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Archive for June, 2010

A brief followup from my post on Tuesday about journalism as a redemptive practice: If you want to see great examples of multimedia journalism that transports you into other worlds, deepens your understanding and enlarges your heart, then check out the web site MediaStorm. Scroll to the bottom of the page and take in any of the stories you’ll find there. You won’t be disappointed. Somehow, I overlooked placing that link in my list of Journalism Resources; that error has been corrected.

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Amid all the serious posts on serious topics, it’s important to sit back and laugh. I saw this great satire on TV news while I was in South Carolina last week. Hope it adds a smile to your day.

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I’ve added some new links in my Blogroll and list of Journalism Sources; feel free to check them out. I’ve also, very slightly, updated my About page to reckon with the dismal state of the Seattle Mariner season. So much for the hopes of spring.

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The Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, along with all its consequences, offers almost too many avenues for discussion.

I finally got to read the article while working my way through airports last Friday. While news coverage focused on the attitudes of McChrystal and his staff toward civilian leadership, the story’s central theme was a damning examination of the strategy of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. But that larger message faded into the background while the press treated McChrystal’s comments as a classic gaffe story, a tired journalistic genre.

In this case the problem wasn’t that the gaffe narrative hyped foolish comments beyond their real importance. In this case, by focusing so much on whether or not McChrystal would be fired and treating him as an isolated problem, the coverage tended to gloss over why the disparagement of civilian leadership represents a very serious problem.

For that reason, an op-ed essay by historian Andrew Bacevich in Sunday’s Washington Post is a must-read. An opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning, Bacevich has long written of the corrosive effects of our “long war” on the nation and — especially — on the military. “Protracted conflict introduces toxins that inexorably corrode the values of popular government,” he writes, and he sees in the McChrystal fiasco new evidence that the “military’s professional ethic is eroding.” He adds:

To be an American soldier today is to serve a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of armed conflict without end. … Throughout history, circumstances such as these have bred praetorianism, warriors becoming enamored with their moral superiority and impatient with the failings of those they are charged to defend.

Bacevich quotes an “active-duty soldier who has served multiple combat tours,” who argues that this “culture of contempt” is now “pandemic in the Army.” Bacevich, a retired Army officer who served in Vietnam, adds:

During Vietnam, the United States military cracked from the bottom up. The damage took decades to repair. In the seemingly endless wars of the post-Sept. 11 era, a military that has demonstrated remarkable durability now show signs of coming undone at the top. The officer corps is losing its bearings.

This somber warning is what has been lost in the larger fuss over the Rolling Stone article. I find myself hoping he’s wrong, but he’s established too much credibility to be taken lightly.

Bacevich is a true conservative whose intellectual honesty shames the ideologues who pass themselves off as conservatives, best described by one recent Andrew Sullivan commenter as follows: “Movement conservatism is base-authoritarianism and banana republic-style corporatism wrapped up in empty and increasingly meaningless limited-government boilerplate.”

Bacevich’s concerns about the impact of a long war have long been a dominant theme in his books (see here, here and here) and frequent op-eds. His views on the trajectory of U.S. history, as illustrated in the video at the bottom of this post, turn many notions of our nation’s self-esteem on their head. No matter your political inclinations, you will be challenged by his writing and left more than a little uncomfortable. And that’s good.

But his writings are anchored in far more than academic argument. Even as he opposed the war, Bacevich supported his son Andy as he enlisted in the Army, rose through Officer Candidate School, and shipped off to Iraq.

On May 13, 2007, Andy Bacevich died at the hands of a suicide bomber in Iraq.

Two weeks later, a grieving father wrote in the Washington Post of receiving messages that his opposition to the war made him responsible for his son’s death. Unrepentant in opposition to the Iraq war, Bacevich noted nonetheless:

As military officers, we shared an ironic kinship of sorts, each of us demonstrating a peculiar knack for picking the wrong war at the wrong time. Yet he was the better soldier — brave and steadfast and irrepressible.

I know that my son did his best to serve our country. Through my own opposition to a profoundly misguided war, I thought I was doing the same. In fact, while he was giving his all, I was doing nothing. I failed him.

I think not.

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These days, it’s an understatement to note that the words “journalism” and “redemptive” usually don’t appear together. Yet, at its best — and there still is good reporting out there — journalism operates as a redemptive practice anchored in the simple act of telling the truth.

My desire isn’t to superficially spiritualize journalism or add some sort of glib Christian gloss. Nor is it my desire to make seasoned journalists roll their eyes, as they easily could do, by trying to cast an earthy profession in pretentious, otherworldly terms. But this notion of redemptive practice has been a perpetual point of reflection for me over the past 28 years, 13 in daily newspapers and 15 in academia. I am interested in how I can think about this field in a manner that’s sound theologically, independent of the the ideological impulses that color so much Christian thinking and free of the bankrupt arguments over bias that dominate press criticism (more on that in a future post).

I can’t pretend to offer an exhaustive discussion in one blog post — my posts tend to run too long already. But in bits and pieces, and drawing upon some examples, I do want to explore this notion of redemptive practice, to think aloud and try to solidify some thoughts along the way.

