The accidental journalist

I started writing and reading radio news a long time ago by accident. In my mid-twenties, after several years as a rock and roll disc jockey, I decided it was time to grow up.

One morning in 1975, whilSeattle 2012e writing and recording commercials for a news and talk station in Sacramento, I was drafted to fill in for the real news anchor, who was sick. The station was desperate for somebody to just sit in the chair, read the stories and play the commercials.

Almost forty years later it still feels like I’m just filling in for the real news anchor.

I never had any desire to be a reporter but I learned by being sent to boring news conferences and terrifying police actions.

Early on I did a live report from inside a cloud of tear gas while a guy in a trailer was taking potshots at anything that moved.

Another day I found myself outside a bank where a shootout and police standoff suddenly made me a network reporter for ABC. A couple of months later it happened again when an attempted plane hijacking occurred at an airport near my home.

In that first year or two I was always in the wrong place at just the right time. (Or, vice versa.)

I never wanted to be in the serious news business. I’m not a serious guy. I was just a radio guy doing what I was told to do: tell what’s going on and how you feel about it.

Some of my past and present colleagues won’t be amused to learn that I have always thought the word “journalist” to be snotty and condescending. A few of you who find and develop your own stories are the real deal, of course, but most of us are fakers. I never wanted to have that label, “journalist”, hung on me because I don’t like it and I haven’t earned it. I just tell stories and try to be interesting and entertaining.

Weirdly, along the way through forty years I have gotten a bunch of awards I didn’t seek or expect, including four Mark Twain Awards from the Associated Press. The anti-journalist in me must admit, I kinda like those because Mark Twain is my hero.

Mark Twain told stories. He was interesting and entertaining.

This past week I was stunned to learn that I’ve been recommended for a fellowship to join six or seven other American “journalists” to travel to Germany in early November for the 25th anniversary commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Suddenly – after forty years of delivering news and information in the morning – it has finally landed on my thick skull:

I am an accidental journalist in the tradition of my hero who said, among many other wonderful things:

 

If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed.
If you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.“

–Mark Twain

WARNING! THIS BLOG MAY HURT YOUR FEELINGS!

imageI recently came across an article in the New York Times that left me slack-jawed.

It seems there is a growing movement at major universities across the country to require “trigger alerts” to warn students that the academic materials they’re about to ingest may upset them. World History classes, for instance, might come with a caution about subject matter relating to death, destruction, enslavement and torture.

Examples given by the Times are more specific: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains racist themes; books and classes on Greek Mythology and ancient works of art may display sexually explicit pictures, drawings and statues.

Students who support these academic admonitions say some people, rape victims or war veterans for example, might find some materials to be particularly traumatic. That’s possible but you can’t whitewash the lessons learned from painful experience and research for the sake of the few who have more personal issues to deal with.

Somewhat surprisingly, to me at least, the people most opposed to the idea seem to be the teachers at these schools. According to the Times:

The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.

I think our chickenimage2s have come home to roost.

Some years ago we stopped keeping score of little league and youth soccer games so as not to distinguish winners from losers.

Some schools don’t allow teachers to use red ink in grading papers because it might be too stressful for our children to be told their work was less than perfect.

We hand out trophies to everybody or nobody and a decade or two ago schools began passing out those “My child is an honor student at Foonman Elementary” bumper stickers to every kid in the school because we didn’t want to hurt the non-honor roll students’ feelings.

Those kids are now in college and they expect to be protected.

God help them when they are forced to live in the real world.

It’s easier to be righteous than right

When I was about fourteen years old my dad said something in passing conversation that I have never forgotten. It comes to mind more frequently these days because of an amazing phenomenon:

Though we live in an age in which information is as close as a Google search we seem to be more gullible and closed-minded than ever.

A couple of days ago I ran across a news story in the Washington Times about a handful of law students at Washington and Lee University threatening to perform acts of civil disobedience unless campus authorities ban the flying of the Confederate flag and at the same time admit that Gen. Robert E. Lee — for whom, in part, the school is named — was a racist.

Getting easily riled up over perceived civil rights offenses is a rite of passage for people growing from their teens into their twenties. It’s natural, it’s healthy and it’s cute. The only problem is, they are often wrong because things are never as simple as they seem.

Robert E. Lee was far from a racist. In fact, he was strongly opposed to slavery and publicly celebrated its abolition.

