Thursday, May 18, 2017

''To give the news impartially..."

''To give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved'' … New York Times

Thirty-six people died in the Hindenburg disaster in 1937. You've seen the film footage more than once, I'm sure. “Oh, the humanity!” became part of our cultural history as a reporter commented on the horrific scene in New Jersey.
In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart. Cameras rolled as seven people died. Every January, the footage is played again as the nation remembers the event.
On September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Upwards of 3,000 people died on morning TV. The debate began about whether the footage should ever be played again, with many people posting every September 11 since that the video should be played to remind us of that horrific day. Still, it was journalists who recorded those horribly unforgettable images for posterity.
Ahh, that old, familiar scapegoat, the media. Whatever the story, whatever the reality, the public feels justified in blaming the messenger. These days, it's either the “liberal media” or the “alt-right” media or the “fake news” media getting blamed for the ills of America and the world.
At the local level, your friendly community newspaper isn't immune from criticism.
Some criticism is expected. Whether it's public officials squandering money or bringing in tons of possibly toxic coal ash or proposing some controversial piece of public policy, most journalists I know expect to get some grief when they report these sorts of stories.
Let a controversial story happen, though, and Heaven forbid if you don't take an editorial stance. A simple retelling of what happens at a city council meeting isn't simple at all. You see, you'd better blatantly take someone's side or else you're against the other side. The message? “Write the story we want, or else.” The consequences are personal attacks and attempts at sabotaging your media outlet's business.
That's all old news for me, though. It's water under the bridge, over the dam, and out to sea. As a grown person, you learn to take your lumps and bumps, get used and abused, and soldier on.
Yet, I'm still surprised by some people's reactions to other stories, especially those involving human tragedy.
Perhaps other newspapers and media outlets don't care about people, but I can assure you we consider everyone involved in every story. We talk about the tragedies involved. Our conversations are about the kids and family members left behind and the loss to the community. You never see that, and you may not believe me, but it happens nonetheless.
Our conversations are also about how to do the stories right. We're not going to run pictures that show graphic scenes of blood and gore.
Instead, we're going to tell the stories of accidents and fires and deaths and murders in the same manner as law enforcement delivers them to us. We will not sensationalize them.
But, the bottom line is this: we are going to report the news, and we are going to print pictures and share videos that show the scenes of all sorts of events, from fires to murders to horrific car crashes.
This is our job. We have an obligation to faithfully and accurately report what happens in public life. I understand that if the story directly affects you and your family that seeing coverage of your situation is upsetting, and I am very sorry. I wish it could be otherwise. 
For the rest of you, though, I have a question. Do such stories make you uncomfortable? Good. Maybe you'll slow down and quit driving like a maniac. Maybe you'll find a way to help a domestic violence survivor or a homeless person or a fire victim.
Unfortunately, my experience is that you'll instead attack us for telling the story. You'll call our coverage “disgusting” and “cruel” and “mean.” You'll talk about “hasn't the family suffered enough,” as though us telling about it makes it any better or any worse for a family going through the darkest of days. More than anything, though, you'll talk. You can talk about it, you can gossip about it, you can speculate and assign blame and victimhood, but, by God, the media had better not tell the story.
Why? Because the people I'm talking about are a bunch of hypocrites. You hide behind your supposed concern for families and your supposed standards of morality to settle personal scores or make yourselves feel better about a world you feel is out of control. You don't want to face your own mortality. You want to imagine that nothing bad ever happens where you live. Sure, you'll share stories about outrages over there, or tragedies in that place, but surely nothing bad can happen here. You'll share videos of supposed terrorist atrocities or political hit pieces or other half-cracked information, too; that's a given. These are the same people who slow down to rubberneck at accidents and then criticize our coverage of those events. These are the same people who ask a million questions on social media about a fire or a trial or any number of things then ignore our coverage of those events and then speculate publicly about “what really happened.” They have no consequences to their actions, either.
Meanwhile, I have a job to do: record and report the events of the day. And, yes, we do have to “sell papers.” And, unfortunately, bad news sells better than good news. Blame human nature for that, but know that for me it gets difficult to report about the people who live around me, so all I can do is try to be consistent. No matter how rich or influential or poor or insignificant, if you get arrested, we are going to report that. If you are found innocent and want that published, we'll print that, too. If your kid wins the spelling bee, well, that's even better. In fact, that's lots better. I wish I never, ever had to report a bad story, ever again. I hate, hate, hate writing about the people who live around me having bad things happen to them. We are glad to help publicize for any sort of charitable work to help anyone in our community, and we do that. Every week, we publish information about ways you can help your community or ways you can get help yourself. We also share your stories about your kids' sports teams, your kids' school accomplishments, your church events, and so much more.
Why? Because we live here, too. Our kids go to school together. You see me at ball games. You're probably even my friend on Facebook, even if I do wonder why you feel it's OK to slam me and my newspaper online.
Please know this is not for all of my readers, nor is it an official statement from the newspaper I work for. This is me venting to my friends, and I hope if you disagree with anything I say, you would have the courtesy to contact me directly. I'm easy to find.
And, to all those suffering from loss and heartache, please know you have my deepest condolences. I wish I could say something more profound or make things different for you.

