Separation of church, press

Constitutional separation of church and press

Copyright 2004 Ben S. Pollock

Monday, July 26, 2004: I want to toss an endorsement to the defense of the First Baptist Church of Springdale and its senior pastor, Ronnie Floyd. An self-proclaimed do-gooder group is trying to sic the IRS against them, citing church-state separation, because Floyd in a sermon subtly endorsed the re-election of George II.

I did not know about these tax rules before. I now can see a need for some form of them so that political groups do not hide under the skirts of religious freedom (and tax exemption) in the United States of America, and understand there must always have been some form of regulation like this.

But, come on. Any minister of any faith should have complete freedom of speech, from the pulpit or electronically or street corner. Houses of religion don’t do enough to encourage political and social participation among citizens. Floyd and the megachurch he runs — with which I proudly have little in common — must have the freedom to be a full part of this country.

My childhood memories of reading the old Arkansas Gazette as well as Time, Life etc. include reading about stunning speeches from the pulpit against the Vietnam War and supporting civil rights, Sloane Coffin, Berrigan, M.L. King. …

We need more of that now.

Why didn’t Dr. Floyd just clearly endorse Bush instead of showing his photo on a big screen? If you’re going to get busted, man, light all the fireworks.

Jesse Jackson did. Heck, so did Gerald L.K. Smith. Use the pulpit fully, that is. -30-

Agora sweater

Looking good in an agora sweater

Copyright 2004 Ben S. Pollock

Monday, July 19, 2004: I raised a somewhat complex question in my previous essay. I’ve thought more, and I have a rough answer. The nature of a Web log such as Brick, however, is that it puts the newest material first. It’s Jeopardy: Here’s the answer, what’s the question? So I will wait while you review the Friday 7/16 entry.

Done? The name of the void has been called the marketplace of ideas, or agora. It’s an old concept. The news as presented by responsible journalist organizations is one booth in that bazaar.

If the latest facts, the most even-handed explanations and clearest analyses get lost among the hawkers of shiny trinkets, well, that’s to be expected to some extent. But our passers-by do prefer quality, and if they cannot find it or cannot discern it, well, that’s largely the fault of the journalists. The forum is a given, a constant and pretty much unchangeable.

Newspapers and the responsible broadcast and online journalist outlets simply have not figured out yet how best to market their information in the 21st century.

The problem of the major media is not so much sleazy or unethical reporting (Jayson Blair et al) but that they allowed some lazy reporting of trusting the government, following polls and so forth. This not only made for inaccurate journalism but boring, too. Enter the shouting TV shows into the agora.

What really got us into Iraq? Is John Kerry the best the Democrats can come up with? Good questions? Yes, but it’s too late to answer them.

If quality news outlets want folks to buy from their stands, they must hurry to find the current questions and begin to sell the answers — in ways that have appeal now, that fit people’s data-gathering habits now. How? A future Brick or 20 of them. -30-

Need to void

Copyright 2004 Ben S. Pollock

Friday, July 16, 2004: I see it as a void, a vacuum that nature abhors, that will be filled no matter what. Its name I don’t know: Maybe it’s so obvious I cannot pin it down. If so, I hope it is not trite, like, "Life, kid."

It is the span in public affairs between the event and the journalist, photographer, logger. (I asked a seasoned journalist yesterday about this, likely over- or understating it, and probably presented this in the wrong forum, a public one. Oy, that’s my usual mistake, but it seemed to fit in the overall discussion, especially because the big boss is famously one to consider things deeply.)

An event happens, of great importance like a vote or minor impact like the initial opinion of an official about said vote. The scribe records and summarizes it then publishes it, in any medium.

Between the news and the news gatherer, then, is said void. Which is gone before time begins, being a vacuum, filled with gossip, angles, spin, jokes, anger, attempts at persuasion and manipulation, ego, time-wasting and fear.

The void now comprises all of the news commentary talk shows. They’ve been aired around the clock for a good dozen years (CNN) and on multiple cable TV channels for half that (talking about nationally accepted years, not since creation). There is the Internet for half that (yes, Web logs are a form of e-mail and that’s been around for 30-plus years but this intends age of common acceptance). Rush Limbaugh and as if suddenly, but he’s been around a while, too, Michael Moore, having an impact on or for the other wing. Leno, Letterman, Jon Stewart.

Journalists do all of this work of accurate and clear reporting — which includes attempts at fairness, impartiality and objectivity — along with some vision/version of restrained and professional presentation and then down the drain it goes, into the void.