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In 1870 he told fellow Virginian, Rev. John Leyburn, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.” He went on to say the end of slavery was a goal well worth everything he personally lost in the war.

The law students at Washington and Lee either never heard this or just don’t care.

I wonder if they know that President Lincoln asked General Lee to lead the Northern Army in the Civil War? Forced to take sides Lee reluctantly declined so that he might defend his Virginia home, family and friends. He was tortured by the choice.

You might have learned all of this in high school history class. I did. But the students at Washington and Lee apparently value their hormonal opinions more than the complex yet enlightening facts.

And, that’s where we are today, I think. It’s easier to be righteous than to be right and everybody wants to talk rather than listen.

You might think law students, of all people, would have spent a minute or two Googling the subject of their  attack. If they had, they might have stumbled across this quote from General Lee:

“Get correct views of life, and learn to see the world in its true light. It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, and, when summoned away, to leave without regret.”

Which brings me back to what my father, Donald M. Williams, told me when I was a kid:

“People say you have a right to your opinion. That’s only half true. You have a right to an informed opinion. If you don’t know what you’re talking about you should shut the hell up.”

 

Erin, go bra-less

CarolAnn and I took a road trip this past weekend and, as usual, we relaxed on the four hour drive to Smithville, Texas and the four hour drive back by listening to an audio book from her collection.

This particular novel is called Tears of the Moon. It’s a Nora Roberts romance, the second in her Irish Trilogy.

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This is not at all the type of literary fare I would normally choose to read for my own pleasure but keeping company with the lovely-and-feisty CarolAnn Conley-Williams is all the pleasure I need for a long Sunday, so Nora Roberts it was.

It’s actually a pretty compelling story of an Irish family of sisters, another family of siblings that owns a pub and one of those siblings who is also a terrific cook, a fair to middlin’ songwriter and a spectacularly hot hunk of a man.

That’s right, he’s a just-the-perfect-age young, yet wisely experienced man who can cook, compose and sing a love song before sweeping a fiery Irish woman off her feet and turning her into a downy soft lump of glistening satisfaction.

Talk about blarney.

But, the narrator delivers a wonderful Irish accent in her characterizations and the lilting song of Gaelic heritage is music to me ears. 

Ye can practically hear the pipes, the pipes a-callin’.

Still, we’ve got the physical romance problem to deal with. Okay, I’ll spell it out:

S-E-X.

Though it takes awhile to develop, when Brenna O’Toole, our heroine lass, finally hooks up with hunky sibling cook/musician, Shawn Gallagher, they’ll have no foolin’ about it. They get down to a bit o’ rough and tumble in excruciating detail.

Look, I’m a 62 year old man. I’ve been married twice and did a wee bit o’ skirt chasin’ in my younger days. I understand that romance — the physical aspect of it — is an important part of life and, therefore, of modern literature. But, faith and begorrah! ‘Tis no spectator sport and I’d just as soon not hear vivid descriptions of two fine specimens of entwined humanity heaving, sweating, writhing, quivering and panting!

I admit that the writer in me took some detached fascination with Nora Roberts’ profound command of carnal verbs and adjectives but a very small smattering of that goes a very long way with me. Just tell me that they kissed and then begin the next paragraph, “When they awoke the next morning…”

If that’s all you say I promise, I’ll get the drift.

CarolAnn and I have been married for nearly 26 years and we’re both a little prudish, I guess. She admitted as much to me after we got home and sat down in our family room, in separate recliners, to continue listening to the story anyway.

I could just turn my back on Nora Roberts’ rollicking tale of lust in the clover I suppose, but honestly, I’d kind of like to know how the story ends.  I guess I’ll just hope the rest of the book and its sequel are a bit less spicy.

But I won’t wager a farthing on it.

The faces of grief

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared yesterday an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing. 239 people were on board and as I write this nobody knows what happened to them or their airplane.

Most of those people hugged friends and loved ones at the airport, smiled through their tears and said goodbye.

Forever.

Now they’re gone and the world wants to know what happened. Most of us are merely curious but a relative few, the families and friends of those on board Flight 370, are desperate for answers. For them the past 30-some hours has been a nonstop nightmare of shock, disbelief, fear and unimaginable grief.

Lives, loves and families are sometimes destroyed with no possible explanation.

