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.

No comments:

Post a Comment