The void told people Al Gore lost those debates in 2000, not the responsible news media. The void decided Howard Dean’s peppy cheer last spring was an out-of-control scream, not journalists. The record showed that Gore was instrumental in some legislation organizing the Internet, but the void ratified "I invented. …" The void gave Dan Quayle a childlike image. The void convicted O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and the void forgot so many other second-rate or former stars. Did Robert Blake ever get a trial? No, none of us should care about that stuff, but it is the talk of the dinner table and coffee shop. Princess Diana was divorced out of royalty, and no more a philanthropist that hundreds of other aristocrats or billionaires, but when great numbers of people create memorials in their own towns to her, journalists better report that, too.

My question remains, if by restraint and professionalism we maintain credibility both now and for the history books, are we doing any good, when the void regurgitates the knowledge into acceptable pabulum? It’s not just news, it’s the fodder of medical treatments, of low-carb carbohydrates, of what schools should be teaching etc.

Journalists cannot manage the void. Those that do deserve the laughingstock reputation they quickly acquire, for they too have been labeled by the void. But are journalists abdicating responsibility by ignoring the void? Did Ed Muskie really lose control? What kind of conservative or Republican was Dick Nixon?

Journalists should not leave to the void anything that it does not care to handle. Di’s little shrines showed what people oddly care about. The news media left to the void Saddam’s relationship to Osama bin Laden, essentially non-existent and it cannot get it back to correct it, going by legitimate public opinion polls. The void is powerful.

The void indeed may be as old as humanity. Maybe most folks have seen it except me, and that is why these thoughts comprise an isolated comment in a small forum of my own design. I bet it has a name, and I’ll run across it soon enough. Then I’ll see that I always knew it. I shouldn’t be surprised or angry about it, certainly at my age. -30-

Honor the honorable

Copyright 2004 Ben S. Pollock

Monday, July 12, 2004: A proposal. Earlier this month, Carl Totemeier died. Didn’t know him though stopped at his stand at the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market sometimes. He sold plants. In his retirement, he moved to Northwest Arkansas, but continued with his profession of horticulture and writing about that field. [Link to obit has expired.]

Besides a column in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas and his nursery, Mr. Totemeier assisted the Botanical Society of the Ozarks in its creation of a regional botanic garden. In recent months he was its interim director, when there was a need for that. He did that until shortly before his passing, in fact.

The society should name the garden for him when it’s completed in a few months. That is the proposal.

Sure, the site could just be Ozark Botanic Garden, and that’s fine. But what should not happen is that a large corporate or individual benefactor get naming privileges, again — Enron Arena, anyone? Nor should Mr. Totemeier be honored with a bench or even herb garden or the petting garden in his name.

Let’s name an attraction like this for a good person just for him being a mensch. -30-

Loosen up, Kerry

Copyright 2004 Ben S. Pollock

Friday, July 9, 2004. Here’s how Johns Kerry and Edwards can win big in November. This is also how they can lose, as it’s the same trick.

Kerry and Edwards in a public forum do a cheer/yell like the one that cost Howard Dean his chance. In my fantasy’s ideal, this would be at the Democratic National Convention, and all of the top Democrats would be on state, including Howard Dean. Otherwise, it could be any old photo-op campaign-trail speech.

Yes, I’m serious.

The scream did not cost Dean, the spin on it did. Democrats need to take control of at least half of the popular spin from the Republicans, conservatives and ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-its to win in the fall.

Seeing the Dean tape without comment, which I did hours after it happened, clearly showed the Vermont governor rallying his supporters back into optimism, as opposed to what a primary front-runner losing steam normally would say, a variant of "we lost the battle but not the war." Dean had joy and charisma. It was about enthusiasm. It was positive, not negative, which is what we all presumably support.

The first impact of a Kerry-led "yeee-hoo" is to show the Democrats are not afraid of making the first move. Thus far, the Dems are reactive to the GOP. They almost always lose this way (Clinton too was a reactor who brilliantly turned that into the appearance of originality). Gore lost by reacting to Republican strength. Gore tied Bush, for all intents and purposes, but Gore lost the election psychically by staying on the defensive in the closing weeks.

So a Kerry "yeee-hoo" says in a flip way, "sez who?" to the GOP and from there his campaign stays substantive. It’s like Clinton playing his sax on Arsenio Hall’s show — once. Once was all that was needed; Bill always stayed on message, to the point of boredom.

The other impact is that the Kerry shout-out serves to knock down the vitality of "spin" a notch. It would bypass the popular media for the few days that it would be the top talk-show topic and thus emasculate the power of commentators enough to surmount it. Then Kerry-Edwards move on serious campaigning and take the media with them, debating issues not fervor.

