Sunday, April 23, 2017

Into "The No Spin Zone" No More: Whatever Happened to the News?


Spin (noun/verb) 1. A description or the act of describing negative events in an overly favorable way; as in advertising copy or political hyperbole, especially when intentionally misleading.           --Onlineslangdictionary.com

The No Spin Zone.

That was the catch phrase for the number 1 rated show in cable news, year after year, with an average of 2.8 millions viewers per night in 2016. A corporate cash cow too: in its twenty one year run on the Fox News Network, this program generated upwards of $1 billion in profits for 21st Century Fox. It was the crown jewel in a media empire and TV network that revolutionized how Americans get their news.

And now it is gone, over, finis. Pull the plug. Roll the final credits. Write one last check for $25 million to the host, as he exits, stage right.

Until “The O’Reilly Factor” was abruptly cancelled last week, I’d never watched it and not because of some ideological bias. I’ve also never watched O’Reilly’s media twin, the super liberal Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Nor do I watch CNN or NewsMax or “The Daily Show” or most any other network or local “news” show anymore. I’d much rather read news online or in print, where I can quickly turn the page. Or listen to the news and switch to music if necessary. Anything but watch the news.  For TV “news” is now a misnomer.  “News” is instead the interpretation of facts; is spin, is analysis, not straight up reporting. “News” is entertainment delivered through an ideological filter.  Fox to the right. CNN to the left.  And so on….      

I still recall the evening thirty six years ago that Walter Cronkite signed off of the CBS Evening News, as 25 million folks watched, and he said one last time, “And that’s the way it is.” Maybe that was the moment the news died, news in a traditional sense. As in dog bites man and then reporter reports: “Dog bites man.”  When Cronkite told us “And that’s the way it is” most Americans actually believed him. The news he reported as “the most trusted man in America” wasn’t flashy or packaged or slanted left or right.  Wasn’t repackaged as comedy or satire. Wasn’t fawningly self referential. 

The news was…the news.   

You read it or watched it and then as an informed citizen, you actually were expected to then draw your own conclusions. Certainly didn’t need an overpaid talking head or self important anchor or well coiffed “expert” (likely a political lobbyist or pseudo academic or recently defeated office holder) telling you what to think.   

So I won’t miss “The Factor” nor the star who hosted it. 

Not just because his firing was the result of five women accusing him of sexual harassment, charges he denies.  Not just because $13 million in settlements were distributed to keep things secret and behind closed doors.  Not just because his former boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, was also let go for sexual harassment accusations and given a $65 million golden parachute.

Call me a cranky old school journalist but if I had the chance, I’d cancel every single slickly packaged cult of personality “news” shows.  If the host imagines themselves more important than the actual news he or she reports, get rid of them. If the anchor regularly appears at glittering red carpet events, makes millions of dollars while acting as if they are on the side of “the little guy”, or kisses up to the powerful, unmask that hypocrisy. Name it for what it is.  If a news network is more concerned about profits than a workplace atmosphere where female employees are subject to cave man behavior, change the channel. Better yet, just turn it off.

Let the news be the news.  I don’t want or need anyone’s help in figuring out what to believe or what opinion I’m supposed to adopt.  That’s my job alone, as a citizen and a thinking human being. Just give me the news, okay? Please. 

Where have you gone, Walter?  I for one really miss you. I miss the news too. And that’s the way it is. No spin.



                  

  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Righteousness Sure Feels Good. But Is It Always Right?



Righteous (adjective) 1. free from guilt or sin 2.arising from an outraged sense of justice 
or morality                       
--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

BOYCOTT UNITED AIRLINES!  MAKE THE PRESIDENT RELEASE HIS TAX RETURNS! BOMB SYRIA! DON’T BOMB SYRIA!

We are living in a golden age of righteousness.  Righteousness: the conviction of moral superiority human beings sometimes feel and express, when we see what a person or entity does (or does not do) and so we judge them. Weigh in with an opinion. Even label the perpetrator as guilty, a sinner, a wrongdoer, just out of line.

It’s now the norm for social media and the press and politicians to be filled to overflowing with moral outrage and red hot righteous anger. Like about the recent treatment by United Airlines of a passenger who was violently removed from a flight. Or about a President who stubbornly refuses to release his tax returns. Or our nation’s decision to attack an air force base, after Syria used poison gas against its own citizens.

Google “United Airlines” and “doctor” and you get 37,400,000 results! Angry Twitter feeds and flaming Facebook news and skewering opinion pieces and wicked comedic satire.  The controversy about the President’s tax returns exploded in protests on tax day, April 15th, as hundreds of folks in U.S. cities took to the streets. And less than 24 hours after American bombs rained down on Syria, sides were sharply drawn in the debate about the rightness of the U.S. intervening in a civil war.

It’s a very human response to feel righteous: to get riled up in the face of injustice or cruelty or stupidity or stubbornness.  Heck I’m in the righteousness business, as a preacher and an opinion columnist.  If I had no strong idea or ideals one way or another, I’d be out of a job!  If we as citizens were just “Meh” when it comes to the most important issues and events of the day, we’d be guilty of civic apathy.

It is a shock to watch the video of that poor doctor from Chicago being dragged out of a plane. It is awful to see images of innocent civilians being attacked. It is frustrating that our Commander in Chief is unwilling to do what all other Presidents have done in the modern era.

Yet still there is also something about the tone, the swiftness of judgment and the lack of nuance or thoughtfulness, which so often marks our collective righteousness. Part of it comes from how we now witness and express outrage: instantly, live, as it happens; raw and unfiltered. Often with no context, nothing about “before” or “after”.

United should absolutely pay the price for its ineptitude. But there was something troubling, weird, kind of creepy, that so many passengers on the plane just whipped out their phones and filmed the event and then shared it instantaneously with the world. Am I in the minority in being bothered by this?  In the seeming passivity of the witnesses? In the fact we got to see it right away but…is this really always good?  Or right?  Do we absolutely have all the facts, every last one, to make informed, thoughtful judgments? 

I’m not so sure.

Or the bombing in Syria and our quick response as a nation. “Yea!” for quickly striking back, right? They deserved it! And yet: does this mean we will now become a part of the conflict in Syria, another complicated and convoluted war thousands of miles away?  Do we send in planes next? How about ground troops? Is this a “just war” that cries out for a righteous response?  The strike back was instant and bold, but the choice to go to war is morally complicated, difficult to parse, fraught with so many possibilities.  Would we be so righteous if our son or daughter was in the military? 

I’m not so sure.

Even the whole tax release issue is interesting to consider.  Protestors: did you all pay your fair share of taxes, every last dime? Are we taxpayers without “sin” when it comes to all of our deductions and income reported and charitable contributions?  Would we be willing to share that information with our neighbors? I do think we should see the President’s returns. It’s only fair and right. But I always look with a somewhat jaded view when fingers point towards the other and not towards one’s self as well. 

To be so darn righteous when it comes to the actions of others.  It feels good.  Sounds good.  Seems good and yet…is righteousness always the best response, the right response, the thoughtful response?

I’m not so sure.   




    

  


Monday, April 10, 2017

When Religious Intolerance Strikes, God Help Us All


“I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.”     --Thomas Jefferson

So…a Jew, a Catholic and a Muslim all walk into a church together and then….

Sorry. No punch line here because, well: it’s no joke. Not at all. Actually it was pretty darn serious, even holy, a sacred meeting held on a recent Sunday evening before a group of nine restless eighth grade boys and girls, youth who attend class at the church I serve in suburban Boston. Most weeks we learn about our own unique God story, as these young adults prepare to become members of our faith community.

But this class was very, very different. Other people of faith would teach us about their unique God story. And so a soft spoken white haired Roman Catholic woman fingered her string of well worn black rosary beads, talked about her visits to patients in a nursing home every week. A middle aged conservative Jewish man carefully draped a blue and white prayer shawl over his shoulders, prayed for us in the language of his faith: Hebrew. A quiet and humble Muslim man gently unrolled a multi-colored hand woven prayer rug, taught the kids about his practice of praying five times daily.

And these days? Well, such a peaceful meeting is kind of a miracle. 

Because a week, even a day, cannot pass by without some story showing up in the news about one religious group targeting another religious group, and the reasons are always the same. Religious ignorance. Religious arrogance. Religious chauvinism.  Religious intolerance.

My “God” right. Your “God” wrong.

And so bombs planted by religious fanatics go off in churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday. Forty-four worshippers die; 100 are injured. And so last January a Massachusetts man physically attacks a Muslim employee of Delta Airline in London, kicks and grabs at her, shouts: “Trump is here now. He will get rid of all of you.” And so at Jewish cemeteries across the United States and right here in Massachusetts, the past months have seen hundreds of toppled gravestones and scrawled messages. “Kill Jews” declared one threat, spray painted on a headstone in Barnstable.

I claim no moral high ground for my faith tradition.  We of the Puritan stripe have a checkered history when it comes to religious tolerance. One of the first things the Puritans did after arriving in Plymouth, in search of religious freedom, was, ironically, to make sure theirs’ would be the only religion tolerated. And so it goes….

As a person of faith it angers and embarrasses me to witness other folks of faith who use their belief in God like a bludgeon: to judge, to separate, to hate, even to hurt. It doesn’t have to be so. Those who employ God and religious faith as a weapon against other people of faith, or no faith: they are an increasing minority in this world. Most of the millions of Christians who will celebrate Holy Week this week; the millions of Jews who will mark Passover that begins this week; the millions of faithful Muslims who gather in mosques across the globe: they practice a faith of inward piety, not outward hatred.  They use faith as a way to make their own lives better and the lives of their neighbors better too.  It’s important to remember this reality.

At its best this is what religion does: it gives meaning and purpose to the human condition.  It offers mercy and love to self and others. It gives a Divine framework and story within which to understand this life and to find our place in the universe.  Everything else: the politics, the self-righteousness, the intolerance and yes, the hatred: at least to this person of faith, that’s no faith at all.     

So…a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim walk into this life as neighbors, and then, they all get along.

That’s no joke.




 

                

Monday, April 3, 2017

America's Field of Dreams: Idealism Still Matters


“The one constant through all the years…has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game…. reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”           --from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams”

Hard to believe but yes, I do still believe. In baseball.  In America too.

As I write this it is Opening Day 2017 for the Major League baseball season, my fiftieth as a fan. I first fell in love with the Boston Red Sox as a boy growing up just south of Boston.  Came to my fandom the year of “The Impossible Dream”, 1967, when a rookie named Yaz rescued the BoSox from decades of futility, brought them just one inning away from a world championship. They lost that game but won back the hearts of millions of fans.

And America? I first fell in love with the United States because of a name, my name, “John F.” as in “John Fitzgerald” as in Kennedy. I entered the world on Election Day 1960, so my folks, as proud Americans, gave me that moniker in part as a mark of their love for this nation. I idolized JFK growing up, especially his idealism: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” 

Remember such idealism?  It’s a certain way of looking at life and living life: to believe in and cherish and try to live out noble principles, purposes, values, and ideals.

In a sport like baseball, idealism blossoms when fans trust that the game is played fair and square, and always by the rules.  That the players give their best efforts, run out every hit, stretch to catch every hit ball, and then, when the competition is over, extend a hand of peace to the opponent. “Good game.”  Played well, such a game embodies so much that is good in our human experience: courage and sacrifice, grit and joy. 

Not so different from the idealism we hope for as citizens. In a country idealism blossoms when the citizenry trusts that institutions of government are created and exist by and for all the people. That when citizens are given the privilege of election by their neighbors to higher office, these leaders promise to serve with humility; fidelity to the rule of law; and commitment to defend the rights of every last person who claims America as home. Our shared rule book is the Constitution and the poetry of such idealism is found in the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

Remember such idealism? 

It existed and thrived before and I actually trust and deeply believe that it will and must exist and thrive again. How about you dear citizen and fan? Are you still idealistic? As a fan of the game, as an American?  Do you still believe?

I hope so. 

We live in strange, unprecedented, and very, very unsettled times, when idealism is regularly mocked and made fun of or just rejected as old school, old fashioned, all washed up, a quaint relic of the past.  Times when patriotism is hijacked by self serving politicians who cowardly hide behind American flag lapel pins, having convinced themselves that they alone can make America good again.  When the media, like a voracious monster, feeds the public raw fear and cynicism, 24/7.  And yes when sports have become such big business that many of us fans have forgotten that finally, it is only a game, after all. A game. Played by overgrown children with bats and balls and leather gloves on a field of dreams. 

So this year on Opening Day, I really need Opening Day, perhaps now more than ever before.  I need to believe in the goodness of our national pastime and in the goodness of our nation. I need a good game of catch in the backyard on a warm summer night again and to listen to the Sox on the radio.  I need to believe in America, that in spite of all our flaws, we still aspire to embody the best in humanity. Decency. Justice. Mercy. Service. Sacrifice.  Freedom.

So go ahead: call me idealistic. I’m guilty as charged.  I still believe.  Do you?

Now let’s play ball!




Monday, March 27, 2017

The Cure for America's Eeyore Complex? Lighten Up a Little!


"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is." [said Christopher Robin]
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."      --The House at Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne

Is being grim now the new norm?

Grim: as in hard and gritty, scary and threatening, despairing and downhearted. Grim: defined as “forbidding and uninviting, lacking humor, and depressing”. It is a mighty, mighty grim world these days.  Right?  At least that’s what I’m being told. Being sold on too.

How about you? Feeling grim lately?

I mean aren’t we supposed to feel thus? Did you hear about the latest terrible development? Or about our perpetually gridlocked government? Have you seen the scowling countenance of our grim reaper in chief, forever staring back at us, like some ominous day-glow orange visage of doom? I have to ask. Does that guy ever smile? When he is golfing? Maybe he’s just eating too much roughage. (That’s a corny joke—don’t be so grim!)

Wow. Things must be very, very bad. Badder. Baddest.

The proof? Well I did see all this bad stuff on Fox News and MSNBC. I scrolled through my Facebook feed and fed on so much fear. I traveled through Twitter and tripped over terror galore.  If the state of our world as portrayed by the media were a weather pattern, it would be cold, rainy and cloudy, 24/7.  (OK: that’s just the month of March in New England.)  If the state of our nation were as bad as the dour and defeated Democrats would have us believe, as the righteous and rabid Republicans repeat ad nauseum, why even get out of bed? And if you do arise, you’ll either be overrun by illegal immigrants spilling over the border en masse or locked up by a new Supreme Court Justice who makes Snidely Whiplash look like Oprah.

When did America and Americans become so darn grim?  Humorless? Puritan?

No, I’m not denying that we have some major challenges facing us at home and abroad, in the neighborhood and the nation. Climate change.  Health care.  The Wall.  Big, big stuff. But when haven’t we faced difficulties? Does anyone else remember World War I, World War II, the Depression, the 1960’s, the slowdown seventies, the gas crisis, disco and bell bottom jeans? We’ve been through and weathered grim and hard times before and our parents and grandparents survived. I’m still standing.  You too.

But still, to be grim is so red hot right now: the more dour your outlook, the more popular you become. I’m trying to figure just what’s led to this outbreak of angst, this flood of phobia, this culture of perpetual lamentation.  I suppose if one is always grim, you imagine people take you much, much more seriously. LOOK AT ME.  I’M FROWNING NOW AND THAT MEANS I AM NOT JOKING. Is this the super secret strategy of the sad sack politicians whom we actually voted into office? Have you read any of the apocalyptic press releases from the Massachusetts Congressional delegation lately?    

I get the grimness of the reported news. Good news does not sell papers or drive internet surfers to visit your website. Never has, never will. It’s no wonder so many folks turn to the obituaries when they first open up the newspaper. (Better him than me!) I also suspect that one simple way of having power over people is to just regularly scare the bejesus out of folks. First: paint everything as absolutely grim and hopeless. Then remind the cowering masses: “They are all bad. But we are all good.  You need us to protect you from them.”   

How many Americans does it take to screw in a light bulb? Hey! THAT’S NOT FUNNY!

So America. Here’s my hope for us in these oh so grim times of 2017.  Can we lighten up just a little bit, pull back from our grim precipice. Please? No matter what the news is today, we can still bring more light into the world.  Smile. Tell a harmless joke. Do something kind for someone else without being asked. Have a civil conversation with a person you disagree with. Say your prayers.  Give thanks. Be a decent human being.  Laugh at yourself when you get all self-important. Turn off the computer and phone and TV and enjoy the spring, which is really here, in spite of all the grim evidence to the contrary.

I’m done with grimness.  And that’s no joke.








   
  

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Plea for More Civility and Less Rudeness. Please?


Rude (adjective) 1. offensively impolite or ill-mannered; discourteous --Dictionary.com

When the first American President George Washington was a boy of 12, he wrote out in longhand a list of 110 rules about how he hoped to act in his life, especially in public.  Washington titled it “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation”, and he carried a copy of it with him throughout his life. Though he likely copied most of those rules from other sources of his day, I’m still struck by how earnest this future commander in chief was, from a very early age; how careful he sought to be in all his relationships with others; and how he sought to carry himself in public.

Rule#1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those 
that are Present.

Rule#22: Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

Rule#40: Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment 
to others with Modesty.

Rule#58: Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy

Rule#79: Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.

It’s a fascinating list to review (I encourage you to Google it), for what’s most striking is how true its wisdom holds for today, 273 years later.  The basic ideals about how we human beings relate to one another in daily life and carry ourselves in community: these don’t change or go out of fashion. 

Respect others, especially those with whom we disagree and those who hold different ideas than us.  Don’t revel in the pain or defeat of anyone, friend or foe. Argue well but do so with humility. When you speak, be very careful about what you say and always avoid jealousy or put downs.  Don’t share news that you know to be untrue or are unsure as to its truthfulness.   

Shorthand for all these rules: don’t be rude.  Or a positive admonition: be kind.

But what happens when the culture throws out all the rules?  When a basic communal understanding of what it means to be civil with each other, especially in public, gets tossed out?  When rudeness becomes normalized?

In Presidential tweets that regularly bully and beat up and taunt anyone who gets in the way.  In governmental circles where meetings between opponents now inevitably devolve into frat house food fights. In the Dunkin Donuts line where folks are in such a hurry that “please” and “thank you” and “no, after you!” seems as rare as a low calorie donut.  In technology that brings us closer together but is so often lacking a face to face connection that demands basic civility.  Couples can now break up by text!

It’s tempting to dismiss this hope for basic politeness as mere social window dressing. All this etiquette stuff is superfluous, nice for a formal dinner, but not really needed for real life.  It’s now become the norm to even laud someone who is publicly rude: “I love her because she just speaks her mind. How refreshing!” I’m not sure if we are now ruder in 2017 than in times past, but we’ve absolutely become much more public about it and we are paying a price for this, a huge social price. 

Civility is the glue which holds a society together.  A neighborhood.  A faith community.  A nation.  Town meeting. A family.  Civility is the sum of the unspoken and spoken rules of behavior, how we get along with one another, especially in public, especially with those we view as a stranger or an opponent, different. When civility is present, it’s like a cold drink of water on a hot summer day, so refreshing, so good.  A door opened for one in need.  Respectful attention paid when in the company of another.  Graciously welcoming a stranger or guest to the table. Civility creates an atmosphere for negotiation and compromise. The one across the table is not the enemy, but the loyal opposition.  Civility at its most basic recognizes the humanity of the other person, treats that “other” as we want to be treated. 

