wrote a terrific piece on Sherrod's husband, and on Twitter, I complimented her for the piece. However, I also threw in a modest criticism based on a few phrasings that seemed to be turn-offs for any conservative readers of her piece. Ms. Walsh felt I was giving conservatives too much leeway, and that - in many ways - approximates the sense I get from your responses on Friday afternoon.

For context on the Joan Walsh issue, you can read the blog post which immediately preceded this one. As for this issue pertaining to my exchange with Professor Kelley, let me simply say the following:

Shirley Sherrod did not make a mistake of morality or ethics or character. She made a mistake of political game-playing, in my one (and hardly definitive) lonely opinion. Sherrod is within her rights to sue Andrew Breitbart, and I hasten to reiterate that I cannot honestly know what it must be like to be in Sherrod's shoes tonight.

What I do feel, however - and this is why I would give Sherrod a B-plus for her full week of actions instead of a solid A - is that while Sherrod did nothing morally or ethically wrong, she did miss an opportunity to sustain and/or consolidate the gains she made in our national racial environment before she insisted that Breitbart's website, Big Journalism, should be shut down.

One thing to realize about race - and I'd like to think this statement holds up under scrutiny regardless of the racial identity of the person making it - is that the larger populace is edified by a lived-out example and deep testimonials more than quick sound bites in a hyper-accelerated (and partisan, and fragmented) media landscape. When Barack Obama made his Philadelphia speech in the spring of 2008, the country was edified because it gained a chance to read about and reflect on race in a much more textured fashion removed from the food-fight realm of flamethrowing, talking-point-spouting cable yakkers with no sense of nuance.

In other words, there's a way to teach the country about race, and there's a way to inflame problems even with the best of intentions. The jujitsu of politics - of winning the nation's hearts and minds the way Dr. King did in the 1960s - is different from the realm of morality. There was never a question about the rightness of Dr. King's beliefs and aspirations during the Civil Rights Movement; the lingering question was HOW to go about affirming those values and giving them ratification in the legislative sphere.

The record shows - at least from this student's perspective - that Dr. King suffered punches and body blows (as did the lunch-counter protesters and the people who experienced both the water cannons of Bull Connor and the clubs of Selma) in order to win the war for civil rights. The nonviolence King so faithfully adhered to was powerful precisely because it never struck back at wrongdoers and oppressors. Nonviolence, lived to its fullest, caused the doers of violence to be fully exposed before the nation's eyes. A tipping point was reached where the populace could no longer ignore the nonviolent fidelity and human goodness of civil rights protesters, cast in vivid relief against the harsh polar opposite of thuggish police and the bullies who upheld Jim Crow.

I don't want to take up more of your time, so I'll race to the immediate conclusion and see if you want me to elaborate more on on this issue in the future:

Shirley Sherrod is a hero; I simply think that she ran 97 percent of the race and, near the finish line, resorted to the kind of act that was not politically astute, the kind of act that Dr. King or Gandhi probably would not have resorted to. By going to a sound-bite realm (a CNN talk show) instead of giving a lengthy speech or perhaps asking Bill Moyers to come out of retirement for a one-shot 90-minute special conversation, Sherrod - for the only time this past week - played the political game on Andrew Breitbart's turf and terms. In so doing, she allowed a lot of conservatives who, on Wednesday, were largely in her corner to - on Thursday night - lose their newfound admiration and respect for her. The net result for the nation was still positive, but oh, a big chunk of political capital was squandered.

That's all for now. Thanks for taking the time to comment and raise questions. I'm happy to listen to further remarks and treat them with the sincerity and respect they most certainly deserve.

POSTSCRIPT - Tackling a few of your itemized questions (without naming names or identifying Twitter handles)

** A Vatican 3 Catholic believes in ordaining women and implementing other Church reforms that the Second Vatican Council (Vatican 2) did not achieve. Basically, a Vatican 3 Catholic advocates a further modernization (and laicization) of the Church.

** To the poster who felt I was put in my place: I ask these questions with no rancor whatsoever, and purely in a spirit of honest curiosity:

1) What made you feel I was "put in my place"?

2) What made you feel satisfied about the progression of the conversation I had with Professor Kelley?

3) What did I say or suggest that was off-putting? Did I address it in the essay above? If not, how can I improve my speech and conduct with respect to racial issues in the future? I'm always looking to improve.

** To another poster who referenced ACORN: Does Breitbart's takedown of ACORN mean that he should be taken down with the same hardball tactics he used? Perhaps the best way to take down Breitbart - a figure worthy of being taken down - is to ignore him into irrelevance and not give him continued publicity, which translates into sustained (high) traffic and page views for his network of websites. Moreover, the specific place in which Sherrod erred was not so much the lawsuit as the claim that Big Journalism should be shut down. How is that protective of free speech? Focusing on the libelous actions of Breitbart - without casting a wider net - would have seemed more politically (and legally) astute. Just two cents....

** To another poster: No, Sherrod is not duplicitous. I hope the essay above addressed that. She merely made one tactical misstep during an otherwise heroic week of performance in the national spotlight.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Journalistic Jujitsu: Or, Why Lefties Must Be Better

NOTE: This very occasional blog series, devoted to Left-Right dialogue, is taking a brief detour here to focus on what would ostensibly be viewed as liberal journalistic outlets. -M.Z.

I get paid a little bit to write about sports, but writing about politics and the affairs of nations is even more essential to my soul, because it is in that larger realm where I will be judged by my maker. Therefore, I feel compelled to write a brief essay about left-themed journalism... and begin it with a sports metaphor.

