March 28, 2006

The Local is the Aleph

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

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 did.

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 suggestions.

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 on Atlanta’s 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.

Corn Fuel

Tim Poor, the international editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told how his newspaper keeps readers informed about how Brazil turns cane sugar into ethanol for car fuel. It’s important information for Missourians because ethanol can also be made from corn, the state’s biggest agricultural product.

And Didi Tang, a Chinese-born reporter at the Springfield News-Leader, described how she looks for similarities in the ordinary lives of Chinese and Americans in stories ranging from city hall and crime pieces to a recent first-person account of how her conservative Chinese father (who still lives in China) became a political activist when a real estate developer tried to drain a lake near his home. Sound American?

All this may not seem terribly mystical. But that only shows how utterly ordinary the mystical has become in our day. Faced with magnetic resonance imaging machines (which illuminate the minutest chambers of the human heart), and the Hubble telescope (which reveals clusters of galaxies at the remotest edges of the universe), not to mention transportation vehicles that deliver human beings from their homes to the moon and to Mecca, we humans incredibly just take it all in, quickly get bored, and a moment later impatiently demand: “What have you invented for me lately?”

Blake and Thoreau

Try this experiment. Browse the web sites of Atlanta and the World, the ethanol 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.

William Blake, the English mystical artist and poet, spent a lifetime discovering details of the inner and outer universe by closely observing London’s 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, and Tang.

Henry David Thoreau, 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.”

We journalists in Chicago gathered in Blake’s spirit, and in Thoreau’s.


Narayanan recalled that when he started Atlanta and the World, “Some 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.’”

When he says that he sees the whole world reflected in Atlanta, Narayanan restates in journalistic language the mystical insight of ancient sages.

“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.”

Cold Facts

Narayanan, Poor, and Tang look at their communities just as Thich Nhat Hanh 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.

Within the journalism profession, to talk about spirituality as a part of making stories is to utter a heresy.

Because journalists deal in cold facts, right? We are objective, right?

We journalists apparently 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?

In the mid-20th century, ecologists showed that the global environment is a vast and delicate mobile of causes and effects – a jiggle on one side produces an exactly equal and simultaneous counter-jiggle on the other.

Mississippi Water

Pesticides used at the equator show up in the blubber of Arctic seals.

Chemists can peer into a glass of Mississippi water and find trace chemicals from Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Mumbai and Vladivostok.

Astrophysicists say that our bodies are composed of star dust and that in the seconds before the universe was born that same entire universe was scrunched into an insanely hot sphere smaller than a ball bearing.

The world is an interconnected one. 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.

If lots 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.

Right Eyes

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a fable 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 …”

For journalists, our local place is the Aleph. Or to switch to a Proustian metaphor – our madeleine.

We can see the whole world from where we are. At the same time we can see into 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.

Local Weather

When we gathered to leave at the end of the second day, some of us reflected that writing stories from this angle – seeing the whole world reflected in our immigrant neighborhoods, our schools, local weather, and drinking water -- still might be a hard sell in our newsrooms.

Without practice, we might even lose the knack of seeing this way ourselves.
We might’ve taken strength from the Indian saint, Kabir, one of the greatest all-is-one visionaries in history, who wrote:

         “The Hindu says Ram is the beloved,
          The Turk says Rahim.
          Then they kill each other.
          No one knows the secret.
          Listen, they’re all deluded!
          Whatever I say, nobody gets it.
          It’s too simple.”

Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report