I've been pondering what it means to try to bring forth information and encourage debate.
In terms of doing that in our country, it doesn't take long to look around and realize how polarized discussion and debate have become. It gets personal, it gets snarky and it becomes more of a "so top that" situation than how are we working towards solutions. I readily will admit to some of this myself (except the personal which I try to stay away from).
A number of articles have popped up along the way and I see a theme. But first, a story about journalism and truth and shaping a story.
Do you know who Mike Daisey is? He's a performer who does monologues and is most famous for his work, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Part of that show talks about the harsh working conditions in China where most of Apple products are made. Mr. Daisey had gone to China and based this show on that trip. He took part of the show, shortened it and went on the NPR show, This American Life.
Now because Mr. Daisey is a performer, the producers of TAF talked to him about issues of fact and he assured them that he had done all that he says he did in the piece. TAF aired it and found out that Mr. Daisey had been less than truthful. Thus started a debate about what we believe is the "truth."
Scott Rosenberg of the online Grist website wrote what I think is a fairly brilliant assessment of writing a non-fiction story (some might call it "truthiness").
First, let’s dispatch this ridiculous “theater not journalism” argument (which is about as useful a discussion as “is blogging journalism?”). Theater and journalism aren’t separate or opposite endeavors. The New York Times front page is a kind of theater, and plenty of theatrical events are a kind of journalism. Journalism is an activity that theater artists — like filmmakers, authors, business people, anyone — can choose to undertake.
I can agree that newspapers can be about creating an experience or trying to capture interest but I'm not sure I agree that everyone can be a journalist (hence the title "citizen-journalist").
So there’s no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story.
An honest story is one that makes a good-faith effort to be forthright about the circumstances of its own creation.
This sort of honesty isn’t a binary, on-or-off kind of thing. It’s a spectrum. Every story that professes to tell some truth has its own unique point on that spectrum.
That spectrum place is what scares me. Because I'm finding that not only are journalists staking out a side, they are moving further away from the spectrum point in the middle - where you lay out ALL the facts and allow readers to take their own positions - to laying out just some of the facts and shaping the story to one position.
The temptation to round corners, to retouch images, to make a story flow better or a quote read better, faces every creator of nonfiction at every single moment of labor. And we all do it, all the time. We do it by varying degrees.
This is true. The Times, Crosscut, LEV, this blog - we are all trying to get you to pay attention to us. I can say from the viewpoint of writing for a blog especially one with multiple on-going issues and time-sensitive news and updates, that writing quickly can be a problem. (One of my latest problems? Writing Marty "McClaren" rather than McLaren - my apologies to Marty.) The article goes on (bold mine):
Journalism and activism can coexist. Activists tell great stories and journalists are often proud to see their work have an impact on the world. But the moment you decide that “making people care” is more important than telling people the truth, you’re announcing that you’re more of an activist than a journalist. The creators of the Kony 2012 video that went so spectacularly viral, for example, are plainly activists, not journalists.
So what is interesting to me is not that I have become a citizen-journalist but that more of the mainstream media have become activists.
Which leads me to Crosscut's article of yesterday which would seem to be about the superintendent search but dissolved into, well, you read it and tell me what the real point is. (It actually deserves its own thread as there were some troubling things said and there is the continuing saga of President DeBell staking out his claim to saving the Board.)
I spent part of yesterday being happy for living in a beautiful place on a beautiful day. But I also spent part of it puzzling, fuming and ultimately, feeling bad about being called what Jordan Royer termed "a monster."
My fellow Crosscut scribbler Jordan Royer has the best take on the latest wrinkle in the Seattle School Board’s efforts to hire a new superintendent: “It’s like not wanting the babysitter to meet your child ahead of time because the kid’s such a monster.” The “monster” in his analogy is the Seattle public — or rather, the small subset of activists, watchdogs, and gadflies who denounce district policies and persons at board meetings and other public forums, and who laid it on when the last two crops of prospective superintendents came before the public in 2003 and 2007.
It's a little like Christine O'Donnell (remember her? a conservative candidate with no credentials) who famously said, "I am not a witch." Well, I am not a monster and neither is Charlie or any other person who takes the time to educate themselves about Seattle schools and then stands up to ask questions or challenge policy at a Board meeting. That is usually called democracy but in today's new world, you're a monster.
Again, I hear this in the words of Rep. Reuven Carlyle at his own blog. He is trying to make a unifying point about the special session and the war of words. He says:
Anonymous blog post commenters joyously attack the values, integrity and ethics of those in public office—the dreaded ‘politician’—but most citizens hopefully acknowledge on some private level that we are real people living real lives who so appreciate the opportunity to serve our communities
Now, I know he is talking about other blogs but he does bring up a point in our new media world - the ability for anyone and everyone to voice their opinion, reach thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people and do it anonymously. No wonder elected officials feel it from all sides.
But I would at least give credit to those who sign their own names and get up in public and voice their opinion.
But Rep. Carlyle goes on:
To hold a budget vote hostage for a policy bill that otherwise would not have a majority of 147 elected legislators may be standard operating procedure in the world of politics, but such moves ferment cynicism among the people we represent.
He's right. That breeding of cynicism makes their work harder. But people do mirror those they elect and what are our elected officials doing at the Legislature?
So where is the sweet spot? What does good advocacy or activism look like?
Surely it cannot be missed that there are those using power and money to influence the course of public education. It's daunting to consider your own options as one person.
Do you become a member of "Moderate Voice of Parents" which was referred to by some speakers during public testimony a few Board meetings back? (They show no signs of being a real group so I have no idea if they even exist as a group.)
Charlie and I have tried that, years ago. It didn't work. Because real change is about real work and not just talk. It's about recognizing flaws and not looking past them. It's about recognizing bureaucratic culture patterns and not looking past them.
But we live in a city where the powers-that-be-people want to move on and not hold anyone accountable. Seattle Schools has not been well-managed for easily a decade and has made terrible mistakes that NO one in business would put up with in their own company. It is an enduring mystery why so many would ignore or turn away from so many mistakes. But they do and we don't and therein we find a divide about what you can and can't discuss without being marginalized.
I know that rationally if our blog wasn't sparking discussion, no one would be writing about "those bloggers." I know that we are annoying people who want to control the narrative, those who want to be the invisible hand that shapes the district and those who don't like dirty laundry exposed.
That is the beauty of the Internet - it's an open-air market of theatrics and discussion and debate. That there are slings and arrows to be borne, I accept that because backing off and allowing others to control the discussion is not an option anymore.