College basketball, with 347 schools playing at the Division I level, is divided into multiple tiers. The schools that aren't elite - and lack huge athletic budgets - are called "mid-majors." A devoted defender of these "have-nots" in college hoops says that when a mid-major plays a "power conference" school such as North Carolina or Kansas, "It's 5 against 8. The poor team has to be 10-15 points better than the rich team, because the rich team will get at least 8-10 points worth of favorable calls from the officials."

People on both (all) sides of the political divide feel that their group is playing 5-on-8, with the opposition having the three referees in their corner. Speaking as a lefty, it is not the place of this essay to debate the 5-on-8 issue, but to proceed in a manner that will render the officials irrelevant.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that liberals are shorthanded in the national journalistic climate and the political tensions that accompany it. There's reason to think as much: The Iraq War, the September 2008 economic meltdown, and the torture debate all witnessed the Establishment decide that the serious and appropriate position was not the liberal one. Grassroots progressive values have a hard time working their way into the center of national debate, and especially the military-industrial complex.

What are liberal journalistic outlets to do in the face of this? The journalist certainly can be an advocate, but this form of advocacy - different from community organizing or nonprofit work - is constrained by a need to adhere to facts, which are certainly open to some degree of interpretation but ultimately transcend one viewpoint or ideology. One must ask the liberal journalist, especially at an editorial level, the following question: What journalistic change/reform, more than anything else, could transform the world for the better? Sure, more money would mean better coverage, but at the level of editorial policy, what new point of emphasis - if absorbed on a massive scale by liberal media outlets - would point ourselves in a much better direction... not only in America, but across the globe?

My answer (which has been developing in my head for the past few weeks): nonviolent public affairs coverage.

What does this mean? It means that anyone who calls him/herself progressive - and surely cherishes the example of figures like Jesus, King and Gandhi - needs to be more intentional about following the way of nonviolence in public journalism, not just private practice.

The 5-versus-8 metaphor is instructive because it portrays a situation in which the shorthanded team has no margin for error. That's really where liberals and liberal journalists are today in America. The JournoList incident was not an outrageous scandal, but it was worrisome and depressing because - say what you want about off-the-record technicalities - it still showed liberal journalists spending the balance of their time worrying about a political contest instead of talking about the issues affecting a broken nation with people in misery.

Jesus, King and Gandhi - the trinity of nonviolent teachers - demand far more words than this essay will give them, but they all share some core traits that can be briefly stated: They fought, but they did so spiritually, and not (primarily) with words; they didn't make conflicts personal; they all learned not to carry anger or resentment toward their chief oppressors, truly regarding the Oppositional Other as worthy of (and needing) forgiveness; and, most centrally to the notion of nonviolence, they all suffered torments while resisting the impulse to verbally or physically lash out at their tormentors.

The political theater of nonviolence - mastered by Jesus, King and Gandhi - basically involves this progression: Speak about the need for nonviolence and the supreme values you cherish. Live the nonviolence you promote as central to the improvement of human civilization and morals. Teach others exactly how to follow this difficult path (the way Branch Rickey taught Jackie Robinson). Keep living the value of nonviolence. NEVER, EVER GIVE IN TO THE TEMPTATION TO STRIKE BACK. When the other side keeps exposing itself as violent while you maintain your authentic and loving nonviolence, the public reaches a tipping point. The consistency of the faithful nonviolent example eventually does topple the doers of violence and the promoters of hatred. Minds and hearts then change.

The obvious difficulty here is that in 21st century America, with a vast proliferation of media outlets and - hence - individual journalists, just one loose cannon can derail any attempt by large groups of liberal journalists to - in their reportage and in their public appearances on talk shows - embody nonviolence. However, this difficulty should not dissuade liberal media outlets from trying to more consciously practice nonviolence in public communications and reportage.

Does this mean that a bully - like Andrew Breitbart - shouldn't be called a bully? No. (An ethos of nonviolence, though, would suggest that the best way to deal with a figure like Breitbart is to ignore him into irrelevance; he, like other tempters of professed nonviolence advocates, wants to provoke a violent reaction which will expose hypocrisy and thereby undercut the peace-seeking Left at large.)

Does this mean, of course, that the Left should roll over and play dead in the face of the Right? That's a rhetorical question - of course it shouldn't.

Do consider, though, the potential of a more consciously nonviolent community of American liberal journalists: Given eight years (two presidential election cycles) of faithful practice, combined with a consistent pattern of focusing on holding the Democratic Party accountable, the ranks of liberal journalists - unconcerned with combating the Republicans - might garner more wide-ranging respect from the entire population. Doing advocacy journalism in ways that help and lift up ordinary people, while withdrawing from the Beltway noise machine, could give liberal journalism credibility with the common person, enabling the Left to be seen - in a decade or so - as not the extension of MSNBC, but as nothing other than the responsible player in American journalism writ large.

Is there so much more to unpack here? Yes. However, we all have busy lives... especially the liberal journalists who - I hope - will read this essay. I do think the basic outlines of this vision have been drawn, to the extent that you can see what's going on. I welcome any and all questions or remarks in the comments section, and you're also welcome to e-mail me anytime.

Meanwhile, give a little consideration to - if not the entirety of this vision - the possibilities that can emerge whenever a Christian/Gandhian ethos of nonviolence gets infused into mainstream political debate. Lefties and lefty journalists simply have to be better in order to defeat the militarism, secrecy and poverty we progressives rightly detest.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Federer Fans, Nadal Fans, and a Window Into Political Discord

There's room for one more blog post at the end of a cluttered and busy week, and it falls outside the realm of politics... well, not quite, now that you mention it.

