Sunday, November 27, 2011

But, can we sell that? Doing good in the world is not a lost concept, as two of my students have recently shown... fight the power!

Good news.

Well, good news to me, anyway. Two of my students made the news this week and they have something interesting in common.

Andria Enns was profiled in the Independence Examiner for her next adventure spreading the ideas of peace journalism in the world. I take no credit for this, by the way. She was inspired by my colleague Steven Youngblood to pursue this concept. He took her to Uganda a summer ago and, she says, changed her life.

I have to be honest here and admit I'm not completely comfortable with the principles of peace journalism. How can you not be comfortable with an effort for peace, you say? Well, that's the problem.

The catch is this: peace journalism is about suppressing the inflammatory language in reporting, language which can lead to violence and death. That's a huge simplification and doesn't do the principles justice but I'm going to spare you a long treatise at this point. The rub is I'm old school about journalism -- somebody said it, I report it. Somebody is angry, I report somebody is angry. A little passion is necessary in the world. People ought to be angry about injustice and war.

But I see the other side, too, how inflammatory language can actually cause injustice and war. And, I haven't always been in love with the way journalism is done in the world. That's why I became a teacher. You can hide behind the idea of objective journalism only so long before you realize doing journalism ought to do more than line the pockets of a few corporations.

More on this later. Back to Andria, who generally supports peace journalism in her travels by doing good in communities where a little good is badly needed. She doesn't sweat the principles; she gets dirty doing the work. I'm obviously proud to be her teacher.

My other student in the news is Anthony Hardwick. OK, Anthony graduated several years ago but, you know, when does my student stop being my student? I'm also proud of Anthony. He is the guy up in Omaha who had guts enough to start a petition drive against his own boss over the ridiculous practice of opening retail stores on Thanksgiving night, turning a family holiday celebrated by everyone -- a holiday with no religious barriers, and, also, no actual basis in history -- into just another marketing event.

Anthony gathered a stunning number of petitioners. He was featured in big articles and interviews everywhere, including the New York Times, which did a thoughtful profile on him.

If, after garnering this publicity, no public relations firm can see what a dynamo he is, well... nobody can get hired in public relations anymore. Who wouldn't want a guy who can singlehandedly launch a petition drive that gets him interviewed on CNN and MSNBC and into the pages of the New York Times? My guess is he won't be working two retail jobs much longer.

I was particularly proud of the way he presented himself and his ideas in those interviews. This man has something to offer the world. He can bring a little good to a world in bad need of good.

Which brings me, belatedly -- it is Sunday morning by the way and the only thing I have to do is snake a backed up drain... why hurry the writing -- to the point. Both of these students have decided to go out and do good in the world. Doing good in this world is no small choice.

A few years ago, the university decided to write itself a new mission statement. Don't get me started. But here's the interesting thing about the process. I proposed to the mammoth committee in charge of the writing that the mission statement conclude by saying our graduates would be committed to doing good in the world.

A hue and cry went up in the room. Folks shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Teeth gnashed. Suddenly the big screen where ideas were being typed froze. I knew immediately I'd stepped on a land mine. Who can define good!? One person's good is not another person's good? One culture's good is not another culture's good? It reminded me of the professor in Tom Wolfe's latest novel who always made air-quotes with his fingers when he said the word "god".

Here the offending word was "good".

Quickly, the committee suggested something better. The university would produce "graduates who are committed to their communities." That was my sentence without the phrases "doing good". It took the committee less than five frantic minutes to go from "...graduates who are committed to doing good in their communities" to "...graduates who are committed to their communities." I suggested that gang members are quite committed to their communities. At that point, the whole concept just erased itself from the big screen.

If an institution of higher learning cannot even commit to graduating students with the responsibility of doing good in their communities, who can?

Well, the graduates can. As Andria -- who hasn't even graduated yet -- and Anthony -- who has just begun doing what he will do in the world -- have shown, using a college education for doing good is not a lost concept. Not lost on some of our best students, anyway.


Monday, November 21, 2011

An excellent anecdote - and antidote - for starving writers

As I watch the Chiefs play (surprisingly) decent football against the New England Patriots, I am also reading a collection of boxing short stories by F.X. Toole. The collection, published in 2000 under the title "Rope Burns," but since then it's been re-named after its most famous short story: "Million Dollar Baby."

I haven't reached the well-known tale just yet, but I was intrigued by the introduction. Toole, a former boxer, trainer and corner man, for years worked to break into the writing biz. He accomplished it with this story collection in 2000, but sadly passed away just two years later. This is the best boxing fiction I've read outside of W.C. Heinz' classic "The Professional."

Here's a brilliant passage from the introduction comparing Toole's two passions, which should ring true to all you aspiring writers out there hoping to make money at it someday.