So, I’ll start here: Journalism operates as a redemptive practice whenever it enlarges our hearts. I’m not writing of sentimentalism but rather of the cultivation of empathy by taking us into someone else’s world. That is, through the craft of storytelling, our understanding, compassion and reflection are awakened and challenged. I use the word storytelling intentionally, for the best journalism is much more than imparting facts in a succinct manner.

One trait of great storytelling is that it is cathartic, or transformative, in nature. Philosopher Sissela Bok, borrowing from Aristotle, notes: “This experience of catharsis permits a schooling of the emotions and a deepening of one’s understanding of human nature …” Though Bok is examining the moral significance of violent media content, I think this notion can be applied to journalistic work as well, regardless of the subject matter. When our emotions are schooled, our hearts are enlarged. Neither the subject of a story, nor its consumer, has been diminished.

Borrowing from Bok again, the flip side is when poor journalism diminishes humanity, both of the subject and the consumer. To make her point, Bok draws upon Augustine’s account of his friend Alypius attending the gladiatorial games (emphasis added):

So he opened his eyes, and his soul was stabbed with a wound more deadly than any which the gladiator, whom he was anxious to see, had received in his body. He fell, and fell more pitifully, than the man whose fall had drawn the roar of excitement from the crowd.

When have you read or viewed a story and found yourself moved — not by the cheap emotional voyeurism of reality TV — but by a deeper understanding of another’s life? When, on the other hand, have you felt stabbed in the soul by a news report that (TV or print) that is exploitive of its subject matter? What distinguishes one from the other?

When we become more self-aware of what we experience when we partake in news, we can begin to grasp one way in which journalism can be a redemptive practice. This may well have less to do with the subject matter of a specific story but how a news organization treats that subject matter. Personally, I often feel stabbed if not assaulted these days when I watch much of cable TV news — yet there are moments when TV renders experience in powerful ways that enlarge my understanding of others. When do you feel enlarged or stabbed by the news your read and see?

If you’ve read this far (thank you), then consider examining one recent news package and your reaction to it — do you feel enlarged or stabbed in the soul?

On Sunday, The New York Times launched a yearlong series story about the deployment of an Army unit to Afghanistan, and its impact on both soldiers and their families. The print edition filled two full inside pages with words and photos; online you’ll find slide shows and videos to supplement the print story. Regardless of your reaction, why do you feel that way? What, good or bad, stands out for you in this work?

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It’s rare that a CD grabs my attention so thoroughly on first listen, but that’s exactly what Robert Randolph has done with his beautiful new album, “We Walk This Road.” With considerable help from producer T Bone Burnett, Randolph explores a range of African-American roots music plus some covers of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. There’s a considerable Gospel flavor throughout the album, all tied together by Randolph’s incredible performance on the lap steel guitar.  Randolph just soars; there’s no other verb I can think of that better captures what he does with that instrument.

As Randolph notes in the promotional video (above), his emphasis in song selection is on hope and uplift. But by going back to old songs he can speak of Jesus and explore themes of faith in ways that feel fresh for today, avoiding the dreadful clichés of contemporary Christian music. Randolph says in his liner notes:

It was important to us that we make the record we wanted to make, even if the end result was unclassifiable. We just focused on making great songs and great music that spoke to me, and that reflected the way I try to speak to the world. … I can’t see myself recording depressing lyrics, lyrics that leave people without a sense of hope. It’s not in me to use the power of the microphone to make music like that. That’s why this record is uplifting.

Usually, when I hear Christians speak of making “uplifting” albums I just cringe because their songs are so limited in artistry and thin in substance. But Randolph’s uplift is so unique to him, and so filled with creativity, that these songs exude a joy that feels real and authentic rather than forced and calculating. That’s a breath of fresh air.

PS: If you want to hear Randolph in a different context, check the results when he joins Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule in a live performance of David Crosby’s “Almost Cut my Hair,” which can be found on the just-released “Warren Haynes Presents: The Benefit Concert, Vol. 3.”  For 20-plus years Haynes has sponsored an annual Christmas benefit concert for Habitat for Humanity in Ashville, N.C., where he grew up. This performance is from the 2001 show. Haynes has released three double albums of performance highlights so far, and here’s hoping that he puts out more of these albums in the future.

PSS: Randolph also joined a truckload of other great guitarists this past weekend at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in Chicago. John Pareles of The New York Times provides a nice overview of the event, along with a nice photo slide show.

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As 1 John 4 reminds us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Who in this terrible, beautiful world can attain to or experience perfect love — the depth of love that banishes fear? Or an absolute confidence that God is with us and that our welfare is best left entirely in his hands? Faith and love, perfect or imperfect, are intangibles — we experience them but cannot quite put our finger on or define them; they seem to escape us.

Such spiritual qualities are, by definition, “unseen.” We move in their direction, hopeful, believing, but seldom achieving with absolute certainty. God himself, a Spirit, real but invisible, calls us to live the Adventure guided by a hand and an arm that we cannot see or prove in irrefutable terms. And this is the dwelling of faith in which we all must learn to be at home.

— Luci Shaw, The Crime of Living Cautiously

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