This is a sports post and not inherently a political one, but even a brief stroll through the landscape of tennis fandom has something to say about the way people approach any contentious subject.

As Rafael Nadal tries today to win the Wimbledon crown his injury ceded to Roger Federer in 2009, it's worth making a few points about these two champions and the way they're perceived by the public. A number of things need to be said, and a number of questions need to be asked, about the roots of support and opposition that have penetrated deep into the conversational topsoil whenever Mr. Federer and Mr. Nadal occupy center stage.

We all have our preferences as sports fans. It's a free country. Some fans gravitate to Federer's ice, others to Rafa's vibrant fire. Some women will respond to Fed's Swiss polish, many others to Rafa's Mallorcan flair. A Fed fan might be touched by the way Federer relates to his wife, Mirka, while Nadal fans might be stirred by the deep bond Rafa enjoys with the family and the neighborhood that hold him so close. On the court, the precise flourishes of an in-form Federer are wondrous for some, while Nadal's unceasing determination and energy rouse many other tennis souls to flights of ecstasy. Fed fans love how Roger set a new standard for tennis excellence; Rafa fans thoroughly appreciate the fact that someone else is stepping up to the plate and leveling a stern challenge to that very standard.

All of this is good and healthy and human and, one should add, quite necessary. We need differences to complement each other and lend fullness to the human experience. To be a sports fan - like a connoisseur of art - is to be one person out of many, one carrier of a unique set of tastes and preferences that will differ from the next guy or gal. All of this is good.

It's the unnecessary collection of distractions and tangents and friction points which detracts from the majesty and marvelousness of what the Federer-Nadal era should be.

Why is it that Federer's press conference - following his quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon on Wednesday - was somehow perceived by some as finally (or rarely) revealing Federer's humanity? Was this humanity not present before? When Federer failed to live up to (by a small margin, not the large margin I had originally perceived) the highest standards of conduct, why did that come across to some as being a welcome moment that somehow humanized Mr. Federer?

When Nadal asked for a medical time-out in his third-round win over Philipp Petzschner, why was that viewed as an act of dubious sportsmanship on Mr. Nadal's part, given that he missed Wimbledon in 2009 because of balky knees?

And here's the biggest question of all: Why is it that when an athlete receives either too much coverage or what is felt to be a misguided form of coverage in the press (coverage, it should be added, that he himself is not manipulating or orchestrating), the athlete becomes less attractive in the eyes of many fans?

Nadal suffers from this dynamic when his comments on injuries are referenced. The same thing applies to his five-set wins. It is true that there is at least some degree of a double standard in terms of the way Rafa's comments and on-court performances are treated in comparison with Federer. When the Swiss is pushed in a five-set escape, more alarm bells go off than is the case with Rafa. Mr. Nadal doesn't receive the "what's wrong?" chorus to the extent Federer does; I don't think that claim is tenuous.

You might be wondering: "How does NADAL suffer here?" He suffers in the realm of fan perception. Because of the media's double standard and because of the shadow (unnecessarily) cast by medical time-outs that have a legitimate basis in the reality of Rafa's frail knees, a number of fans come to like Rafa a bit less than they would otherwise.

Rest assured, though, Mr. Federer also gets scarred among tennis fans for similar reasons.

Whenever the media does a fawning piece on Fed, or brings an old classic Federer match into the discussion of a present-day battle unfolding live and in real time, a lot of groans are articulated on tennis message boards and blogs. Federer's pervasive media presence and frequent presence on a TV screen have created a (hyper-)saturation effect which makes Federer a turn-off for a number of tennis fans. Yet, I would dare to say that for both of these great champions and fine sportsmen (imperfect, but still very good over the long run of time), the media coverage - in its tone, tenor, content and quantity - substantially effect the extent to which the player is appreciated and admired by the tennis public.

Well, the Wimbledon final is four games underway. Time to shelve this post. I would simply like to get some in-depth feedback from a wide cross-section of tennis fans.

I leave you with this point: You can hate the media - often, you should - for what it does to try to bend perceptions of tennis stars and other athletes. Let's focus more on being critical of the media and not taking things out on the players themselves if they have nothing to do with the nature of the (wayward) media coverage being directed at them. On the other hand, if a great player and sportsman - no matter how sterling the reputation - does say something (or do something) to merit criticism, one shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge as much and, if need be, call that player (like Federer after his Wednesday press conference at Wimbledon) on the carpet.

Let the feedback flow once the Wimbledon final is over.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Fourth of July: An Empty American Holiday

America turns 234 years old on this latest observance of the Fourth of July. There is much that remains inspiring and remarkable about the United States and its origins. This country is in many ways a miracle and, even now, a lasting example of what human civilization can and should be.

However, the passage of time has also eroded much of the spirit which so thoroughly animated and motivated our Founders, the people who so bravely fought against overwhelming odds to give life and birth to a most amazing idea: That human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It's the final line of the Declaration of Independence which regularly stirs me. Contemplate the depth of sacrifice involved in the founding of America and the principles that made it great:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Gosh, that's nothing less than electrifying. This small band of citizens, seeing the flame of freedom snuffed out in their midst, didn't passively allow themselves to be consigned to such a fate. They acted - boldly, creatively, shrewdly, courageously, and with uncommon energy and scope - to establish the more perfect union that has benefited so many of us who call ourselves "American." It's really rather breathtaking.