I started in the amateurs, took nights off from my job so I could work three-rounders in VFW halls, recreation centers, and the back rooms of spaghetti joints. Then four-rounders, and ten, and traveling around the world to work twelve-round title fights. I've worked seven title fights of one kind or another, and I've been licensed in ten states - from Hawaii to New York, from Missouri to Florida. There are plenty of guys who have done much more in boxing than I, but there are many who've done less. And I've fought in Mexico, France, Germany and South Africa - where, in Cape Town, by the way, they produce a champion Cabernet Sauvignon, Fleur de Cap, that will do wonders for your spirit.

About the only thing I haven't done in boxing is make money. It's the same for most fight guys. But that hasn't stopped me any more than not making money in writing has. Both are something you just do, and you feel grateful for being able to do them, even if both keep you broke, drive you crazy, and make you sick. Rational people don't think like that. But they don't have in their lives what I have in mine. Magic. The magic of going to wars I believe in. And the magic of boxing humor, the joke almost always on the teller, that marches with you every step of the way.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Joe Posnanski misses the mark on Joe Paterno -- hot house thinking is always suspect and vested interests cloud the vision of even great writers...

I really hate to do this, but I'm going to take Joe Posnanski to task.

Joe wrote a good column at Sport Illustrated after the Penn State child rape scandal broke, but it isn't good enough. I came to it through a couple of links -- the last in the Pitch -- and all along the way it is being hearlded as one of his best pieces of work. It isn't.

Posnanski is right on when he discusses how he wrote a bundle of columns in his early days about a football coach he thought was the best since sliced bread. He was shocked when the coach committed suicide. It was an awakening -- the sort many reporters have along the way.

As a reporter I came to the same conclusion: There are no all-good people and there are no all-bad people.

However, from this distance I detect something in his approach to this Penn State story that he should at least consider. He is, by the way, writing a book about Joe Paterno. He is even living in State College, Penn., to write it. And, near the end of his column, he seems strangely nuanced about his feelings when it comes to the subject of the book-to-be.

Why, you might ask, did the good people at Penn turn their backs -- literally -- on the 10-year-old in the shower and on the other uncounted victims? I don't think it would be unfair to suspect they had a vested interest in doing so. They were vested in the football program and in their legendary coach, and they made their ethical judgments with those concerns either front and center or hidden, but either way you can at least suspect those concerns were at the root of their decisions.

That's what happens when we make ethical decisions in the hot houses of our own minds. We twist and turn our excuses and justifications to provide the answer we wanted to hear in the first place. This is why presidents do things we can't imagine -- at some point they all come to believe the free world depends on their being president of the United States. So do their underlings. College presidents are not immune to hot house thinking either. Nor, their underlings. None of us are immune to it. Even very good writers.

With a book probably under contract and already a couple of months spent building the narrative and the sources while living at Penn State -- Joe Posnanski should probably step back and ask himself if he is also invested in this story in a way that might cloud his ethical thinking.

From all indications, there are no nuances to this story. That's my opinion, anyway. It seems logical to me that three things should happen: 1) Bo Pelini should be man enough, and care enough about the young people under his wing, that he not take his Nebraska football squad to State College to play football today. One of my students suggested this to me Thursday and he was right. The game started a few minutes ago, by the way, so you have your answer to number one. 2) Penn State should be courageous and sorry enough to simply cancel the rest of its season. And, since that game started a few minutes ago, you could conclude Penn State is simply sorry -- one sorry damned institution of higher learning. And, 3) Joe Posnanski should at least consider saying, well... this is just really not a bunch of people I want to invest a large chunk of my life writing about.

Unless, of course, he absolutely believes to his soul he can write the book with complete honesty. Only he knows if his editors and his publisher would accept his version of the truth or if they -- and he -- will be too vested to get it right.

-- Lofflin, feeling humble writing like this about the Great Posnanski...

And if you haven't read Greg Hall's piece, for god's sake, do. It is certainly miles ahead of this effort. Then, of course, as Hall points out, there is the question of the $750,000 advance.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Perry's brain fart sinks the Titanic; The New York Times sinks the republic... Neil Postman laughs lustily from the grave

Rick Perry fell victim to a mind fart last night.

OMG, as my students are wont to say.

In the Republican debate he was asked what three agencies of government he had vowed to close. He could only name two. It was a disaster of Titanic proportion.

Hell, I've been there. I've walked into a few rooms and forgotten why I walked in. I've walked into a few classrooms lately and wondered why I walked in -- but that's another story.

Neil Postman is laughing this morning from the grave. I don't know how they keep his grave clean, in fact, given the number of times these days the ground shakes around it with belly laughs. We are -- without doubt -- becoming sillier by the minute.

The point Dr. Postman made about the complete dominance of show business on our culture and the destructive new epistemology of image it has fostered, is playing out everywhere you look today, but no more clearly than in the way the media cover presidential politics.

Perry's mind fart was THE news from the most recent effort of Republicans to choose a presidential contender. The New York Times played it right in the middle of their Web Site, just under Joe Paterno, above the fold, so to speak.

