Monday, June 27, 2005

Into the Great Wide Open

Howdy, everybody. I’m back off of vacation, rested and tan and fired up … to put this little foray into blogging into RSS mothballs. That is to say: Your aggregator may occasionally find a new post here, but I expect they'll be rare.

The simple truth is, this six-month experiment has been so informative that I’ve now graduated to something new. That’s not to say that media is no longer a worthwhile topic, only that I have learned what I need to know from the current conversation.

Here’s how I described my thoughts on Sunday, writing to another media blogger (edited with my better judgment in mind):

*In the media blogging community, the emphasis is stuck on real-time critique rather than advancing new ideas. My experience: Write a snarky, off-the-hip slam, get lots of conversation; propose a novel solution to a problem, listen to crickets (ed note: in the original e-mail, I wrote ‘critics,’ proving once again that editors can be good to have around).

*Most media discussion threads eventually devolve into political arguments. My experience: There are right-wingers who camp out on these threads and make sure that all discussion is framed in terms of their grievances.

*Politics in the traditional sense is far too limiting a lens for viewing human interaction. It is quite literally a polarizing filter, creating opposition in all situations. Politics says "DECIDE!" and "PICK A SIDE!" and you don't have to observe people for too long to notice that such commands make most of us uncomfortable. My experience: Those who view the world from a political perspective see everything as conflict. They aren't WRONG, just hopelessly limited. (The Dude: "You're not WRONG, Walter, you're just an ASSHOLE").

*I started on this path about 18 months ago when I wrote the words "media bias" on a manilla folder and started printing out and collecting examples of media bias, writing on media bias, etc. I read books on the subject, started looking for blogs on the subject. I knew instinctively that the charge of "liberal media bias" was a distortion, but it wasn't a notion that I had really investigated. While examples of liberal bias aren’t difficult to find, the case for systemic “LBM” doesn’t bear up to critical scrutiny. My experience: I’ve wasted far too much of my time and energy arguing this subject, and to no effect. The people with whom I've argued reject my logic and evidence without seriously considering it, and their repetitive arguments have neither expanded nor illuminated my mind. So what's the point? I can either keep punching this tar baby, or I can walk on.

*'A-List Bloggers' are the popular kids in high school, the beautiful people on the beach, the rich people at the symphony gala. They are attractive to the hoi polloi bloggers because their approval represents an easy path to things that most of us want -- money, power, acceptance, status, etc. But the emphasis here is on "easy": One can acquire all those things without the “in” group’s approval, but going it alone means you have to work harder. My experience: I enjoy being linked by big-shot bloggers far more than I should, and if I'm not careful, I fall into their orbit. I start measuring my own value on their little subjective scales, and pretty soon other people are framing the context of my thoughts. Better to step out and make something new, something that isn't as easily turned into an intellectual commodity.

*Journalists v. bloggers is over (but the world doesn't know it). The same is true of the debates over the current administration's actions and motivations (guilty on all counts, but still in power). We can continue to debate these subjects with the intransigent and the late arrivals, or we can move on.

On the other hand, what will become of the media is NOT yet determined, and it bears watching and participation. Get the right media, create the right connective tissue between groups and individuals, and someday you won't even NEED government in the way we think of it today. Hand this amazing technology over to the corporate entities that run things now, and the future is fascist. No exaggeration on my part. Times are dark -- just as they usually are. My experience: When I can't see my way through the thicket to the place I have to go, it usually means it’s time to do a little recon.

Which is what I intend to do: Get out of the role that is expected of me, drop all the self-imposed limitations that come with the identity of "journalist," and try to find a way to use this medium to do something more constructive.

Psst... we don't get it, either
When I started this blog, I thought I could make a contribution by adding a voice from the working press to these discussions. But here’s the skinny: Working journalists are not talking about these subjects in my newsroom, not in any truly informed or inquisitive way, and based on conversations and correspondence with other journalists in other cities, their newsrooms aren’t talking, either.