So, the question begs to be asked: Are we, the American citizens of 2010, pledging to each other our (capital-L) Lives, our (capital-F) Fortunes, and our sacred (capital-H) Honor?

More to the point, what do we do as a nation on July 4 to show as much?

Seems to me the parades and the flags and the barbecues and the baseball and the fireworks and the John Philip Sousa are as far as we get... at least for 95 percent of us.

Without belaboring the point or going into a long stemwinder of a soliloquy, I propose two things:

1) In your own quiet moments and workings, find a simple way to help a fellow man or woman by giving a piece of your Life, Fortune or sacred Honor to a person in need of uplift.

2) Nationally, I propose that at 8 p.m. Eastern time on July 4, we spend one hour to simply mark the weight of the occasion in a plain manner the Founders would approve of. We should stop as a nation - much like Muslim societies do in their five-a-day calls to prayer - and gather around the television as all our networks (all of them!) broadcast one hour devoted to a commemoration of who and what we are as a Republic.

Have the Declaration of Independence be read out loud, followed by the Articles of the United States Constitution and their amendments. Have all our presidents' names vocalized (even the bad ones), have all our House speakers and Senate majority leaders named. Have all our Supreme Court chief justices named.

The exercise might seem small and minimalist to many, but it would be a way of educating our youth in a public manner and conveying the important, relevant idea that our history and heritage matter.

Why is this important to me?
First of all, Americans are terrible at studying, let alone appreciating and cherishing, history in general. A populace more educated in history and civics is a population that is less prone to passively accept affronts to freedom and rights both communal and individual.

Secondly, though, I was inspired to conceive this idea because I live in Seattle. Several months ago, it was revealed that the city lacked the funds and sponsorships to stage its annual Fourth of July fireworks show over Lake Union. When this shortage of funds was announced, the people of Seattle reacted as though a profound human crisis had been encountered. The $500,000 needed to stage the show were quickly raised - in about 36 hours over the airwaves of the local talk radio station - and the city rejoiced.

Fireworks are all well and good - nothing wrong with a little holiday fun - but when they acquire such importance, centrality and urgency from the populace while far greater human needs go unmet in this city, it only affirms in Seattle what seems to be the case in America at large: We react more strongly in defense of our entertainments and comforts than in defense of the poor and of constitutional principles that sorely need our vigilant daily advocacy.

Please - do something meaningful for a neighbor on the Fourth of July. If you like the idea of a public reading outlined above, call your local congressional representative. I'll attempt to do these things myself.

I'll also not attend Seattle's fireworks show on the night of July 4, 2010.

It's time to make America - its values and the birthday which gave rise to them - more imbued with meaning. It's time to devote to America a little more of our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Respecting the Process, Serving the People: Key Components of the Left-Right Divide

It's worth returning to this blog for a few posts. This isn't a high-maintenance everyday blog, but when issues emerge that demand attention, they ought to be written about.

We return to the marketplace of ideas, then, by exploring a key component of the Left-Right divide: the law.

The Elena Kagan hearings - like any hearings for a prospective Supreme Court justice in the United States - raises the familiar cry of "judicial activism!" This is otherwise known as the central source of Left-Right division, with all its attendant hypocrisies: "When you do it, it's an abuse of power; when I do it, it's inspired leadership." The same is true in the courts and the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate: "When your side interprets laws, it's judicial activism. When we interpret law, we're faithful to the Constitution and the intent of the Founding Fathers."

Sadly but surely, every hearing for a Supreme Court nominee seems to turn into a Kabuki theater festival, even if - as is the case with Kagan - confirmation is almost guaranteed. These show hearings rarely if ever generate more light than heat, thereby dividing our Republic even more on this, the weekend celebrating its 234th birthday. Just how can we deal with matters of law in a more constructive manner? It's a topic worthy of extensive deliberation, but let's at least try to establish a few basic principles in a brief space.

A very good discussion starter comes from my conservative libertarian pal John Cary, who shared on Twitter a article from author Frank Turek on Ms. Kagan. The piece is an effective critique of Kagan from a conservative perspective and owns a lot of heft on a purely logical level removed from purely political considerations. Turek's best point emerges in his criticism that Kagan is way off base when she says that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is "a moral injustice of the first order." That is indeed a laughably inadequate assessment of what justice means, and Turek pounces in a manner befitting an appreciably sharp mind should.

Mr. Turek seizes the moment and uses Kagan's comments to illustrate the need to follow established guidelines and mechanisms for interpreting and enforcing laws. The law can't just be deemed good or bad; there needs to be a basis in the legal canon and its accepted tenets. Personal opinion and a deep-set worry that a given law (or ruling, or both) will lead to negative consequences doesn't satisfy legal standards.

All of this is an accurate enough commentary, a critique that conservatives generally lodge against liberals. The Right in America is of the firmly-held belief that the Left ignores structure and statute and - based on personal opinion and preference - foists its values and recommendations on the American public at large. The American Right thinks that the American Left injects opinion into law and bends interpretations of law to suit its own desires. Conservatives and Right-leaning libertarians feel that the Left is constantly trying to (extra-judicially and otherwise) re-engineer American society in accordance with its aims.

Now, that's a lot to digest. Is it true? Well, this blog really isn't about answering questions like that. The purpose of this blog is to get at the matter of HOW WE DEAL WITH DIVISIVE QUESTIONS SUCH AS THIS.

I'm of the personal opinion that Kagan's very much a centrist. John Cary is of the opinion she's hard Left. On the issue Mr. Turek talks about - DADT - Kagan is guilty, at least on a basic level, of operating in a manner consistent with the conservative critique of liberals. However, Mr. Turek - and this is where I have a difficult time with his still-valuable and thought-provoking column - advanced the view that "the military rightfully discriminates against numerous behaviors and conditions" in order to promote the highest possible level of performance.