Search Continues For Missing Malaysian Arliner Carrying 239 Passengers
© Reuters News Service

In the past 24 hours most of us have seen this terrible reality play out on TV news as we snack and flip through channels looking for something worth watching. The newspapers and websites that clamor for our attention do so with pictures.

The news writers and talkers dutifully, effectively, professionally and, for the most part, responsibly report what few facts and new developments they learn.

The pictures are another matter. You can’t produce pictures of a missing airplane. You can only show the human story left behind: shock, denial, rage and terrible, terrible grief. 

A relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries at the Beijing Capital International Airport
© Reuters News Service

When does it become too much? At what point does tragedy become too personal and none of our collective business?

Each of us has our point of separation, where we turn our heads in horror from a body on a highway or respectfully avert our gaze from the bottomless grief of a parent, a child or spouse.

TOPSHOTS-MALAYSIA-VIETNAM-CHINA-MALAYSIAAIRLINES-TRANSPORT-ACCID

But if you’re a journalist, where do you draw the line, pack up your gear and walk away — leaving these tortured people to weep in privacy?

Here is what the Society of Professional Journalists has to say on the subject of ethics and sensitivity:

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

Wait, run that last sentence by us again:

Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

Who determines what is an overriding public need?

The bottom line is very messy because it’s just as personal for news producers as it is for news consumers. It should be, at least. The SPJ guidelines are well expressed and yet hopelessly vague.

I’ll tell you one thing for sure, though. I would never publish a picture of the faces of grief surrounded by half a dozen other cameras.

chi-malaysia-airlines-plane-reuters1
© Reuters News Service

This tells an unintended truth.

We might draw the line in different places but each of us must find that place.

© Dave Williams 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The venerable secret of a sage

Today is Misao Okawa’s birthday. She’s 116, the oldest person alive on Earth.

From time immemorial it has been human compulsion to beat a path to the eldest of our tribe in search of epiphany, the spiritual and dietary recipe for eternal bliss.

What is the secret to a long, satisfying life?

Today that path brings us to Misao Okawa, the Sage.

Misao Okawa, the world's oldest woman celebrating her 116th birthday in Osaka.

And do you know what she said?

She said, — and this is apparently the direct quote:

“Eat and sleep.”

And that was it.

The multitude waited for more but no more was forthcoming. Misao Okawa just smiled through those ancient eyes as if to say, “There you go, run along now. And keep off the lawn!”

Eat and sleep.

As a mere toddler of 62 I’m a bit disappointed. But she obviously knows what she’s talking about.

Misao Okawa’s kids are 92 and 94.

 

Steinbeck and Texas

I just stumbled across this quote again. I’ve seen it from time to time before but now, for the first time, it makes sense. In the words of Texan Dan Jenkins it rings “dead solid perfect”.

 “I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.” 

–John Steinbeck, 1962: Travels With Charley: The Search For America

Steinbeck in 1909 with his sister Mary, sitting on the red pony, Jill, at the Salinas Fairgrounds.

I don’t imagine that anybody in the world can get it except those of us who get it.

John Steinbeck was no Texas braggart, he was a Californian at a time when California was a wholesome youngster of a state just beginning to flower.

I’m no historian or philosopher but it seems to me that between the two Texas has had a rougher time of it and refuses to forget.

But, even if you don’t get it, Texas wants you anyway.

 

 

People who kill themselves

image

A very famous and talented actor died this week.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was discovered on the floor of his bathroom with a needle in his arm and a lot of heroin nearby.

His body was found when he failed to pick up his three kids from their mother.

Five days later the media continues to pick at the story like flies on a carcass while hailing Hoffman as one of the greatest actors of his time; a wonderful man and father. Our cultural loss is apparently immeasurable.

Avoidable death is always tragic. Beyond that, I don’t know what to think.

I understand that addiction is an insidious disease that claims many innocent victims.

On the other hand, this guy left three young children to grow up without their father.

I had a treasured friend named Fred who killed himself a few years ago. He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His son found him a couple of days later.

I still love Fred and but I also hate his guts for what he did.

As the media fawns over Philip Seymour Hoffman I find myself curiously unmoved.

And, I’ve just decided that’s okay. There are some things I just can’t figure out.

I got nothin’

I write less than I used to. As time goes by I am becoming convinced that I don’t have anything original or interesting to say.