So I figure, if the members of the “working press” don’t have anything more intelligent to add to the discussion of their future than the decade-old focus-group mantra “MORE LOCAL NEWS!” then we really don’t deserve saving. Screw us.

Because it boils down to this: I’m no longer interested in talking about the media as a subject unto itself. I’m interested in the media as it relates to a culture I live in, to a republic I love, to a city where I’m raising children. I want a media that is worthy of all three, and I want it not only as a journalist, but as a participant in that culture, a citizen of that republic and a resident of that city. I’d love to participate in reforming the practice of journalism, but to imagine that one could do such a thing in a vacuum is not only silly, but pointless. To what end do we improve journalism? To more efficiently and profitably deliver the same old intellectual pollution, regardless of its affect? Are we just designing a better cigarette here?

Many of us came to journalism from the idea that reporting was a way for Misfit Toys (like me) to give something of value back to the community. But at some point, reporters must start acknowledging that what we do – the act of journalism -- cannot heal a culture. Reporting is an essential function, yes, but the best it can do is to chronicle political and cultural pathology. Healing requires something else, something non-materialistic. And journalism, being fundamentally materialistic, is ill-suited to the job.

Politics isn't the answer, either. Politics isn't about ideas, and never has been: Politics is where you go to ratify the temporary power of one idea over another, but as a field it has never created a new idea or facilitated a meaningful discussion. Politics is great at killing things, terrible at nuturing them, which is one reason why conservatives like politics more than the rest of us. Conservatives, by their very definition, favor protecting the old over allowing the new, so they take to politics like pigs to slop.

No, if we want to resolve our political problems, rather than profiting short-term by preserving them, we have to do it through the culture, and that's the province of art. Art is to culture as journalism is to politics: Each creates and sustains the other. Journalism doesn't produce the ideas that drive culture -- journalism merely tells people about those ideas.

Now, it is a peculiar trait of journos that we act as if none of this is true. We treat artists as flakey, scientists and scholars as eggheads. Holy men weird us out, but we'll kiss some serious church ass if it will keep some nun from calling us up and rapping our knuckles.

Our only true affinity is for the politician, whom we treat with a glib mixture of condesension, admiration and distrust, as if the issues of democracy are just this private game that they play, with us tagging along as the refs. We act as if we're so far above this game that its outcomes are unimportant, and it really pisses us off if anyone questions one of our calls.

We do this as a profession because, deep down, we're shallow.

Politics as I see it
Americans hate politics, and that's OK by me. It says that we have better things to do with our time.

Our social contract works like this: So long as things are going well and most people are pretty happy, we'll give the government the keys to the barn. Congressmen, lobbyists, defense contractors, trial lawyers, asbestos manufacturers and all manner of creepy crawlies can slurp at the public trough so long as they don't screw things up so badly that we get pissed and start paying attention again.

In theory, the corrective anger of the American people comes along and puts the ship of state back on course after episodes of excess arrogance, but this is not generally what occurs. Two classes of people -- journos and politicos -- work together to make participation in public life so absurdly and unnecessarily unpleasant that nobody with their priorities in order would rationally choose to get involved. Excluding people from participation is an essential function of both groups.

I mean, have you ever dealt with a persnickety editorial page editor? Ten minutes around the average know-it-all-defender-of-community-propriety and a regular guy would be chewing his leg off. Same with the kind of deeply conflicted control freaks who tend to run county-level political parties. Neither is interested in new ideas, new voices, fresh perspectives or -- heaven forbid -- blunt truth. They hate surprises and generally despise smart-ass punks like me... and, most likely, you.

When real people are disconnected from real democracy, bad things happen. They are happening right now. As a journalist, it's my job to view these bad things with as much dispassion and cold-eyed logic as I can muster. As a citizen, I'm furious, and more than a little frightened. I'm also tired of pretending otherwise during my off-time.

