Don’t Like the News? Kill the Messenger

I’m not a journalist but I have worked with and around journalists for over two decades, something I have talked about before here and here.

Which is why I found it disheartening to read the story of the demise of LAWeekly as I knew it. While it is true that newspapers and other journalism outlets have struggled over the past decade or so in the face of economic hardship brought on by the internet (and to some extent, themselves), to learn that an established news outlet has been deliberately targeted for destruction is chilling.

Years ago, I read the LAWeekly and its sister publication the East Bay Express rather frequently when I was a college student in California. These “alternative” weeklies could always be relied on to provide thoughtful stories about local issues not covered in much depth by the bigger news organizations. (Washington, D.C.’s alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, is still chugging away, but it’s sister paper, the Baltimore City Paper, folded in 2017.)

The story I read about how the LAWeekly has been gutted may contain some hyperbole–journalists are not perfect, and often they have an overblown sense of self and of the importance of their work, in my view.

But I have no doubt that the institution of journalism with its modern emphasis on fairness and accuracy is essential to the effectiveness of democracy and the protection of civil rights. To disparage legitimate journalism as so-called fake news–as President Trump does almost daily–creates a situation where fewer and fewer people trust facts, such as they are.

(It’s important to remember that the freedom of the press was important enough to the Founding Fathers that it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution–alongside the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice and ahead of the right to bear arms.)

According to this version of events from the editorial staff at The LAnd Magazine, the LAWeekly was bought by a “cabal of Republican donors and Trump supporters from Orange County” who are “devoted to defeating progressive ideas by indoctrinating young conservatives and infiltrating what they considered to be liberal institutions.” If true, this is another example of the hypocrisy of conservatives these days.

Conservatives themselves claim with alarming frequency that liberals are somehow “indoctrinating” or “brainwashing” people (if you want examples, leave a comment–I don’t want to unnecessarily drive traffic to people promoting falsehoods). The argument is illogical, however.

The conventional concept of brainwashing requires that someone is led by the intentional actions of others to believe something they would not have and could not have believed if left to their own thought processes. If a journalistic organization publishes verifiable fact, without attempting to manipulate its audience, and someone reads it and draws a conclusion, I can’t see how that, in any way, is brainwashing. (Note that conservative “news” manipulates its audience intentionally every day by distorting the facts and not questioning unsupported claims.)

Conservatives give lip service to individual liberty. However, conservatives are all too eager to oppose that exercise of personal liberty when individuals make up their own minds about their own lives and the lives of those around them in a way that does not conform to an established conservative point of view.

Conservatism, almost be definition, is threatened by new ideas and the reconsideration of how we as a society view the world. It is thus not in favor of personal liberty at all, but rather the adherence to a strict set of codes of (mostly old fashioned) behavior. If a news outlet such as LAWeekly questions those conservative “values,” it is seen as a threat to the conservative ideal.

A threat that, unfortunately, is sometimes targeted for elimination. So who is the larger threat?

Maybe this is an isolated incident and perhaps I’m over-generalizing (overreacting?). And maybe the ideal of having news that’s free of bias is a pipe dream. But the possibility that reasonable people cannot agree on some basic structures of society, such that we now have flavored news that meets our preferred tastes, is frightening.

“Participatory democracy depends on a broadly shared view of reality, and therefore on trusted institutions of journalism and mass media.” – Kevin Platt, University of Pennsylvania

Music of Hope and Change

In the summer of 1988 I went to see Steve Winwood in concert, and his opening act was Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, they were a South African group formed during the final years of apartheid, but their music seems as relevant today as ever.

I don’t remember much about their performance other than liking what I heard and saw. Years later, I picked up a CD of their greatest hits and each time I listen to it, I find more to like.

Their sound is fairly typical of African rock and roll of the era, with the distinctive guitar tone, steady drum rhythms, and chanting vocals. For comparison, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has a similar feel.

Here’s the thing: Clegg was a white South African and say what you will about the “white savior” problem in the arts, but his work shows a profound sensitivity to the issues of apartheid. In the songs that I know, the band sings of a pan-African unity, the heartbreaks of racial injustice, and the resiliency of the African people.

One song in particular jumped out at me as I listened to my CD last week. “Asimbonanga” is a slower tempo song with a lot of Zulu lyrics. But it becomes clear upon repeated listening that they’re singing about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robbin Island, and also about the many South Africans who suffered and died from the systemic racism in that country. At the end of the song, Clegg recites a few names–Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. He is “saying their names,” reminding us that these were people who dedicated their lives, literally, to ending systemic racial oppression. “Asimbonanga” translates as “we have not seen him.”

Johnny Clegg may not have understood apartheid in the same way a black South African would, but he nonetheless risked a lot. According to Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds….”

My ticket to see Nelson Mandela, June 30, 1990.

Under the system, it was illegal for blacks and whites to mingle, and the band risked attracting the attention of law enforcement every time they performed in South Africa. Despite the risk, the band was undeterred in its goals. The band was advocating radical change.

Two years after I saw Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made a triumphant tour of America, and my mother, my girlfriend (now wife), and I went to see Mandela live at a large rally in Oakland, California. Even considering the depth of my own white privilege, I understood that the decades of hard work by artists, journalists, and ordinary people had at last yielded results.