My beef is not, of course, that the military discriminates against certain behaviors and conditions. It must indeed discriminate on certain levels. That's not where Turek goes astray. Where Turek errs is in his implicit assumption that homosexuality is one of the conditions which the military is right to discriminate against. To put a finer point on Turek's reasoning, as soon as he left the realm of structure and process in which conservatives are more naturally comfortable, he wandered into a more open-ended place in which - according to his own critique - liberals actually DO have just cause to recommend a better formulation or arrangement of policy. Turek provides an important public service to the country, and to the ranks of American lefties, by demanding of them an intellectual and structural rigor which is consistent with set-down components of recognized law. However, by that very same set of standards, once the realm of structure is left behind and the realm of interpretation is entered, liberals or progressives are no longer foisting their beliefs on everybody else.

In other words, Elena Kagan does need to recognize the military's role in shaping its own policy; by extension, liberals need to be cognizant of the proper domains and jurisdictions applicable to tenets of our constitution and its laws. That's the benefit of Turek's thoughtful piece. However, when one then gets to the debate surrounding what the military should in fact do, and how it should go about doing it, the terrain shifts to the content of policy itself, not the constitutionality of procedure.

What we have before us, then, is a dynamic where liberals need to give more weight to the proper place and position of process in the establishment of laws. The ruling on Citizens United - which established that corporations are people - is just such an instance. Like other American lefties, I do find the idea odious and noxious; however, as a matter of constitutional fidelity, I don't see how one can honesty rule otherwise under current conditions. Money - while not something people equally share - is indeed a form of free speech. If we're serious about protecting speech, well, we have to allow money to be spent by corporations, which are run by individual people. The result sucks and is detrimental to the fabric of our democracy, but that's what the constitution says, so for now, it has to be followed.

The thing the Left needs to do, though - and this is where I'd like to see the Right join in, too - is organize a movement to promote the public financing of campaigns and render the problem moot. If one is confronted by an unpleasant reality connected to the faithful application of the supreme law of the land, one should not persist in arguing that a court decision failed to apply the law. No, one should work around the law, or - to present another alternative - amend the law.

There is an amendment process to the constitution. Why won't (shouldn't?) leaders among the ranks of the American Left propose a 28th Amendment? That's where lefties have to possess more agility, acuity and passion. Unfortunately, they get wrapped up in fighting over the same piece of turf, usually to their detriment.

Now, on the other hand, when procedure and jurisdiction are not in question, I'd like to see conservative friends acknowledge the notion that liberals really aren't "re-engineering American society to suit their own whims." Liberals are guilty of this in some respects, I hasten to say ( Citizens United being one such prominent case ), but with respect to - for instance - the death penalty, the constitution sets forth a metric of "cruel and unusual punishment."

It would certainly seem to this lefty that if death doesn't represent cruel and unusual punishment, nothing does. Moreover, as a Christian who is all too aware that Jesus died at the hands of capital punishment, I remain even more baffled that any Christian - as is also the case with war - could be unbothered at best and sanguine at worst in the face of other people being killed by an extension of the state. If the Left is wrong to foist beliefs in an extra-judicial or extra-constitutional manner upon the populace, as it sometimes does, the Right needs to bear in mind that the Left's beliefs not only aren't always foisted, but that in many cases, they don't hold sway at all in the public arena. There are instances in which progressive, left-leaning values have something to add to the whole of society. Sure, they're subject to abuse and misapplication (just like the views of the Right or the views of any other political persuasion), but they deserve a place at the table and have a role to play in the evolution of our society.

Bottom line: If liberals don't like a law, they need to deal with it in creative ways or move to amend the constitution (conservatives can do the same on issues that cut against them). However, if procedural and jurisdictional issues are not in question, the liberal position - while perhaps meriting disagreement - doesn't need to be seen as an undue imposition on the people. The gaps between theory and reality, between definitional exactitude and the messiness of public practice, aren't easily resolved in real life. Liberals will tend to want to create the right result, while conservatives will insist on a process faithful to tenets of law.

I suggest that both sides be ready and willing to address the portions of the problem that they have historically and instinctively neglected.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Media Bias: Categories, Not Ideologies

The subject of media bias is a stumbling block for all Americans. It is at once both supremely important and yet hopelessly politicized. More precisely, media bias is claimed by most people to cut in one direction (namely, against their political leanings) when in fact in cuts in all sorts of directions. Think tanks and stand-alone entities have been formed by both the Left (MediaMatters) and the Right (the Media Research Center) to identify and expose instances of media bias, all while we should be focusing on biases and shortcomings of a far more fundamental nature – biases that carry truly serious consequences.

Before going forward, I must hasten to say that if it seems I’m taking a middle-ground position just to be some sort of peacemaker or conciliatory presence, well, I can understand how or why you’d arrive at such a conclusion. Rest assured, though, that as with other issues talked about on this blog, I find myself sincerely convinced that there’s enough blame (and good will) to be shared by the Left and the Right in America. The whole point of pointing a (rare and quite lonely) path toward Left-Right reconciliation is that we cannot continue to demonize the other, especially when there is so much that is wrong about our own positions, a reality owing in large part to a two-party system which simply demands a considerable amount of self-contradictory stances and concessions to the game of political hardball. Life in the 21st century has become too vast, complex and contentious for one side to own all the blame (and conversely, all the credit) for the combination of successes and failures that emerge in our time. An honest focus on various problems will involve members of the Left and Right taking ownership of their failings first, and then (but only then) making a sincere and pure-hearted effort to call the other side to a higher, nobler way of operating.