I can't engage in a serious discussion about the sins of Dan Rather at a time when a cabal of bald-faced liars is throwing billions of dollars of "defense" money into a "War on Terror" in a country that wasn't involved in terrorism before we invaded it. I can't talk about the relative patriotism of Eason Jordan while the White House "disassembles" on its own torture memos and blames enlisted soldiers for Abu Ghraib. I can't seriously engage in a discussion of Newsweek's screw up while the neoconservatives thugs in Washington pursue illegal policies that are destroying my country's standing in the world, not to mention spitting on the grave of every American who ever gave his life for the idea of a country based on something more noble than the will to power.

The other side calls this "Bush-bashing." But we're not talking about one man here. We're talking about a confluence of interests and ambitions who have joined together in their common greed to manipulate both our fears and our higher aspirations. The most onerous result so far: Thousands of people have died in a fake war designed to keep the American electorate in line while funnelling money borrowed against our children's tax returns directly to the Halliburton Corp.

And we're not supposed to get notice. Or get mad. That's "extreme." So when some moron who thinks that it's "just a matter of time" before we find Saddam's buried WMDs writes some flame post blaming "liberal media elites who hate America," for the disaster in Iraq, we're supposed to engage him with respect, rather than instructing the hateful bastard to tell his story walking. How messed up is that?

But the tide has now turned, and it is only a matter of time now before a majority of Americans agrees with the following unpleasant truths: George W. Bush is an unprincipled, pathetic, lying sock puppet; the Religious Right is wrong; the "War on Terror" is a sham; the neo-cons are attempting to turn their temporary political gains into a permanent political dominion. The current ruling class treats Americans with contempt and serves only the interests of wealthy elites: Dubya's "Have Mores."

Now, did that little rant improve anything? Not a damned thing. But it did answer one question that Fox News loves to ask of any reporter who isn't in lock step with The Party: Are you a journalist first, or an American? And the answer for me is, I'm an American first, and I want my country back, dammit.

Taking back the culture first
The most ironic thing George W. Bush ever said was "I'm a uniter, not a divider." Or maybe it was just the most laughable. We can decide later. There's no rush.

But despite all his efforts to the contrary, Americans still have more in common than the current level of discourse would indicate. Plus, our post-9/11 experience taught us something that we need to point out every now and again: We LIKED feeling united and communal. Give us a chance to work together for the common good instead of pitting us against each other and we'll be happy.

So where I'm going now, I'm going to try to find ways to relate those experiences across the Red/Blue border. I ought to be pretty good at it: Those lines crisscross my personality.

Rather than trying to convert my opponents, rather than trying to repackage obvious truths that people simply don't want to accept, I'm going to bypass those oxbows and move ahead to ideas that haven't been chewed over yet. I'm going to tell the morons to get off my property, and I'm going to look for people with similar notions about things and I'm going to see what we can build together.

Will I still talk about politics and media? Sure. But I'll also be talking about art and movies and novels, about sex and religion and technology, about quantum physics and archaeology, the poetry of Hafiz and the future of human evolution. I'm not going to worry about the predictably offended, because I'm no longer interested in the predictably offended. Hell, they already have every newspaper in the country sucking up to them, why do they need to put their thumb on my little website, too? So if they try to crash my party, I'm not going to appease them with bland words: I'm going to kick them out the door.

The answer to what ails us cannot be found by sitting around negotiating over trivia with the bitter people who hate change. We have to go out and create, and we have to trust that the ideas we produce will come around, eventually, indirectly, and help everyone we left behind see things differently. I hope they make it out, but they're not my responsibility.

Will I be doing this under my own name? Not exactly, but I'm not going to be hiding my identity on my new site, either. And I'll still post here as myself, when I post here. For anyone who cares, I don't plan on commenting anonymously on other people's sites.

Anyway, that's it. Thanks for the feedback and education that you, my readers, have given me here over the past six months. Life's an adventure, and I hope we find each other down the road again.