But you have to love the story itself. First, it included this wonderful comparison: "Mark McKinnon, an aide to former President George W. Bush, describing the moment as the “human equivalent of shuttle Challenger..."

Now, that's damned funny. Unless, I suppose, you are a family member of someone who died in the Challenger. In one of many stories to appear about Paterno, a reporter told us another media person alluded to the assassination of JFK for comparison to Paterno's firing.

But this is the best -- or worst -- part.

The Times "reporters" Jeff Zeleny And Ashley Parker don't tell the reader the third department until the 14th paragraph of their 1,500-word story, the paragraph just before the Web version goes to page two. In fact, in terms of usable voter information, they provide only one snippet on the first page of their big take: Perry apparently intends to close three federal departments -- Commerce, Education and ... well ... the Department of Energy.

As readers we are never made privy to why. No suggestion is made about what closing those agencies of the federal government would do -- good, bad, or neutral. At one critical juncture near the end of the story, they deign to tell us the Republicans presented a united front in favor of -- " less government intervention and more reliance on markets."

Are you telling me it took two big time reporters to write this story?!?

That's it. The total substance from 35 paragraphs, 1,527 words: Republicans favor less government and more markets and Rick Perry favors closing three government agencies. One last tidbit of valuable information nearer the end: the candidates are united in opposing intervention in the economic crisis in Greece and Italy. Imagine that.

I'm sorry, but from a voter's perspective, from the respective of a troubled republic, let alone a troubled Republican party, that story was bankrupt. The New York Times should be ashamed.

The Times offered this gem from Perry:

“This campaign is about ideas,” Mr. Perry said. “It’s not about who’s the slickest debater or whether anyone’s made a mistake or not...”

Who's he kidding? And, who is the Times kidding?


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

iJournalism or Civic and Citizen Journalism -- the name wars among academics continue in search of relevance and hipness...

This is the second time in two years and frankly I am bored to tears with it.

Not the World Series. This World Series repeated nothing from the past and was anything but borning.

I belong to the Civic and Citizen Journalism interest group in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication – the huge umbrella organization for academics who teach in communication departments and schools of journalism. And today, on the list-serve, the question of changing the interest group’s name has been in question.

Last year it was the Newspaper Division. I got way too invested in that discussion, which ultimately turned into a generational war, and – as I often do with horror movies – I had to turn it off. I created a separate e-mail folder for it, went there occasionally to check progress of the war and, unfortunately this is a reminder of the grinding war in Afganistan, forgot it was there.

In truth, I can’t tell you who won.

At Civic and Citizen Journalism, the suggestions for new names and the reason are familiar from the previous battle. My favorite suggestion so far is iJournalism, which signals either of two impulses:

1) We are enamored with the I, the self, the journalist enamored with herself, which is actually a live issue for incoming freshmen journalism majors, or

And, no, I am not so un-hip that I am unable to recognize the signature branding of Apple computers,

2) We are enamored with the technology.

Being enamored with the technology is like a flu germ that spreads through academic communication departments – without innoculation – from about fall break through the dreadful winter months, until nearly May. It affects both students and faculty, equally. It generally hits after the first midterms – perhaps in response to poor performance or simply to boredom, to the prospect of being cooped up together through the snow and cold – and continues unabated until the season of finals and portfolios and the prospect of summer arrives, when we become again more enamored with what work we have done and less enamored with what we did that work on.

I probably don’t belong in the Civic and Citizen Journalism interest group in the first place. I’m there because I was not hip to the inside jargon of academics, sharing my department as I do with only one other soul who is himself also not terribly hip to inside jargon, and, typically reading into the name what I wanted to read.

When I joined, my thought was this group would be about the reporter as citizen – as a member of the community not an objective observer outside (above) the community. As such, my thinking went, citizen journalists would respond more to their communities than the demands for blind objectivity by their editors or the demands for sexy, reader-grabbing stories by their publishers. Civic and citizen reporters, I thought, would see themselves as members of the community first and be guided by the notion of doing good in their communities.

What I was missing, of course, was the emphasis on citizen in the name. I’m learning through this debate that the word citizen means the armies of bloggers and Twitter feeders and practitioners of whatever technology comes next, who report like lone wolves on happenings in their communities.

I have a good deal of respect for those folks. With the folks who put out neighborhood association newsletters, they may be the last stand of local news reporting. I remember the “community correspondents” from my first newspaper post and how they supplied us daily with interesting reporting about who was in the hospital and who visited who for coffee. I had great respect for them then – they often produced the most readable and interesting copy in the newspaper – and I have great respect for them, and their digital kin, today.

While I find those modern legions politically interesting – even inspirational – it isn’t the interest group I signed up for. iJournalism is a much more honest name, and pretty hip at that, and if I’ve learned one thing in academia, it’s how desperately we want to be hip, lest we be left behind, like the ivy climbing up our building walls.


Tower of Power: "Sometimes hipness is what it ain't..." I cling to that lyric sometimes.