March 12, 2008

The Media, Chauncey Mabe and Me

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- The response to my recent Burleigh Lecture on Media Ethics at Marquette University has ranging from a few high-fiving e-mails to milder "liked your lecture" notes from friends who are still puzzled by my obsession with Buddhism and journalism.

The lecture elicited one outright pan -- a Wile E. Coyote-style application of a verbal frying pan to my brain pan, from a journalist named Chauncey Mabe of the Florida Sun-Sentinel. The piece raised so many good points that I commend it to you: Preacher McGill, The New York Times, and Language Abuse.

I wrote the author in reply:

Dear Chauncey,

Your charming hatchet-job on my lecture raises so many of the points that concern me about journalism today, that I thought I'd hazard a more detailed response.

It was ripping good fun to read your piece, Chauncey. What a delight to see a stuffy pedant get his due! Thank goodness for writers like you, who don't give an inch to puffed-up preachers and clueless ivory-tower blowhards.

But wait, that was ME you were writing about!

~ Sigh. ~

Well, I suppose it could all be true, and I'd be the last one to know about it.

But if it turns out the picture is cockeyed, Chauncey, then the difference between what's real, and what journalism presents as real, comes into sharp relief.

Most people I've met in thirty years as a journalist, especially those who are written about often, think the job's done well about half the time, and botched the other half.

A lot of people think journalism misses the mark a lot more often.

As a journalist, I try to take these complaints seriously, to ask where the problem lies. Is there something inherent in writing, that it can't describe reality accurately? Plato thought so.

Or is there something in the journalistic attitude that also gets in the way?

One of my persistent questions is why so many journalists choose to work with a wrecking ball, while having easy access to far finer and more exacting language tools.

Where's the lasting joy, or the useful civic sharing, in building "Preacher Pete [fill in the name]" pinatas and then bashing them to bits? Haven't we -- hasn't journalism -- moved beyond banking on the thrill of blood-battles and public hangings to build reader interest?

I know it's an old story -- another problem you had with my lecture.

But if the same moral puzzles keep arising in journalism, shouldn't we keep trying to puzzle them out?

When you argue that I didn't provide enough good examples, I agree. My lecture covered a lot of ground -- perhaps too much. Plus, presenting compelling examples is a major challenge for anyone dipping their toes into post-Orwell propaganda analysis.

Leaders in this field, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, base their theories on neurological laboratory studies showing how the brain responds unconsciously to individual words and phrases. Describing compelling examples in a way that non-scientists can understand is a major challenge. I hope to make some progress there.

In response to your other points:

1. McGill is holding journalistic accountability to an unreasonable standard: perfection. Not really. The ABC News poll linked above found that only 14% of the public trusts the news media "a great deal." There's a lot of room for improvement between that and "perfection."

2. What if a writer is anti-establishmentarian? Then he could not be unconsciously supporting the status quo through the deeper structural parts of his writing. Actually, by definition, he could unconsciously be supporting anything, without being conscious of it.

3. McGill doesn't make any corrective suggestions. In fact, the Burleigh lecture is explicitly organized around two interrelated suggestions, that A) citizens increase their awareness of how the mass media affects their minds and bodies, and that B) journalists more carefully check their ethical intentions before expressing their inner thoughts as public speech.

One last point, Chauncey, if I may. When I say that you present me to your readers as a "pinata," I'm basing that on the various epithets you used to describe me -- "lackey," "preacher," "Billy Sunday," "St. Augustine," etc. You even slammed me for reading Plato, Orwell, Barth and Steven Pinker.

Gosh, what's next? Are you going to pelt me with food during recess?

Why is an intellectual like you bashing people for reading books?

Actually, my friend (and I am not using that word rhetorically), I respect your playful and affecting way with words. And I admire your belief in the good that journalism can do in society -- not as a perfect instrument of communication, but as one that keeps failing but keeps trying.

So, I hope we keep talking.

All the best, as always,


Copyright @ 2008 The McGill Report