Local is the Aleph
CHICAGO, IL -- I’m sure we didn’t appear to be a
bunch of mystics
sitting around a conference room table for two days, seeking
spiritual solutions to journalism's deep problems.
But we had our spiritual moments during those days. Oh, we
Twelve journalists from Midwest newspapers, sponsored by
the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, gathered recently
to brainstorm how journalism can tell
the great global stories of our day – global warming, terrorism, outsourcing,
the Internet, immigration, the global economy, AIDs, etc. – without losing
readers in a haze of jargon, pessimism, and abstraction.
Readers say the media is failing in
this great task – that they feel
uninformed, bombarded with infotainment, vulnerable. How can journalism do
better? Many of us at the meeting had experience with the challenge and offered
Raman Narayanan, the international
editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution,
described how four years ago he started a weekly newspaper
section called Atlanta and the World.
The section covers the world by reporting
international connections – how catfish farmers in Georgia compete with
those in Vietnam; how Muslims in Atlanta travel to Mecca as easily as traveling
to a nearby state; or how the low price of T-shirts at a local Wal-Mart is
connected to the high price of gasoline at a local pump.
his newspaper keeps readers informed about how Brazil turns
ethanol for car fuel. It’s important information for Missourians because
ethanol can also be made from corn, the state’s biggest agricultural
how she looks for similarities in the ordinary lives of Chinese
in stories ranging from city hall and crime pieces to a recent
account of how her conservative Chinese father (who still
a political activist when a real estate developer tried to
his home. Sound American?
the mystical has become in our day. Faced with magnetic resonance
(which illuminate the minutest chambers of the human heart),
telescope (which reveals clusters of galaxies at the remotest
universe), not to mention transportation vehicles that deliver
from their homes to the moon and to Mecca, we humans incredibly
have you invented for me lately?”
stories at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Didi Tang’s stories at the
Springfield News-Leader. As you do, adjust your perspective slightly and notice
that each one of these journalists has revealed a slice of the wider world
by looking closely at their local communities. Their own local communities
are their telescopes, their microscopes, their MRIs, their diving bells, Mars
rovers, and crystal balls.
details of the inner and outer universe by closely observing
slums and writing poems about chimney sweeps, a fly on his window sill, and
clods and pebbles on the street. If William Blake was alive today he would
be making ecstatic poems and engravings based on the works of Narayanan, Poor,
America’s 19th century mystic, replied to anyone
who asked why he didn’t leave the village of Concord to explore the wider
world: “I have traveled much in Concord.”
Blake’s spirit, and in Thoreau’s.
people asked ‘Is it too provincial to look at the whole world through
Atlanta?’ And I said, ‘In today’s interconnected and interdependent
world, the word ‘provincial’ takes on a whole new meaning.’”
in journalistic language the mystical insight of ancient
“Within this fathom-long body is the world, the origin of the world, and
the cessation of the world,” the Buddha said. Thich Nhat Hanh, the contemporary
Vietnamese Buddhist monk, expounds on that insight by looking deeply into a single
sheet of paper.
“You may see clearly there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper,” he
says. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain. Without rain, the trees
cannot grow. And without trees, we cannot make paper. If the cloud is not here,
the sheet of paper cannot be here either.
“We can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult
to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, it is part of our perception.
Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here
in this sheet of paper. We cannot point out one thing that is not here – time,
space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud,
the river, the heat. Everything coexists with this sheet of paper.”
looks at his sheet of paper. They don’t merely look at, they look into
their communities. By a subtle shift in perspective they see the web of global
interconnections that lies an inch below the visible.
stories is to utter a heresy.
haven’t noticed that even science discarded
old notions about objectivity decades ago. The physicist Werner Heisenberg
discovered in 1927 that the act of observing a physical phenomenon inevitably
changes that phenomenon. If that discovery doesn’t apply to journalism
in the age of “CNN diplomacy” and government by press conference
and photo op, what does?
effects – a jiggle on one side
produces an exactly equal and simultaneous counter-jiggle on the other.
from Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Mumbai and Vladivostok.
seconds before the universe was born that same entire universe
into an insanely hot sphere smaller than a ball bearing.
It’s a scientific fact. We journalists
in Chicago were simply trying to keep up with the poets, physicists, and ecologists
who told the interconnection story long ago.
of journalists start reporting the interconnection story, journalism's
credibility will dramatically expand. Because once
journalists embrace an inclusive social vision, journalism has rediscovered
its democratic soul, and for once the stories that need to be told --
not only for powerful interests and elites but for all humanity -- will
naturally start to be told.
called “The Aleph,” about
an iridescent ball of light the size of a marble in a neighbor’s basement, “the
only place on earth where all places are – seen from every angle, each
standing clear, without any confusion or blending.” In one of the most
gorgeous passages in literature, Borges describes looking into the Aleph and
seeing (among other things), “bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes
of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains
of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I will never forget; I saw her tangled
hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; … I saw the circulation
of my own blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death;
I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth
and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth …”
metaphor – our madeleine.
the souls of our communities
We can’t see the entire globe all at once. It’s too big for one
eyeball and one mind, and humans aren’t built to see in this way.
But we don’t need to see the entire world all at once because we can
see it by looking closely into the place where we live – our friends,
neighbors, lakes and rivers, our catfish, corn, and pieces of paper. It’s
all right here. All the big stories encircling the globe are playing out in
perfectly human scale all around us, all the time. We can see it. All we need
to do is to look with the right perspective, the right eyes.
angle – seeing
the whole world
-- still might be a hard sell in our newsrooms.
might’ve taken strength from the Indian saint, Kabir, one of the greatest
all-is-one visionaries in history, who wrote:
Hindu says Ram is the beloved,
The Turk says Rahim.
Then they kill each
No one knows the
Whatever I say, nobody
It’s too simple.”
@ 2006 The McGill Report