So, with that having been established, let’s go deeper into the belly of this beast we call the media.

As someone who does work within the realm of journalism, but in the less consequential world of college football (I’ve been a columnist since 2001), I and my inbox have been deluged by charges of bias from readers across the United States. The only difference is that I’ve been accused of being biased toward teams and conferences, not to political ideologies. Being biased in favor of the University of Southern California is quite different – and much less alarming – than being biased in favor of a political candidate or a political way of being. I have written op-eds for seven years in the Seattle papers (that died in the past year, as one paper has ceased to publish a print version while the other has scaled its op-ed space down to 600 words from 750; no thanks…), but I have not worked as a political or public affairs journalist. I can only claim journalistic credits as a sportswriter, so I can’t claim that I have firsthand experience of being called a biased liberal or progressive. I want that to be clear.

However, I can rightfully say that I’ve been exposed to charges of bias by a national mass readership. I can say that I’ve engaged in a give-and-take with readers and have directly observed the motivations and mechanics and manipulations that surround media bias. Working for what is a largely independent news voice (somewhat constrained at times but generally unshackled), I can also say that I’ve seen media bias at work in the college football industry and in the media-industrial complex at large. The issue of media bias is not and has not been foreign to my work and to my evolution as a citizen. I might not be the ultimate authority, but I have spent enough time in the e-mail salt mines to merit a place at the table on this often-vexing issue.

My overall view of media bias is shaped by three overarching statements: First, there’s small-b “bias,” the unique combination of inflection/emphasis/interpretation any human being will unavoidably bring to his/her writing or public commentary simply as an extension of his/her life experiences.

Even an Associated Press writer will have to make some degree of analysis or interpretation on a news story which goes beyond something you’d see on the local news at 11. Such a detail will almost inevitably color or flavor the article in a way different from another news analyst whose slight variances in interpretation could lend a notably altered voice to the article. This is just a fact of being human in a complex world; Difficult issues demand interpretation, and our biographies – the flow and progression of our lives – will create small but real particularities in the way journalists emphasize and analyze the stories they must unpack for a wide readership. This is what small-b “bias” is; it’s nothing to be concerned about, nothing to fight or lament.

The second key point about media bias is that there are instances in which an entrenchedness, a systemic or patternistic attitude toward the news of the day, infects or encompasses an issue or a larger collection of issues. This is capital-B “Bias,” and this is the abdication of journalistic standards and professional responsibility which does indeed merit vigilance from any and all corners of American society.

I think it’s fair to say – this is an indictment of all our major media organizations in America – that there is no one mass-media entity in the country which is looked to as a fair and impartial arbiter for political disputes. CNN – which touts itself as being the straight shooter in the American media cosmos – is viewed to be lousy by both the Left and the Right. MSNBC and Fox basically exist to shout down each other, and PBS – which might have once claimed credibility on a larger level – has become quite Beltway-centric in recent years (where have you gone, Robert MacNeil?) and has seen its Friday night political lineup dashed to pieces by the death of Louis Rukeyser and the good-ole-boy (and girl) network known as Washington Week in Review, a forum in which D.C. pundits get to tell each other how acceptable they all are. The McLaughlin Group – a favorite of mine when I was a teenager and early 20-something – never did provide serious intellectual debate, and I look back on my embrace of that show with a superabundant quantity of embarrassment.

It is the country’s great loss that no one person or outlet is seen as being universally respected. Bill Moyers has the universal respect of the Left, and William F. Buckley (who, for all the areas in which I disagreed with him, commanded my respect) stood as the preeminent voice of the Right, but not since Walter Cronkite has one figure truly been able to be seen as the kind of man who could fit this memorable statement: “If you’ve lost Cronkite, you’ve lost the country.” We need our journalistic outlets as a whole to earn respect from all corners of the country; if they did, various outlets like FAIR (on the Left) and NewsBusters (on the Right) wouldn’t waste their time trying to track down every little slight and grievance and offense they perceive in the mass-media realm.

My third and unifying point about media bias is this: While there’s small-b (inevitable) bias and capital-B (systemic/professionally unacceptable) Bias, the biggest lesson to realize – in politics but also in sports and other smaller media ecosystems – is that biases, be they of the small-b or capital-B variety, should be seen not in a context of liberal versus conservative or Team A versus Team B, but in a context of money, advertising and economic leverage.

The media outlets that exist in the United States are – in proportion to their size and reach – more consolidated and ever more subject to corporate, market-based forces. Media consolidation, a product of the recent compositions of the Federal Communications Commission under chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin (ask me about a November 9, 2007 FCC hearing Martin convened in Seattle, no more than 10 blocks from my apartment), has made our largest news-gathering behemoths ever more monolithic in terms of the masters they ultimately serve. Ad rates, production budgets, and shares of demographics drive management’s decision-making directives, with bad results for everyone in the country.

In sports, it’s not USC football or Duke basketball that media outlets are biased in favor of (or against). Highly successful brand-name athletic programs drive sales, and that’s why they get covered more (and for some, more harshly) than they otherwise should be. In politics, of course, the stakes are far higher and the subject matter is far more urgent, which makes it that much more acutely tragic when bias is displayed.

