Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The novelist, the historian and the journalist

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

-The First Amendment to the US Constitution

Someone asked me to, essentially, read, write and edit for them. And they said they'd pay me to do so. Wow. It's even in history, which is what I have my measly Bachelor's in. Yee haw!

Except that it requires me to read some accounts that are about 40 or 50 years old, and some of the authors didn't realize that they should be writing history but instead decided to write novels. I've written fiction, and I strive to see it published. Sometimes I like it clean and spare, and sometimes I like it flowery. But I like it only when I go looking for it. If I'm trying to find out what actually happened, please keep the poetry and the descriptions of fog setting off the early morning out unless it's pertinent to what happened- and it usually isn't.

Really, a historian should be more like... a journalist.

I said "like", because the facts should be integral to the account, but we also want context. What else was going on? What led to what happened? What happened later? And, by the way, a little judgment is fine too- few things disgust me as much as moral relativism. Yeah, everyone has slaves in the 1700s- except for those people who didn't because it was wrong (not just because they couldn't afford them). And a woman's place was accepted in this country- unless you count the women and men who have been agitating for equal treatment for hundreds of years and were beaten and jailed for it. Homosexuality was always looked upon in horror- unless it was a very widespread practice. And didn't everyone sell their children into sexual slavery or to be castrated by the Catholic Church so they could sing in their choir?

You get my point.

But here's the difference between history and current events: one has already happened, and the other is unfolding in the present. If you are covering something that's happening as we speak, readers or listeners want to know that you are not involved. The historian can have an opinion, but they can't affect the actual events. We, the members of the present, can, whether that's through our votes, our laws or our actions.

I am a citizen of the United States, born and bred. People died so that people like me- non-white and female- could vote. So I do, in anything. It is my duty to affect the future, preferably for the better. Some people make decisions based on their guts or long-held beliefs, but a lot of people use the news to help them decide (maybe not as many as I would like, but people can vote any way they want).

News outlet have been a big deal for a long time. That's why the framers of the constitution give them a shout out in the First Amendment. As long as they're not lying and hurting someone's reputation, they can say whatever they want. And so can I, and so can you. Yeah, okay, there are some special exceptions, like not yelling "Fire!" in a crowded room if there isn't one, and not threatening the President's life, but I'm basically okay with them.

So, what does that mean? That means if you're a journalist, or a news outlet or Jane or Joe Doe, you can write what you want and not be imprisoned for it. Or tortured. Or killed. If you don't think that's not really something to get excited about, see Korea, China, Iran and a number of other countries. Trust me, people would die all over the world for it.

But you know what it doesn't mean? That people aren't going to think you're a big jerk for saying whatever it is you said. Or that you can say whatever you want in a private place- if it's my house- or blog- and you're a racist creep, good bye. Or, in general, that your words won't have consequences.

If you're a journalist- or a writer of any kind- your words are what you are all about, and you have a special duty to your readers or listeners through them. So they should be used carefully. Your job is to provide the facts and, especially if you're an analyst- the context of those facts. But unless you are hired to write opinions- and many people are- I don't want to know what you think. I don't care if you tell your friends and family. I don't care if you get into bar brawls over it. But don't tell the country what you feel about what you're covering.

Why? Because if you're reporting on something and we get your opinion in the middle of your facts, it can be confusing to pull one from the other. And if you get up and start talking about your opinion on something you cover elsewhere, your impartiality is, in the eyes of the listening public, gone. And so is your news outlet's.

All of this is why I'm okay that Juan Williams was fired last week. He can give his opinion on anything he wants and not have to suffer at the hands of the government for it, but that doesn't mean he should keep his job. It's not just that he was illogical- the successful and unsuccessful hijackers weren't wearing recognizably "Muslim garb"- although that right there is a big deal from someone who should be dealing in facts. He gave his opinion when I was depending on him for cool analysis. Our arrangement has been violated, and I don't trust him anymore.

Just so we're clear, I don't give National Public Radio an automatic pass. I flew into a rage yesterday when I realized that Peter Beinart was a guest on On Point. I usually love On Point, but Beinart was one of the many "news analysts" pulling things out of his... ear to justify the invasion of Iraq. And he was wrong, very, very wrong, in part because he had nothing credible to back himself up. We're going to call that lazy journalism. I'm shocked the man still finds work, and I'm disappointed that On Point used as a reference for anything.

