|Behold the double standard: John McCain sought out the endorsement of John Hagee, the war-mongering Catholic-bashing Texas preacher who said the people of New Orleans got what they deserved for their sins. But no one suggests McCain shares Hagee’s delusions, or thinks AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality. Pat Robertson called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and asked God to remove Supreme Court justices, yet he remains a force in the Republican religious right. After 9/11 Jerry Falwell said the attack was God’s judgment on America for having been driven out of our schools and the public square, but when McCain goes after the endorsement of the preacher he once condemned as an agent of intolerance, the press gives him a pass.|
|Jon Stewart recently played a tape from the Nixon White House in which Billy Graham talks in the oval office about how he has friends who are Jewish, but he knows in his heart that they are undermining America. This is crazy; this is wrong — white preachers are given leeway in politics that others aren’t.|
|Which means it is all about race, isn’t it? Wright’s offensive opinions and inflammatory appearances are judged differently. He doesn’t fire a shot in anger, put a noose around anyone’s neck, call for insurrection, or plant a bomb in a church with children in Sunday school. What he does is to speak his mind in a language and style that unsettle some people, and says some things so outlandish and ill-advised that he finally leaves Obama no choice but to end their friendship. We are often exposed us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this ? this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner before our very eyes. Both men no doubt will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we are paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burckhardt, who said “beware the terrible simplifiers”.|
Well, there were stories at their times about Fallwell, Robertson and McCain & Hagee. They weren’t as big as Obama and Wright, but they were still stories.
Indeed, we need honest conversation sabout race. I thought Barack Obama’s speech on the subject right after the Wright mess first broke was an excellent opener for lots of conversations, many of which are still going on.
We need honest conversations about gender too. A couple days ago my wife caught an interview on NPR with a voter in North Carolina who regretted that the choice among democratic presidential candidates had come down to a black man and a woman — and that he’d prefer the former over the latter. Of course, that was just one voter, but still: what does that say? Other things being equal, is sexism a bigger handicap to a female candidate than race is to a black candidate? Before I heard that, I hadn’t considered the possibility. Nor the possibility that voters in the U.S. might be less favoring of women candidates than voters in Israel, the U.K., Germany and India, all of which have elected women as heads of state. Something more to think and talk about, if we can possibly get past the personalities at hand.
The Wright-Obama story, however, isn’t just about race. It’s about stories. It’s about the reason we need to “beware the terrible simplifiers”. Because simplification is what journalists do.
Even the best reporters don’t just communicate facts. They organize those facts into stories. That’s what they’re assigned to write, or to show on TV, or report on the radio, and that’s what they do. And they do it because stories are by nature interesting. They are, I believe, the base format of human interest. Here’s how I described that format in an earlier post:
|To understand journalism, you need to know the nature of The Story. Every story has three elements: 1) a character, 2) a problem, and 3) movement toward resolution. The character could be a person, a cause, a ball club — doesn’t matter, as long as the reader (or the viewer, or the listener) can identify with it (or him, or her, or them). The problem is what keeps us reading forward, turning the pages, or staying tuned in. It’s what keeps things interesting. And the motion has to vector toward resolution, even if the conclusion is far off in the future.|
In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Daniel Henninger asks, Where are Obama’s Friends? The story, in Henninger’s words: “supporters who let Barack Obama hang out to dry”. (He doesn’t mention Bill Moyers, who certainly qualifies now.)
We need to remember that all stories are simplifications. Sometimes they are terrible, and sometimes not. But still, they always veer toward the simple, because that’s what’s most interesting.
Back on December 11, 2005 — long before there were blogs, but not long after I learned to write in HTML — I posted Microsoft + Netscape: Why the Press Needs to Snap Out of its War-Coverage Trance. (It was one of the many articles I failed to sell to a magazine, but still managed to post on the Web.) The bottom lines:
|The Web is a product of relationships, not of victors and victims. Not one dime Netscape makes is at Microsoft’s expense. And Netscape won’t bleed to death if Microsoft produces a worthy browser. The Web as we know it won’t be the same in six weeks, much less six months or six years. As a “breed of life,” it is original, crazy and already immense. It is not like anything. To describe it with cheap-shot war and sports metaphors is worse than wrong — it is bad journalism.|
Actually, it’s typical journalism. More than a dozen years later, it’s a lesson I’m still learning.