Wednesday, April 06, 2005

In which I gaze at my navel

This will be a long post, so forgive me. Or skip it.

First, some confessions:

My father is a Christian minister, but I am not myself a Christian. That fact should not be read as a personal condemnation of Christianity, and I feel that I respect the faith to this day. But it is also true that I have been too harsh in judgment of my Christian brothers and sisters. I don't say this to retract my thoughts about fundamentalist abusers, the core of which I believe to be true. But I should admit that I have allowed my own feelings of bitterness to color my tone.

As I replied to a conservative Christian friend who wrote to me about this yesterday, one either acts out of love or fear. I have carried a grudge, nursed over more than a decade of name-calling and accusations. It didn't make me hate Christianity or Christians, but it has kept me from loving them.

I have also been harsh with my liberal friends, though I would not have seen it. I don't disassociate myself from my thoughts about politics, or what I see as the human shortcomings of the people involved, but it is true that I have at times been spoiling for a fight.

After more than a decade of minding my tongue and disciplining my actions as I tried (and, no matter the outcome, I really did try) to serve my city as a news editor, I revel in the freedom to speak my mind. Yet in trying to find an independent voice, I have become strident.

What does this have to do with media? Everything. Nothing. To run a local news operation is to stand at the intersection of a lot of forces, and one of the occupational hazards is that one either tends to absorb their anger and pain or to become callous to it. I don't talk about this much, because it sounds an awful lot like whining, but maybe we should talk a bit more than we do about the human side of media. My experience of the people who call in to newspapers suggests that many of the people who dislike media the most simply don't see it as a human endeavor. They were sometimes sincerely shocked to find a human being -- rather than a predictable apparatchik -- on the other end of the line.

I think that over the years I absorbed a lot of emotion from callers to whom I never expressed my own. It can be frustrating, but it's all part of what can be a very rewarding line of work. I remember desperately wanting to hit back when callers, left and right, accused me and my reporters of various crimes, but taking yourself out of equations seemed as much a part of city editing as functional knowledge of spell and grammar.

End result? No matter what my ideas are, it's just too easy now for me to express them from a primary motivation of ego and resentment. That's just fear talking, and it's the first thought that counts.

I didn't start a blog to become a "pundit," which is not to say I don't want to express myself. I wanted to experiment with the form, and -- to be blunt about it -- it seemed to me that people who joined discussions on blogs but did not, themselves, blog, lacked a certain credibility. If I wanted to walk the walk, I figured I'd better back it up.

But what I didn't expect when I began this was that the experience would be so instructive on a personal level. We're all accountable for what we say here, and unlike newspaper accountability -- which is aggregate, group-minded and carefully measured -- the accountability of a blog is intimate and personal. Or it can be. If I feel I'm wrong, or at least "not right," then I can say so and try to explain. I don't have to write a soul-less correction that leaves you clueless about the context and weight of the error. I don't have to worry about advertisers, and if the readership of this post drops off after the first graph and none of you ever return, well... I'm the publisher, and I've given myself permission to fail.

We don't talk about it much, but journalism is materialistic (and not generally in the Saks Fifth Avenue sense of the word). It wants facts, dates, statistics. As a reader, this fills many of my needs. But for the parts of my life that are not defined by materialistic measures, journalism is the wrong language.

I wear its approbations and condemnations like a cloak. The voice of Jim Shumaker is with me now, cringing. Former editors, many of them friends, would want nothing to do with this "navel-gazing bullshit." Our business shys away from the exploratory and the unsure. Quantify it or it doesn't exist. Cut the self out of the story. Cite a source. No matter what happens, never show any emotions other than anger, irritation, or self-possessed, disconnected compassion. Beware of strong emotion, of passion, of doubt. Don't examine your own thoughts where others can see them. Be bloodless. Be tough. When all else fails, condescend.

Just never let your guard down, and never lose.

That's good advice in a world viewed as combat, and to be honest, I spent the first 35 years of my life in that world. And it's true: When you're in the press, a lot of people would love to cut your balls off and wear them as a trophy. I can't tell my colleagues not to be aware of that.

But ultimately, it comes back to the original duality I proposed: either you act out of love, or you act out of fear. These days I think the original motivation has more to do with the success of your venture than any other degree of art and skill. The press, like most of us, tends to operate out of fear first.

And I think the results are predictable.