Some people are calling for NPR to not get anymore public funding over the Williams firing. Just for the record, NPR doesn't receive direct federal funding, but they do receive money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. I don't think they should, but since we're talking about 2 to 3 percent of their budget, I'll accept it if they lose it.

Deb in the City

Monday, October 11, 2010

Curiouser and curiouser

I had this brilliant idea on Saturday that I was going to walk Jaz and the boys on the Freedom Trail all the way to the USS Constitution. This has been done, but the uh oh factor is that it was the Saturday of a long weekend that attracts a lot of tourists to my fine city. Well, Nam-Kranes can handle tourists.

We started out at the Boston Public Library- the "fun library"- and didn't leave until much later than I had originally wanted to. We did try to edify ourselves with a tour while we were there, but the tour guide couldn't be heard over the people who passed by as she spoke, and the boys were having none of it.

By the time we got going, it was about 12:30. Oh yeah, the kids were hungry. Getting lunch added about 30 minutes. It was about 1:30 by the time we were following that magical red line. Yes, there were crowds, and a couple of times the adults were separated from each other. But no children were lost, even through the chaotic North End.

We made it over the bridge to Charlestown- and then waited in the "quick" line for about 15 minutes. The other line would have taken about 30 minutes, as this sailor-guide repeatedly advised us. Finally, we were able to board.

Because we weren't on the guided tour, we were only able to go on the top deck. We had been warned that we weren't going to learn anything, but fortunately my husband has a "thing" for ships and gave the kids a satisfying lesson on the parts of the ship and, most importantly, how the cannons were used. Take that, condescending sailor. We took some pictures- what?- and then went to the Museum. (Thankfully, no line there.)

That was where the real action was, as far as all of the children were concerned. They could touch this, listen to that, run around, play with things and talk to people. A very nice man gave them a lesson on creating a square knot. Shockingly, they listened long enough to get it done, but then Jacob started touching wooden tools and wanted to know how they were used, which was bigger, etc. The man explained, then suddenly they ran into the adjoining room, and he gasped for air as if he'd just sprinted somewhere. Yeah, they do that to even very experienced people. Michael and I laughed. "They're homeschooled, too," I offered. Oh... he then advised us to go pick up the *free* homeschooling kit at the desk before we left.

We couldn't leave for another half an hour. We had to go upstairs, see what the crew ate, lie in a hammock and... I don't even remember what else, because the bleating goat must have blocked it out. (No, seriously, there is a bleating goat.) Finally, we get to the desk and pick up the kit. I haven't seen Jazmyn so excited about anything academic in... ever.

Now it was time for crazy idea number 2: making Indian food. Jazmyn had been jonesing for it for a week, so we went to a grocery store to pick up the ingredients. Only that entailed an extra 30 minute walk. By the time we left the store to walk to the train, Michael and I were exhausted.

You know who wasn't exhausted? The boys. At all. They were, as usual, jumping up and down on the trains and laughing like crazy people. Uh huh.

Sam, Jaz and I made food while the men did something else. Michael and I thought the palak paneer was too salty, but the kids thought it was fine. Everyone agreed that the pakoras were delicious, and of course they liked the naan... that we bought in the store. Look, it was 7:30 by the time we got home, and I have my limits.

So, after an ultra-stimulating Saturday, wouldn't you think that the boys would be more mellow on Sunday when I went to a friend's house for a 10/10/10 party she was having? Aren't they supposed to be able to take direction better at that point?

Yeah, right.

As I was dragging my children away- the hosts were very nice, but I thought they might be underfoot while the adults were trying to take a tour and make a stone path- it occured to me that this is exactly what I should expect the day after I let them run around at will and touch everything they could. Which is actually what I strive for most days. They are not going to be *grateful* that I let them out of their cages and become docile when commanded to. I haven't trained my animals that well. They are going to expect that every day is going to be like that, and they aren't going to understand when a section of a house is theoretically off-limits. If they can see it and get to it, they will.

And that is as it should be, at least right now. It makes life unpredictable and exhausting, but it also makes things... fun.

Deb in the City