The mass media would dwell on the shout, but unlike Dean’s scream, which most people saw surrounded by opinion days later because it was not big news as an isolated event at that moment, a Kerry-Edwards yodel would be seen by millions. Yeah, relatively few watch the conventions, but all spin takes a few days to coalesce into commonly perceived fact or commonly accepted opinion.

There will be spin immediately but in that first 24 to 48 hours it will not have affixed into running Limbaugh-baiting of listeners or Leno-Letterman joke fodder. A Kerry scream will be straight news on CNN and Fox in that two-day window long enough for enough people to judge for themselves that it was an old-fashioned pep rally cheer.

As the last example, who remembers that Kerry rode a motorcycle onto Leno’s show set? It was startling and no big deal. Edwards had a stunt too, announcing his candidacy on Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Both stunts could have become isolated into significance but weren’t because Kerry and Edwards kept control and moved the focus onward.

Too bad the Democrats overall are unafraid of trying something new, even something that is as inconsequential as it is risky. Like Yeee-hoo in front of live cameras. -30-

Nyuk nyuk nyuk Palahniuk

Copyright 2004 Ben S. Pollock

July 5-6, 2004

July 6, 2004. Addendum to the 7/5 Brick below: I downloaded the Palahniuk interview and listened to it twice. The NPR reporter did open her piece with a warning that the writer spoke provocatively and that some comments were edited out. Sorry to miss those, because he was not outrageous, but deadpan. My overall opinion holds. NPR let the writer get away with sounding serious when he was actually parodying an author interview.

July 5, 2004. I love National Public Radio, got hooked in 1977, while in college. It’s because I have faith in its reportage and in its commentary. They make the difference sufficiently obvious. (Only snoots have trouble with distinguishing the twain, and those patronizing pipsqueaks are faking confusion, purportedly for the sake of others whom they claim to be helping.)

NPR uses such good journalists that when they get conned, it befouls all of us who ply the trade, both in its news and analysis spheres.

On "All Things Considered" of Sunday, July 4, 2004, an NPR reporter interviewed some writer named Chuck Palahniuk. Yes, this malfeasance of journalism wasn’t about Iraqi prisons, it was a book promotion.

I only caught the last few minutes of the piece, while driving to the paper. Maybe I should listen to it again to be fair. Maybe, I’ll listen later.

Palahniuk was talking about himself and his "Stranger than Fiction: True Stories," a collection of magazine work.

Seconds after I tuned in, Chuck (I don’t feel like writing Palahniuk twice every graf), said he got anecdotes to use in his writing simply by engaging strangers. But that’s gotten harder now that he is so famous, because he now flies in business class, due to new wealth. None of the executives are talkative and when they do, it’s boring.

So, Chuck said, he drugs them. Then they get interesting.

Oh, really, says journalist Andrea Seabrook.

He hands out Vicodin, he says to elaborate. He doesn’t stop elaborating. His seatmates drink on top of that powerful medicine — booze is free in business class.

And flight crews talk, because they accept his Vicodin, too, he said. On duty.

Not a peep from Seabrook. She just moves on. They discuss Chuck’s public readings.

He talks about how each piece lasts seven to 10 minutes and that an effective piece engages the reader, makes them laugh and always by the end makes them cry (just like the cliche). Chuck then says the best part is when people faint as that shows his success in writing and delivery abilities.

Seabrook just moves on.

That is very journalistic, no opinion from the reporter. This is not universal practice. As a listener of "Fresh Air’s" Terry Gross, I believe she would say to Chuck, "You’re full of it," or, more neutrally, "You’re kidding, right?" But Gross’s interview is the piece, not a journalistic tool. In radio journalism, actualities/sound bites augment the overall story, which by definition is a summary of research.

Seabrook is not fully at fault. Blame her editor/producer. Such pieces are not broadcast live; that could wreck the timing of segments before and after. The piece could have been clarified. The reporter both before and after, and sometimes during, a segment repeats basic information and in some way cautions about the veracity of the subject.

The paper press has a similar dilemma: Something is said at a night government meeting, say, and you just quote it, on deadline, with no time or convenient resource to double-check or even to rebut.

Or, hell, maybe Chuck does find it easy to drug attendents, and people actually do swoon at book readings. I’ve attended lots of readings, and the best ones? Just applause.

Who is Chuck Palahniuk? He wrote the "Fight Club." You know, a movie. That kind of writer, saved from obscurity by a script adaptation. I plan to hit the library and consider his novels.

He really was funny on this newscast, and clever: He shanghaied his own piece back from a journalist. He could sell that trick to politicians. Then he’d be rich. -30-