Someone like Bill Kristol, whose views of how the Iraq War would evolve were proven to be so thoroughly wrong, should not have a seat at a pundit’s table or be given a columnist’s chair, but he is still given a visible platform that’s hardly on the margins of the media realm. Thomas Friedman – a.k.a., “Mister Six More Months Will Determine If A Military Operation in Iraq Is Successful” – has also seen his views get discredited, but he’s built quite the lucrative career as a columnist and book author. James Carville and Karl Rove – as hardball political operators for the Clinton and Bush dynasties – have no place being given a readily available microphone, but they are readily accommodated because, talk-radio style, they move the needle and generate a response. Bob Shrum (this is my personal favorite!), a man who has lost every single general-election presidential campaign in which he’s had a central advisory role, is still trotted out before the masses on cable shows and public panels. (“Bob, what does it take to manage a winning presidential campaign? What is your expert opinion?” Sigh.)

These and other people are examples of how – in a cable news culture where putting on a bunch of yakkers creates ratings-based emotionalism for hardly any production costs – having a strong and emphatic voice matters more than having a thoughtful, accurate and wise voice. This is the bias that cuts in many different directions, but almost always against enlightenment, truth, and intellectual heft.

For a media edifice concerned with money and profits instead of telling meaningful, necessary and very inconvenient truths to the populace, it stands that bias will also cut in favor of the military and against religion. War – whether you are inclined to support or oppose it – does offer a gateway to big profits for various corporations, especially since the technology of both warmaking and war management has become so diversified and sophisticated in recent years. There are so many high-tech and logistically-oriented products and services which now surround the larger enterprise of war (and caring for soldiers both injured and uninjured) that a lot of industries stand to benefit from war. This is why the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams had a deep bench of military generals who kept rotating through Mr. Williams’ nightly broadcasts more than a few years ago, in a damning and accurate story leveled by one of the New York Times’ fairer and more accomplished reporters, David Barstow (who gave the Tea Party movement a reasonably fair shake in an article published this past winter).

Mr. Williams – like the late Tim Russert and the still-present Tom Brokaw – has his NBC paycheck signed by Jack Welch of General Electric, a hubristic corporate icon who has made no secret about his ownership of his on-air talent in the past. Again, whether you approve or not of the enterprise of war, it’s a plain fact that a member of Dick Cheney’s staff spoke to the benefits of appearing on Meet the Press, with Russert as the host. The Cheney staffer said in a memo that the former Vice President could shape and manipulate the national narrative, making MTP a preferred venue for Mr. Cheney himself.

In the realm of religion, it would also make sense that the money question – tied to ratings and a desire for public viewership – would drive the tone, texture, tenor and content of mass media coverage. Naturally, the results are not good for the reputation of religion (even though there are ample reasons to view religion with sadness, dismay and disgust these days).

One of the central elements of good religion is that it is fundamentally countercultural – not in the sense that it hates the prevailing popular culture (that’s not quite right; good religion hates only sin and evil, not the human persons who participate in sin), but in the sense that it insists on a different way of being. Jesus was countercultural – and before my friends on the Right say it, I’ll say it for them: This does NOT mean Jesus and 1960s hippie radicals were and are one and the same thing. *Far* from it.

One thing that can certainly be said about Jesus as a political being – again, more clarification is needed here: this does not mean Jesus craved politics, only that he was subject to political realities like any other person – is that Jesus was very much an anti-establishment person. He spoke at appreciable length of how his kingdom was “not of this world,” that his power and authority came from God and was spiritual in nature, not of the linear political variety. This was then – and still is now – a stumbling block to human beings and how we organize various elements of our communities, our churches being one such element.

Because Jesus fought the establishment and did not play according to the rules of traditional political hardball, the powers that be looked upon him with fear and great uneasiness. If it was unsettling to the Jewish religious leaders (and Pontius Pilate) that Jesus won such an enormous following, it was just as disturbing for them – maybe more so – that the carpenter’s son from Nazareth did not play their linear political power games. He didn’t buy into commonly accepted ways of climbing to a position of muscular political power. No one should be surprised, when reading the Gospels, that Jesus met the earthly end he did in fact endure. This is what entrenched power does to people who resist it by using methods, words and actions that don’t fit the typical political power narrative.

Nothing has changed today in the realm of American media with respect to the subject of religion.

We should not be surprised that hardly anyone at a major metropolitan daily paper covers religion with maturity, nuance or layered depth. It is up to journals such as Commonweal, America, and First Things to probe the finer points of Catholic Christianity. (I’ll let Protestant brothers and sisters vouch for their own favorite journals of thought and cultural criticism.) Mainstream media coverage of religion displays hardly any ability to make sense of the religious struggle on a deeper level, precisely because mature religious investigation, scholarship and practice do not lend themselves to ratings bumps, polarizing conversations between pairs of cable yakkers, or any of the other visceral images or zingers that spice up a TV broadcast. If religion is involved in a mainstream media broadcast, it either involves sexual abuse by Catholic priests (SPICY!), affairs committed by evangelical preachers or so-called “family values” Republicans (SPICY!), or acts of terrorism committed by Muslims (DRAMATIC!).

My friends on the Right are right to decry the extensiveness with which the media has focused on affairs committed by Republican politicians who touted family values in their campaigns and made morality part of their political brand, their public political identity. Indeed, given the truly important (and terrible) things that are happening in the world, there’s little reason for a garden-variety affair to command a news cycle. Yet, because the media built up the Christian Coalition when it emerged in the 1990s under the (now discredited) Ralph Reed, the media – as it is wont to do – is overcompensating in the other direction by tearing down, with a certain bit of relish, the Mark Souders and David Vitters of the world. It was and is a disservice to the Right (not just the Left) that the mainstream press attached Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to the core of modern-day American conservative Protestant Christianity, when pastors such as Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, among others, were doing better and more substantive work.