Friday, August 22, 2014

As football season starts...

“I tell young players who want to be coaches, who think they can put up with all the headaches and heartaches, can you live without it? If you can live without it, don’t get in it.” Paul W. Bryant

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Force or Freedom...

1. Conservatives want to regulate most everything you do with your personal life by the standards of their sliding scale of morality but want to give you, and especially corporations, a great deal of freedom to do most anything you want to do economically, regardless of the consequences.

2. Liberals want to regulate just some of what you want to do with your personal life by the standards of their feelings of enforced “fairness” or “equality” or “environmental justice” or whatever is in fashion, while making sure the financial practices of individuals and corporations are regulated to be fair, equal, and just by the standards of their own opinions.

And there, my friends, is the debate in this country: all we are doing is fighting over how much force is to be used by whom and against whom and to what ends.

Does anyone ever make the case for freedom? What would the world be like if people stopped being obsessed with making others live and believe in certain ways?

Force is force, whether good intentioned or not. Just societies are cautious with the use of force. Oppressive societies can’t exist without it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Seasons and Wishful Thinking

I listened to Dr. Kevin Elko's "Monday Morning Cup of Inspiration" this morning, and the title was "Seasons". In case you don't know who Elko is, he's the sports psychologist Nick Saban relies on to help maintain the "Process" at Alabama. If you don't know what that is, well....go watch the World Cup.

Anyway, Elko says our lives go through seasons, and many of our worst moments (depression and doubts, for example) happen when we are actively resisting the changes of life-seasons. He goes on to say we can tell when our seasons change when we realize we no longer have the grace we once had for that situation. In other words, time has moved on, we haven't moved on in our minds and hearts, but everyone else can tell we no longer fit where we've been.

Meanwhile, last week, my good buddy John Allan Clark wrote a column for the Greensboro Watchman about wishful thinking. In it, he says that him wishing that his porch ceiling fan worked was a good analogy for much of our experience in the Black Belt of Alabama; instead of doing the work ourselves, we just sit around and wish things were better. I told John Allan I liked his column. He did his usual aww-shucks routine, but I hope he knows how sincerely I appreciate his words.

Change is scary, and as our seasons change, we have all sorts of reactions. Sometimes we wish for things to change and so we do nothing, as if that ceiling-fan repairman in the sky might come down and set our blades to turning in the right way again, with power and ease. Sometimes, we refuse to accept that our time has passed in a certain situation and we linger there, awkwardly clinging to what we have known.

Our seasons change nonetheless. We see the cycle of birth, life, and death. We watch the summer heat fade to autumn, then see the winter come before spring warmth gives us a hint of the next summer. And so it goes, yet so often we fight change. We hold onto the "what might be" or the "this situation has so much potential" or the "why can't it just be this way forever?" or the "maybe one day again". And, meanwhile, we forget to be where we really are, and we neglect appreciating what really is. We live in fears or hopes of what could be and in memories or regrets of what once was. What a waste. Today's season is good enough. It's really all we have.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Graduation Speech

It occurred to me this morning that if I had continued at my previous job I would have had to write a graduation speech for this week.

