Chris wrote another terrific column Saturday, lamenting the corrosive effect of “sensational” reporting – and preaching – on the bonds of community. It’s a gutsy piece of writing.
This part is particularly trenchant:
You cannot turn on the TV or radio without hearing about impending job losses, crime and murder. We are inundated with the idea that someone wants our stuff! Someone is going to take your stuff! You better guard your stuff and yourself! The premise is, arm yourself, hide your money and trust no one!
I find Chris’ equation of the functions of preaching and reporting a valuable insight that I’m not sure had ever occurred to me as clearly as Chris states it. Like all the best insights, it seems obvious to me now.
However, I do think Chris’ piece might have benefitted from a bit more specificity about the reports to which he objects. Standard television news is generally a lost cause. I rarely watch any. And unless there’s a weather emergency, I never watch local news, which seems to exist solely as a way for us to wallow in the criminal sexual deviancy that has existed in every society since cavemen started to form families. But I continue to place some hope in print/online reporting – and even in some of the more serious investigative units of television. That’s where reporting – rather than coverage – still exists. I value rigorous reporting. And much of it focuses on depressing facts and realities, the stuff that we as a people don’t like to acknowledge, much less confront. At its best, great reporting, like great preaching, can force people of good will to confront themselves honestly and to atone. To me, that’s the opposite of defeatism.
For a case in point, consider the revelations of the US torture regime. A number of US military personnel convicted in the torture of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison sit in prison today for applying interrogation techniques that White House lawyers approved and that Dick Cheney continues to insist are legal and moral and, according to much reporting, largely conformed to the orders/guidance of supervisory interrogators.
We, the people of the United States, ordered those soldiers to Iraq. We paid them. We OK’d torture through the legal advice of our national lawyers, who we also paid. And then we sent these men and women to prison when reporting revealed what “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “taking the gloves off” looks like when someone catches it on camera. Is it depressing to still read reporting on US torture, years after Abu Ghraib? Absolutely. But have we, the people, and our higher paid and more powerful representatives and public servants gotten off scot free while a bunch of unsympathetic yokel soldiers pay our price? I think so. And I think it’s a reporter’s obligation to pursue facts that reflect important national and moral truths accurately – even if they are dark. Honesty can lead to atonement.
I wonder what Chris thinks about this. Because ultimately, his column focuses on the abstract concepts of sensationalism and defeatism. In more concrete sense, what does he see as the duty of the reporter and the preacher? When does grim reporting or preaching become indulgent? When is it vital?