Yes, the media eventually gave Warren a fair measure of attention, but one must just as readily say that the press was: 1) late to the dance; 2) motivated by the commercial success of Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life; and 3) attracted to Warren for things said and done in political contexts, especially the role Warren played in the 2008 presidential campaign and the 2009 inaugural. Even when a not-so-political or not-so-institutional voice entered the conversation surrounding religion in America, that voice was brought into the establishment with a helping hand from the media. This does no favors to conservative Christians, and especially not to libertarian Christians.

Stepping back for a bit, one must also deal with how coverage of religion affects the Left.

Liberals get too wrapped up in gloating over these downfalls of Republican “family values” politicians and evangelical preachers – I can lament the development because I don’t join in that parade – but where the Left has a legitimate beef with the media is that the mainstream press once ceded so much ground in the first place to people who moralized their way to political prominence. Little was made of the fact that Karl Rove placed 11 anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballots in different states for the 2004 November elections. The move was a politically brilliant way of rallying just enough of his base in a tough re-election fight, but political brilliance and moral integrity hardly go hand-in-hand. Rove and his mentor – the late Lee Atwater – would know. (Atwater, in a documentary film on his life – a film comprised substantially of his own words and the words of confidants – arrived at a deathbed conversion with respect to the political dirty tricks he played during his career. Rove, with a reputation in Republican circles which rivals that of Atwater, has yet to have his Saul-On-The-Road-To-Damascus moment.)

The 11 gay marriage ballot initiatives were something the mainstream media should have covered, but it was so wrapped up in a hollow and typically superficial treatment of “family values” that it missed a deeper and more significant story.

In its investigation of the Catholic Church (which does indeed have a lot to apologize for, don’t get me wrong; I’ve banged that drum for quite some time), the mainstream press has provided a great service within certain contexts. But now, eight years after the Boston Globe began to lift the veil from the Church’s dark past, it does seem that the New York Times is focusing on the Church with unusually striking singularity, and without pointing the way to better means of internal Catholic governance. The good things the Boston Globe did in 2002 cannot and should not obscure a long history of pronounced anti-Catholicism in American media over the centuries. Catholic-specific journals, Left and Right, are the only venues where an American citizen will receive a probing and appropriately layered beyond-the-sound-bite treatment of the issues tearing at the fabric of American Catholicism.

Then there’s the matter of Islam. There was a flurry of exploration of Islam in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but in the years since, it’s been hard to find a mature treatment of the religion in the mainstream press, particularly on broadcast television. I wonder what Boston University’s Steven Prothro and other mainstream religious scholars would say about America’s overall religious literacy and the quality of the media coverage which reflects a nation’s religious literacy. It can’t be very high, and this is just as much a statement of the secular Left’s ignorance of religion as it is a commentary on how the Christian Right has not been served well in this realm. Media bias hurts everyone when it takes the sensationalist yet establishment-friendly tack it has most certainly acquired on the matter of religion.

There are so many more areas in which media bias doesn’t conveniently fit into anti-Left or Anti-Right. I’ll mention just one and try to wrap up this essay. The element in question is the use of polls and measures of public popularity or opinion.

Polls conducted during presidential campaigns were exposed as the limited and flawed measurements that they are in both 2000 and 2004, for one thing. Beyond that defect, presidential polls also typify the horse-race mentality which guides the mainstream media’s sadly inadequate coverage of presidential politics, dominated as it is by sound bites, the cult of personality, fake notions of “gravitas”, the fluffiness of one’s hair, and the extent to which a candidate is telegenic or “presidential” enough. This has served candidates of both parties over time, thereby hurting the opposing candidates in both parties.

Outside the realm of presidential politics, polls are also worthless because they reflect an American desire for instant reaction and instant measurement. This is an attempt to generate “fast-food history” and promote the value of a response – any response – over accuracy or the much harder journalistic work of giving people solid facts they can base their responses on in the first place.

How would John F. Kennedy’s popularity ratings have been different if the press didn’t hush up or hide his many extramarital affairs?

To the extent that Americans knew of his existence, how unpopular was Osama Bin Laden in this country, circa 1980?

To the extent that Americans knew of his existence, how unpopular was Saddam Hussein in this country, circa 1984?

How wise were Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s actions perceived to be in the mid-1990s? If insta-polling had been conducted then on Rubin’s activities, chances are the immensely powerful figure would have garnered stratospherically high ratings from the populace. Look at Rubin’s place in history now; ditto for Alan Greenspan. Polls are “junk food journalism,” much as – college football parallel alert! – the poll rankings in college football (especially among the nation’s coaches, who rarely if ever see other teams' games during each season) are hardly a true reflection of the quality of the nation’s football teams.

Polls are lazy, cheap and hollow. Moreover, they create – perhaps subconsciously, perhaps more overtly (in some manner for sure) – this distinctly impoverished notion that if a majority of Americans agree with or approve of an action, politicians should try to act in accordance with it. What would really help our nation and its political environment would be if news-gathering organizations provided the populace with relevant and copious information that could give citizens the same window into national and global problems that politicians have as a result of the internal briefings and memos they get on a daily basis.

Media bias: It’s so much more than liberal versus conservative. It’s about money, protecting the establishment, and serving power structures to keep people docile, in the dark, and – as the late, great media critic Neil Postman said – to perpetuate a cycle in which we are “amusing ourselves to death.”