This speech should be non-location-specific; it’s just as appropriate for my location as for anywhere else across America. So, never one to miss an occasion for speechifying, here’s what I really would want to say:

Friends, guests, and graduates, I’m here today to tell you five things no one else has the guts to say to you. Know I say none of these things out of malice but rather with an abundance of love and affection.

1. No one outside your immediate circle gives a royal rat’s ass about what you did in high school now. Congratulations, you have a diploma. You did volunteer work. You were third captain on the tiddlywinks team. You were an all-state basketball player. It’s all the same now. You graduated high school. Now what can you do?

2.       Most of you probably shouldn’t go to college. Oh, I don’t mean necessarily you, or you. But, most of the graduating class of 2014 nationwide. Go learn a trade. Start a business. Travel. Go sit on the beach. Do anything but go to college. There are too many people in college. Your degree will likely make you qualified to do absolutely nothing. Oh, sure, if you get a nursing degree or some other vocational degree. But, a liberal arts degree? A business degree? Good luck, and have fun with the crushing feeling of being thousands of dollars in debt with student loans.

3.       Get on the first thing smoking out of your hometown. There may be many reasons you want to stay, but none of them are likely good ones. Go figure out who you are, without your high school sweetheart or mom or dad or grandma telling you who you are and how you should be. Go have an adventure. Screw up, as responsibly as you can. Live. You’ll be waiting for your twentieth high school reunion before you know it.

4.       Your life will likely be nothing like what you think it will be. It will be better in some ways, much better in others, and worse in yet others. Your teenaged self wouldn’t recognize your future selves, and it probably wouldn’t like them. So, be flexible.

5.       The people who matter in your life will be an ever-changing cast of characters. Oh, sure, some constants will remain, but even many of the key players will change. That boyfriend or girlfriend of three years or three months or three weeks will likely not be forever yours. Your best friends will change, likely. And all of this is OK. We are always looking for permanence in this ever-changing world. You’ll be OK.

So, my dear people, go out, live life, make mistakes as responsibly as you can, don’t hold on to situations that are hopeless, hold on to the good and proven things, and remain hopeful. Hang in there. Roll Tide.

Friday, April 25, 2014

"You listen to kids too much"

"You listen to kids too much."

I've had this said to me more than once. It's almost always been by fellow educators or parents of the kids I have taught or coached. I've always thought it was the strangest criticism possible.

My response is always the same. "If I don't listen to them, who will?"

It's a response I learned from my mother. Her mother, who was hell-on-wheels and far from being mother of the year, once told her she listened to her children too much.

To be fair, my mother believed in firm discipline, and her will was absolute iron. She demanded and commanded respect. Yet, she knew kids need to be heard and listened to and respected.

She knew kids also need to be able to communicate with people who have their best interests at heart. These are people who will listen to them and tell them what the truth is.

If that was true years ago, when nuclear families were common, and supposed morality was supposedly better, what does it mean now?

I'm sorry to burst everyone's bubbles, but very few families are now run on strict discipline. Relationships between parents and children are just different somehow these days in most instances. Kids don't know how to respond to authoritarian tactics. If parents and grandparents aren't using such methods, why would anyone think schools, teachers, and coaches are going to succeed in implementing "when I say jump, you ask how high." 

Here's the good news: kids respond well to clear boundaries and also to the concept of mutual respect. You know why it works? Because children are people, too. They get you're in charge as the adult, but you still have to show them you deserve their respect. 

If you show children and young adults you care about them, that you want the best for them, that you respect them as people, they will generally reciprocate. I can't imagine working with young people and not actually valuing them, but there are many who don't, unfortunately.

Football coaches, in particular, walk a fine line. Most coaches came up in an era when every youth coach thought he had to imitate Bear Bryant or Tom Landry in the length and ferocity of practices. Young people of today and their parents, for that matter, are just not going to put up with long, drawn-out, abusive practices. There are too many other things families can be doing, and mommas and daddies are less likely to support your drill sergeant tendencies.

