Chauncey Mabe and Me
The McGill Report
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
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."
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.
what's next? Are you going to pelt me with food during recess?
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.
I hope we keep talking.
best, as always,
Copyright @ 2008 The