Thursday, March 10, 2005

Reflections on Dan Rather's Departure and Turning Blogging Into a Positive Force

Dan Rather's departure from the CBS Evening News anchor desk occurred while my son and I took a brief and enjoyable trip to Washington, D.C. So, I didn't see his swan song.

On returning home late last night though, a quick sampling of blogs showed that there are a lot of opinions about Rather, his career, and his final show as anchor. Most of them, it seems, are critical.

Except for an occasional surf-through on election nights (while NBC was on commercial breaks) and his introduction of a 48-Hours report on Paul McCartney by Bernard Goldberg back in the late-80s, I don't think that I've watched anything that Dan Rather has done since he became CBS anchor. His style was always too frantic for me. I preferred the cool Midwestern serenity of Tom Brokaw.

So, I don't know what to make of the "wicked witch is dead" celebrations surrounding Rather's departure.

Whatever his missteps, there will be new obsessions du jour for both the right and left now that he's off the hot seat, I'm sure. And frankly, that concerns me.

Controversies like the one surrounding Rather and the Texas Air National Guard story, warranted or not, are how radio shows get rating points and advertising bloggers get hit traffic and writing TV hosts build an audience and sell books.

Apart from these facts causing me to wonder about the genuineness of some in their assaults on each new target that comes along, there is a deep issue that has been inadequately discussed and which is raised by Dan Rather's abrupt resignation from the CBS anchor post. It's how bloggers are using their newfound influence and power. More to the point, it's how bloggers should use their newfound influence and power.

My major criticism of mainstream media, at least as it relates to the way it practices journalism, has little to do with ideology. At least, it has little to do with political ideology. It has more to do with what might be described as an ideology of life.

Intentional or not, most mainstream news is almost unreservedly negative. So far as I'm concerned, the primary bias of the cable news networks, for example, whether Fox, MSNBC, or CNN, is not one of politics, but a prejudice toward those stories that are negative, hurtful, critical, or apt to stir controversy.

Most journalists and editors don't seem to be knee-jerk liberals or conservatives. Most of them have seen too much of life and are too smart to think that any political ideology or party has a corner on truth, virtue, or common sense.

But they do love playing a role similar to that played by Reggie Jackson when he was with the New York Yankees in the late-1970s. Said Jackson of his effect on his fellow Yankees, "I'm the straw that stirs the drink."

Consciously or not, the mavens of the mainstream media often approach their roles with this same sort of hubris. For decades, they've been able to set the agenda for the US and much of the world by the stories they've chosen to cover and highlight. They've done that, accumulating ratings, prestige, and wealth, by feeding us on a steady diet of negative stories of all kinds.

"If it bleeds, it leads," is more than a guiding principle for the placement of stories on local news shows. It is, by and large, the motto of all mainstream news outlets today.

In its relentless focus on the tragic, sad, sordid, grievous, dishonest, and cynical, the mainstream media has contributed to a good chunk of the public throwing up its hands on the world, real truth, reliable facts, or the whole notion of trust.

It has given others an excuse to become fierce ideologues, unwilling to be confused with the facts, believing that cabals of one sort or another--from NASA officials who lied when they said that we landed people on the Moon to those who think, depending on the ideology they've adopted, either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton are devils incarnate--are trying to keep the truth from them.

None of this is to say that the mainstream packagers of news should keep ugly truth from us. Or that they should fail to investigate when presidents, corporate heads, bishops, or institutions lie to us. Or that they should turn their newscasts into Thomas Kincaide-kitsch. I am a Lutheran, after all, which means that I have a healthy sense of the sinful impulses and resultant sinful actions of the human race, from presidents to preachers.

But the negative approach of mainstream media has often acted as a corrosive acid on America's body politic and on our social compact.

I'd like to see and hear more reports on the good that is going on in our world. That, to me, would break with the biggest bias in the mainstream media. It might even come as bigger news to us all than some of the other stuff that gets covered!

My hope for the blogging world would be that as our influence becomes more pervasive, we wouldn't fall into the same negativism that we see in mainstream media. I'd like bloggers to be able to say good things even about those with whose views we may disagree.
Republicans: It's okay to say that John Kerry conducted himself with class in his concession speech.

Democrats: You can applaud President Bush for pointing out that Social Security faces long-term trouble, even though he hasn't yet offered a program for reforming it.

Conservative Christians: You can appreciate the fact that liberal evangelicals may be onto something when they say that their advocacy of programs for the poor and opposition to capital punishment might be two expressions of a pro-life worldview.

Liberal Christians: Although you may view conservative evangelicals as latter-day Pharisees, you can admire their steadfast resolve in advocating a pro-life agenda as regards abortion.

Politically-interested folks of all stripes: Why not admit that there are limits to what can be accomplished in the political sphere and what governments do aren't the most important things in life.
It's also okay for us all to say things like, "I might be wrong..."

Or, "The other guy has a point..."

Or, "Let's try to find a place where we all can adhere to our principles but live in the same country..."

I hope that bloggers will see themselves as more than just killer bees for prominent bloggers who whip them into campaigns to force the resignations, end the careers, or leverage apologies from today's favorite whipping boy or girl.

Blogging is an inherently democratic form of communication, allowing for more dialogue and interaction than any mass medium ever has before. But many bloggers are carrying their bad habits as consumers of media to their blogs, allowing themselves to be swept along like lemmings by blogging superheroes. I think that each of us should think for ourselves. If we did, I suspect that we would reflect Americans' widespread disgust with ideological Balkanization, moving our national life to a more moderate (political and otherwise) direction.

In this dialogical mode of communication, wouldn't it be great if we could actually help Americans to quit screaming at each other and help them to converse together, confronting our common problems, and celebrating our common victories? Blogging ought to spawn rational discussion of life (including politics) that literally leaves nobody behind.

Bloggers can lead the way in civil public discourse. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't express negative judgments about things going on in our world or that we shouldn't express honest disagreement.

But maybe, as we offer up our entries in this great worldwide diablog, we could remember a bit of sage advice my Dad gave me when I was in my teens. I was using the family car to take a girl out on a date. Dad handed me the keys and said of the girl I was about to pick up, "Remember: She's a person too."

One of the worst things we can do to other human beings is objectify them. Through the centuries, many men have seen women as objects for their use (and sometimes, abuse). Members of one tribe, nation, or race have viewed members of other tribes, nations, and races as mere objects to be violated, obliterated, or enslaved. Hitler objectified Jews. South Africa's whites objectified blacks. American and British slaveholders objectified the slaves. The Egyptians objectified the Hebrews in Old Testament times. Back at the macro-level, bullies view some of the kids on the playground as objects they can push around at will.

When we make objects of others, we're trying, in a warped way, to elevate ourselves by grinding someone underneath us. The irony is that when we try this, we only make ourselves smaller, especially in the eyes of God.

It's this objectifying of human beings, including people like Dan Rather, that most disturbs me when I read many blogs.

Every day, I ask God to help me to use this blogging media in ways that glorify Him and even when I disagree with others, to treat them with dignity. I know that there are times when, like others I vent my spleen and am unfair to others. For that, I am truly sorry. But, unless we bloggers make civil discourse our aim, we'll go down the same path of arrogant negativism that has characterized so much mainstream media over the past several decades. We will reflect the worst in the human race and we will lose out on much of the promise that exists in this media.

What do you think?

No comments: