Not listening

Let's hope I am among the last to comment on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, because honestly, it's getting tiresome. But I have to ask: Is anybody listening to anybody else? And is the press working toward understanding, or just redistributing noise?

I spent some time tonight actually listening to the YouTube snippets of Rev. Wright's intemperate ranting, which is being spun as "racist" and "hate speech" by many of the jabbering television commentators who seem to be mostly interested in perpetuating drama and not really interested in the issue of racism in America.

I got to wondering: What's he really saying? If you set aside the shock value of the phrase "God damn America" and the emotional style of the delivery, here's what I extracted:

  1. America is a nation of sinners. The idea that we're all sinners is mainstream Protestant Christian theology, isn't it? Is it hate to enumerate some of those sins?
  2. Our actions have consequences. Saying "America's chickens have come home to roost" to a nation utterly convinced of its own purity and infallibility may be shocking but is it hate?
  3. Hillary Clinton doesn't understand the black experience and Barack does because he's had the experience of being dumped on because of his color. Is that hate? Or is he just not giving Hillary credit for having any empathy because he wants Barack to get the votes?
  4. America created AIDS to kill black people. OK, that one's nutty, but consider the Tuskeegee experiment in which black people were systematically denied proper care and allowed to die and spread disease so the disease could be studied. So is that hate, or just another conspiracy theory fueled by a little bit of fact?

This is what really bothers me about the political conversations we've been seeing for the last decade.

People aren't listening to each other; they're looking for mistakes and ways to grab advantage and accuse the other side of something. That's fine for arguing about football, but this is real.

Here's my position: Jeremiah Wright is an angry old man. There are a lot of angry old men, and it just might be worthwhile to think a little bit about why they're angry.

We'd all better hope that they're angry about the past and wrong about the future.

I grew up with the idea that listening to people who are angry at you can be a growth experience. Earlier this evening a relative forwarded to my wife something my dad had posted on a Chicago Tribune/ discussion:

I was managing editor of a daily newspaper in East St. Louis, IL during the '50s and the racial actions of that period were reflected in the newsroom itself, at one time filled with belligerent protesters. I know well the protests, the white excuses and, yes, the white fears. The perceptions of the blacks and the whites all were/are real, and both are usually wrong. Obama penetrated all those false fears and told the unvarnished truth. I hope that the nation appreciates his calm and comprehensive understanding of racial issues and his basic tactic to effect change: look first for our similarities and our common ground, then deal with the differences. He has my vote.
Rube Yelvington
Louisville, KY

As a teen-ager I saw how my dad, a newspaper editor, functioned as an agent of mediation and conciliation. His approach to journalism was activist by some standards, but it was an activism focused on bringing people to mutual understanding.

Today I see journalism falling into two traps. One is the passive abandonment of responsibility that sometimes comes along with the "objective" mode, and the other is the crass exploitation of divisive opportunities that you see from infotainers like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.

And that brings us back to my point. Is anyone listening? And is the press helping us all listen? Are we working to further understanding?

Or are journalists just parroting words and perpetuating the racial divide that has scarred this country throughout its history?

Update: John Stewart's brilliant-as-usual take, which I found through Jay Rosen:


I think the Wright "controversy" has really exposed the fundamental weaknesses that cable news faces.

First, because of a continuous news cycle the networks constantly need to have material, and so they can never simply put a fire out. They have to cover it to death, and this means a story can't die until it's been replaced by something new. "If it bleeds, it leads" has a corollary: "Don't stop the bleeding, lest our ratings dip." And so they cover the news, then bring on an endless parade of talking heads and campaign surrogates to give two sides to a question (i.e. "Did this put the issue to rest?") in a format that basically equals more talking about it, not less. That is, until a sexier story comes on to replace it.

Because of the above problem, the second weakness is that the media have no incentive to make the call. Bring on the guests to "debate" but don't show the courage of an Edward R. Murrow and make the call when the truth is so obvious - that this speech wasn't about the Wright controversy, it was about why the media can make money off the Wright controversy (i.e. playing to our fears). So instead we bring on the "black guy/girl" and the "white guy/girl" and if they're feeling really frisky the "Hispanic guy/girl" and let them go back and forth.

And the most ridiculous part is that the reporters giving "the latest" on the story about how a prez candidate might secretly be a racist because Wright is his pastor are the people on the campaign trail who follow him everywhere. They, at some point, have to show an ounce of courage and say, "Um, no. If he were a racist, we'd have seen that by now. We know this guy, his views aren't those of his pastor." But, they can't because of that notion of objectivity.

The discussions about "Did this issue to rest?" basically glorifies the news cycle, asking whether Obama's speech affected the cycle rather than taking on the larger discussion of what the speech means about race in America. You want context or an honest round of talk about a difficult subject? Turn into the fake news. They do a much better job.

Web news isn't immune. In the minutes after the speech ended, CNN's headline for it was "Obama: Constitution stained by the sin of slavery" which was a completely skewed take on the speech. It took a half hour to change the headline after myself (and apparently a bunch from over at DailyKos, among others, wrote in to skewer that decision.

I don't know if Obama would be a great president, but I fear the media are slowly crucifying a genuinely good man for the sake of their own ratings. It makes me turn off the TV, and I actually LIKE news!

As you can see, I have NO opinions on this thing whatsoever ...

Now, there's a name I haven't heard in a long, long time .... John, as I recall, you were the first person I ever met who had an Osborne portable computer. Five-inch screen and 80K floppy disks. Takes me back. I'll forward your link to my dad.