I can only hope for the same here in America.

Gen X Has a New Hero

A few years ago, I wrote about how people from Generation X*–my generation–are essentially nonexistent in the public sphere. With few exceptions, we are almost invisible.

I used the example of Reid Hoffman, billionaire founder of LinkedIn, as an example that proves the point. Without Hoffman, who I went to summer camp with, there is nobody of my generation who has “made it.”

I now want to amend that statement and add to my list Eric Garcetti, the Gen X mayor of Los Angeles.

Garcetti began serving as mayor of L.A. around the time I wrote my post on Hoffman, and has shown in the past seven years to be very capable of being in charge of a large and diverse city.

Los Angeles currently has about 4 million people and serves as the keystone to a metropolitan region of about 19 million people. It is often said that the region has more Koreans than anywhere outside of Seoul, the most Mexicans outside of Mexico City, the most Iranians outside of Tehran. The economy of the Los Angeles region is larger than the economies of several nations, including Argentina, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden.

I think that whatever Garcetti is doing, he’s doing it right. Like any large city, L.A. has its problems, including crime and homelessness. But no one person can solve all of a city’s, state’s, or country’s social problems, despite what some people want to believe. That takes everyone working together.

However, an effective leader provides the vision and the glue to keep a large and diverse city, state, or nation on track. Garcetti is clearly doing this, and I’m impressed.

*NOTE: I am using the Pew Research Center’s definition of Gen X, being people born 1965 to 1980.

Change Comes from Within

A few years ago, a documentary aired on TV called 1968: The Year That Changed America. It was about how the events, politics, and social movements of 1968, in the words of the producers, “forever changed the modern American landscape.”

Except that, it now would seem that nothing ever really changed at all. America may no longer be legally segregated, but we are as much divided along racial, ethnic, and religious lines as we ever were. The federal government is in chaos and unable to effectively address the real needs of the American people. People are protesting in the streets nationwide. We have a president who is egotistical, unqualified, and more interested in scoring political points than actually governing the country. We have a media industry that is both part of the solution and contributing to the problem. We have an economy that works well for a few people and excludes many. We have people self-destructing through excessive drug use. We have a Congress that appears to be unable to do anything meaningful.

It would appear that we as a country have learned nothing, and it makes me wonder how that happened. It is as if we collectively have an underdeveloped ability to learn, to regulate our own behavior, and to make changes for the better. Perhaps we suffer from multiple personality disorder, that there isn’t just one America but many, many different ones.

Or perhaps we are in recovery from trauma, that the events of 1968 didn’t set us on the road to improvement but rather created the dividing line between before and after. Most people who suffer a traumatic event view it as a pivotal point in their lives, that they are not the same person after that they were before.

Maybe America continues to struggle with coming to terms with this new sense of self, and we’re not there yet. But are we trying? Sometimes I wonder. Many are, but are there enough of us to create true change? Is change gonna come? Or will we just anesthetize ourselves and turn a blind eye to the real work that needs doing.

I would like to think we have it in us to do the work. When we’re at our best, we do. But, as with anything, we have to want to change. And it is our loss of we don’t.

What is new about American police brutality towards black people? Why did it take the death of George Floyd for the people of Bristol to recognize that they had a monument to a slave owner in their city’s midst? The real question is not what should people do but will people go back to sleep or not? Will we have learned? – Dr. Gabor Mate

 

A genuine change must first come from within the individual, only then can he or she attempt to make a significant contribution to humanity. – Dalai Lama

 

Three Awards

The corporation I work for has three awards to recognize employees’ accomplishments, none of which I qualify for.

One is for journalists, and I am not a journalist. One is for people who work on specific products that we offer, and I work on none of those products. And one is for managers, and I am not a manager.

Which leaves me in the pool of employees who essentially work unrecognized, day after day, year after year. This would include people such as accountants, help desk representatives, or the people who make sure the toilets still flush.

However, there is one award we all qualify for: the “service award.” This is the “award” people get for sticking with the company for 10 years or more. It basically recognizes people for being unambitious and unable to be employed anywhere else. It rewards people for not being creative enough, or providing enough value, to be noticed. It rewards people for blind loyalty and doing the minimum required to not get fired.

The situation does not inspire me to achieve much. I was laid off once from this company and I fully expect that it could happen again.  I know I’m expendable. This makes the “service award” less impressive than the others. (Full disclosure: even people who’ve won the above mentioned awards have been laid off.)

Which means that all the corporate-speak about teamwork, collaboration, and excellence ring hollow. If employees truly mattered, there would be more ways to recognize, more value placed on everyone’s work product (and not just the work product of the few). There would be a CEO who actually spoke to employees, not at them (we used to have one; he’s dead now).

Corporations are different than they used to be, and I don’t think it can be entirely blamed on the economy. My father ran a commercial operation for over 20 years in San Francisco and he knew the name of every one of his employees. This could still be done today if the CEO wanted it to, instead of wanting more salary and to please the shareholders. Or to achieve greatness. In other words, corporations are the people who compose them, more so than their stock ticker or SEC filing. It would be nice if they behaved that way.