So, am I telling you to have “soft” practices? Of course not. I am encouraging you, however, to think very carefully about every minute of your practices and what it is you are trying to accomplish. 

I hope your goal, in every practice and in every game, is to get better. Complacency kills success in sports and, for that matter, in other phases of life. If you cannot tell you are improving every time your team gets together, you are doing something wrong. It’s that simple. 

"The football coach has a captive audience and can teach these lessons because the communication lines between himself and his players are more wide open than between kids and parents." -Paul Bryant

Friday, April 18, 2014

Snakes on (the same page as) a Train

“M’dville Council hears flooding brings snakes: ‘Snakes were everywhere,’ said Bonner”

“Could train cars blocking M’dville streets cause death?”

If those two headlines on a front page don’t grab you, nothing will. But, we’ll get back to that in a minute.

Writer’s block is particularly fun when you make your living largely by your ability to turn events into stories.

For example, the ol’ “please kill me” feeling comes in when I have to make a BOOOORRRRRRRIIIIINNNNGGGG governmental meeting into something at least somewhat interesting. 

I’ve written more about garbage than I care to admit: coal ash, toxic waste, leachate, garbage routes, garbage carts. Some of this has been interesting, both to me and evidently my readers, while most of it is painfully boring. Painfully. Boring. Like a toothache during a bad play.

Or, maybe my challenge is trying to write about a blow-out loss by an area high school football team. I really want to write something like this sometime:

“The XYZ Fierce Cats lost 56-0, embarrassing themselves, their fans, and their mommas while failing to gain a single first down and fumbling the football on every possession. This is the worst football team anyone could imagine seeing.”

Instead, this is what I might magically produce:

“The youthful XYZ Fierce Cats put up a tremendous effort but had a rough night on the road, losing 56-0 in a hard-fought game.”

The only “tremendous effort” put forth may have been them trying to figure out how to get their pads on correctly, that’s true. The only thing “hard-fought” may have been the Fierce Cats finally being able to break through their run-through sign on their second effort. But, there’s no glory in beating up kids in their local newspaper with such brutal truthfulness.

OK, back to snakes and trains. Those are the two headlines my publisher came up with for this past week’s Moundville Times, and I love them. Is it sensationalized news? I don’t think so.

Our job is to get people in our area talking about the issues. If the flooding brings snakes, and people are concerned about snakes, then they’ll be concerned about flooding and what it takes to fix the problem. They’ll stay around to read about the rest of the city council meeting, too.  Attention-grabbers are good things for the bottom line of a newspaper, no doubt, but they also help us spread the good or not-so-good news in a community.

Part of the charm of a community, weekly newspaper is the ability to have a little fun with the news, but we have to remember to be respectful of people. Stories about deadly situations or circumstances are not the place for bad puns or clever headlines. “10 Dead Near Kellogg’s Factory; ‘Cereal Killer’ Feared” is great for a cheap laugh but not much else.

So, if being too clever is a danger, what if you can’t seem to produce anything? What if you stare at your notes and your screen and nothing happens? It’s an impotent, stupid feeling.  Writer’s block is a horrible feeling. Part of it comes from fear. What if I say something stupid? What if I misunderstood what happened? What if someone think I’m a horrible writer? What if someone complains? And, part of writer’s block comes from writers taking themselves too seriously. I figure somewhere around 10,000 people pick up our newspapers every week. Is what I’m producing good enough? Shouldn’t it be better? Why can’t I be perfect?

I finally got over the worst of my writer’s block by realizing what I write doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s ok to screw up a word or a grammar rule on occasion. It’s fine if I don’t have perfect parallel structure or if I let my participle dangle from time to time. Haha. Ha. Snicker. 

While I take my job seriously in that I really feel a heavy burden to accurately record the area’s history and to tell stories well and impartially, copies of the newspaper are recycled in gardens and used as puppy pads and bird cage liners. That’s humbling.

So, write. Lose your fear of expressing yourself. Just write.