When I was young I was much smarter. Wisdom came to me so fast I couldn’t explain it all.

But, over the years I’ve come to realize the older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

That was an original thought when I thunk it. Nobody enlightened me. I had never heard or read anything like it. It was a brilliant and original epiphany. But now we have the Internet and ego crushing reality is just a search away.

A minute ago I typed “The more I learn…” into Google and here’s what popped up:

The more you learn, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. So why bother to learn? — George Bernard Shaw

And,

The more you know, the less you understand. — Lao-Tse

And the real stunner:

The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know. — Socrates

Socrates had my original thought some 2,400 years before I did and said it more crisply!

AND, in ancient Greek!

socrates-funny-nose

Worse yet, I’ll bet he wasn’t the first guy to figure this out, either. He just had a tremendous publicist.

I suppose having an idea expressed by one of the great thinkers in history come to me all by itself is cool but there’s no point in my passing it along. It obviously occurs to everybody eventually.

Plus, if we all regurgitated every brilliantly mundane original thought we have what would become of the poor philosophy majors who have nothing else to do with their educations?

The other reason I don’t write much anymore is because Americans don’t read much anymore.

We don’t consume information, we spew it.

We Tweet. We text. We spend our days expressing every banal thought that crosses our mind in such a way that we don’t have to bother hearing or reading a response.

Maybe we don’t want response. We’re just spewin’.

Maybe we’re just trying to shut off the noise and hear ourselves think.

I could be wrong about this.

Maybe, but how can I know?

I’ve learned so much, so fast, I’m rushing toward total ignorance.

 

 

 

Death of a word

 

I’m one of those word nerds who drives his family crazy by correcting their speech and writing. I do it to be helpful, I really do. I’ve learned to lay off my friends in public because people are embarrassed if you point out an error in spelling, punctuation, pronunciation or word choice. They protest, “You know what I mean!”, but they’re really just embarrassed by their ignorance.

 

Why, then, are dictionaries enabling rather than challenging them?

 

English is said to be the most difficult language in the world to master. But, for its complexity it is also the most glorious. There are no true English language synonyms. Every word that essentially means the same as another has its own unique feeling and implication. These implied emotions and judgments allow really good writers to write between the lines, to manipulate perspective and emotions by inference rather than directive.

 

The best writers never tell you what to think or how to feel, they merely lead the way and allow you to discover yourself in their path.

That’s the power of the language. 

Words are my business. I talk on the radio for a living and write a bit on the side, so this stuff is a big deal for me. I don’t expect most people to understand or care about the subtleties and nuances of the language. I don’t point out slightly off target utterances, not even to my wife, just the ugly errors that may lead people to misunderstand or misjudge her. But I do ask English speakers everywhere to join with me in protest of officially redefining perfectly good, very specific words simply because so many people are too lazy to learn to use them correctly.

 

The Oxford English Dictionary has thrown in the towel and declared that the constant misuse of the word, ‘literally’ is now acceptable. It can mean literally or it can be used for emphasis as in, “It was literally raining cats and dogs.”

 

These horribly conflicting definitions are 180 degrees out of sync. The word “literally” is effectively dead.

 

Education is apparently no longer the Dictionary’s purpose. The arbiters of our language seem to have decided it is nobler (and perhaps, more politically correct) to reflect rather than guide communication. In doing this they leave it to the reader or listener to determine if cats and dogs are actually raining down from the sky or if it is ‘literally’, meaning figuratively, raining cats and dogs.

 

And what difference does it make, you may ask? In this example, probably none but it does empower hyperbole in ways that make purists like me panic for our sudden blindness.

 

If I can’t trust you to say precisely what you mean or to understand what I’m saying, what is the point in either of us saying anything at all?

 

These days we’re all giving up. We shrug and say, “Whatever.” Even the Dictionary is doing it.

 

We all suffer when our ability to communicate with specificity and clarity is eroded.

 

I understand that language is fluid and always evolving. I embrace that. I ply my trade using colloquial English and I adore slang, it’s the spice that enriches the language but is useless by itself.

 

Definitions can’t be allowed to contradict themselves just because people are lazy.

At this rate, in a couple of generations communication will have devolved to grunting and pointing at things.

 

(That’s neither literally nor figuratively literal, it’s just sarcasm.)

 

 

© D.L. Williams, August 16, 2013