Civility matters in all times. So here’s a bit of civil advice for all of us as we seek to be together, in public, in life, in these intense days.

Don’t be rude. Be kind. 



 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Health Care For All: It's Not About the Money. It's About Mercy.


“There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering. There is no mercy in a cold shoulder to the mentally ill….” --Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III

I’m sick of being sick.

Not to get too personal, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last eight months, working with my doctors, to get well. You see, I’ve got a real pain in my neck—literally. Is it a pinched nerve? Arthritis? Lyme disease? Poor posture? Plain old aging? Take your pick. Finally, after so many tests and scans and x-rays and physical therapy and appointments, I think I’m on the road to recovery. I pray I will be back on my bicycle come spring, pain free, ready to ride.

Because being sick really stinks. 

No other way to name it. Illness deflates the spirit. Upsets the regular routines of life. Distracts the one who is ill, makes it hard to fully concentrate on other things. I’m not complaining. Through this journey I’ve been supported by caring family and friends, skilled healers, and one reassuring medicine that is perhaps more important to my peace of mind, than any other. It’s kind of a miracle cure actually, especially these days.

It’s my health insurance card. 

The 3 ¼ by 2 ¼ inch plastic rectangle I keep in my billfold. So powerful a drug for such a diminutive document, for when you possess this card, doors open, doctors respond, hospitals treat, practitioners practice, prescriptions are filled and most important, an insurance company (and sometimes the government too) helps pay for the cost of treatment. Treatment that almost always is very, very expensive.

You realize how central this card is to health the first time you walk into a doctor’s office or treatment facility for a visit. Often the initial question is not: “How are you feeling?” but, “Do you have insurance?” In 2017, for millions of Americans, the answer to this question may be about to take a turn for the worse, much worse, if some in power succeed and “reform” the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 

The ACA is a 2010 law that has provided health insurance for upwards of 20 million Americans who previously lacked coverage, didn’t have that magic card in their wallets.  And yes, I do agree with the critics who note that the ACA is far from perfect. It is a work in progress. Yet the numbers don’t lie. Millions of our neighbors and the vulnerable and the invisible and the powerless and those living on the edge economically: they now have health care. The ACA has lowered the number of uninsured folks in the United States to less than ten percent of the population, the smallest figure ever.

So, yes, please, fix the ACA. Carefully. Thoughtfully. But don’t change it wholesale. Don’t gut it. Don’t make insurance more expensive for the financially struggling.  And please don’t, DON’T repeal it.

I’m not alone in being sick over the possibility of losing the ACA. Groups like the American Medical Association, the Catholic Health Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the American Hospital Association are all against the proposed bill. There’s basic economics at work too. We pay for the uninsured with or without the ACA. When folks who can’t afford health care, seek care, the cost of that care is added into the system’s bottom line. We have and will always pay for health care for the sick, one way or another. The United States is alone among almost all western developed nations, in not guaranteeing decent health care for all. America first? America dead last.  That is unless you have first class health insurance, like the President and the Congress do.  Any one else bothered by this whiff of hypocrisy? 

But as a person of faith, my argument lines up with Congressman Kennedy’s.  Providing affordable, decent health care for every last American citizen is the merciful and the right thing to do.  Period.  This is not an argument about money. This debate must be understood in moral terms.  When will we as a nation finally declare that it is our responsibility, together, to help the sick? To heal the wounded.  To reassure and comfort the poor and the powerless.  To see that anyone who ever gets sick (and that’s every one): they should have that miraculous health insurance card in their pockets too. Not just the “lucky” ones like me.

I’m still sick of being sick. But I’m really, really sick of having this debate about health insurance and health care, again and again and again and again.  Health care for all is finally about simple, decent, human mercy.  Not politics. Not partisanship.  Not posturing.  The real cure for what ails us our healthcare system?

Mercy.