Archive for September, 2009

Glenn Beck has found a winning formula

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I’m fascinated by the success of Glenn Beck, Fox TV’s talented entertainer/comedian/commentator.

Here’s a guy who has figured out how to get rich quick.

Take a group of Americans – it may only amount to 5 percent or 10 percent, but that’s still millions of people – who are worried about their paychecks, their mortgages, their kids’ lack of respect and the general degeneration of society.

Time coverPlay to their emotions, their fears, their distrust of government and their longing for the good ol’ days. Alternate between shouting, crying, pleading and shouting some more.

Don’t worry about facts, because inuendo works so much better. Don’t provide information, just ask questions – pointed, cynical, suggestive questions that let the viewer jump to whatever conclusions they choose.

Glenn Beck is a master entertainer. I get a chuckle every time I watch him, which is generally when a friend sends a link to one of his more vitriolic diatribes.

He’s often compared to Rush Limbaugh, and the comparison is apt. Both are talented entertainers who have found a niche market that is making them very, very rich men. The difference is that Limbaugh pays a little more attention to facts. He may conveniently ignore information that doesn’t suit the point he’s making. But he  generally builds logical arguments based on real information.

I saw one estimate that Beck’s making $20 million a year, between his radio and TV shows and books. Like Limbaugh a former radio DJ, he has found a formula that pays a lot more than playing top 40 hits.

 All this comes to mind because of the Time magazine cover story last week on Mr. Beck. The blogosphere is full of liberal folks ripping Time for not being more critical of Beck, and conservative folks ripping Time for being too critical.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, we seem to be living through an unprecedented time of polarization. Americans see the world through two different sets of glasses. The same set of facts is interpreted very differently, depending on which pair you’re wearing.

Exacerbating the situation is the vast variety of media now available.  Americans no longer sit in their living rooms, all watching Walter Cronkite, all hearing the same messages.

They choose their media, and more and more people are choosing to expose themselves only to media messages that reinforce their own opinions.

So if you get most of your information from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck doesn’t seem so crazy. A little wild at times, but he’s fighting for me, isn’t he?

Excuse my own cynicism, but I think it’s fairly obvious Glenn Beck is fighting for his bank account. He’s found a very lucrative niche, selling a modern brand of entertainment/snake oil.

Since the time of our founding fathers, there always has been a large group of Americans who distrust government and are longing for a champion who will put the bureaucrats in their place.

I say, if you like Glenn Beck, go ahead and watch him and read his books. But understand what he is and be forewarned. It’s entertainment, not fair news commentary. He’s getting rich selling a product. You’re the pigeon, I mean, consumer.

Covering funerals a challenge for reporters

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

As often happens, divergent thoughts converged in my mind last night, creating this blog post.

It started when I read The Evening News’ coverage of Pfc. Eric Harios’ funeral. It’s an emotional subject, and although I’m an experienced and somewhat caloused observer of the news, there was an uncomfortable lump in my throat by the time I finished reading and viewing the photos.

I’ve often tried to explain to young reporters – and now to students – the challenge of covering a funeral or memorial service.  You want to capture the dignity and emotion of the event, but without seeming sensational or voyeuristic.

Usually the family is okay with reporters and photographers at the funeral, because they understand that it’s a way to share their sorrow and their memories of the deceased with the larger community. But sometimes the family is not so sure – they’re distraught and don’t want to have to deal with distractions like newspaper and television reporters and photographers.

I was proud of The Evening News’ coverage – it seemed to me that  it not only struck the appropriate balance, but went beyond to achieve an admirable level of grace and eloquence.

Then, the next day, I heard a friend of the family describe how difficult it was for Pfc. Harios’ mother and brothers dealing with “the media.” The reference wasn’t to any particular media, so I don’t know whether they were referring to the local newspaper or nearby metro newspapers and TV stations. But I understand the problem, and I’ve seen it before.

Working with one local newspaper to share your family’s grief with the larger community is one thing – dealing with an army of reporters and photographers is quite another. The local newspaper tends to be sensitive to the family – in effect, it’s your neighbors sharing your story with more neighbors. Big-city media, especially when they’re competing with each other, tend to be much more aggressive. For them, it’s about getting the story.

I’ve spent most of my career on the small-town side of that equation – as a reporter or editor for community newspapers more or less like The Evening News. I’ve worked with many distraught families to assure them that our role as their hometown newspaper wasn’t to exploit their grief, but to help the entire community deal with the loss by participating  in  the funeral experience. I’ve even, when asked, offered advice on how to handle the unwanted media attention.

When handled right, it can be an uplifting experience for the family, as the larger community joins them in celebrating the life of their loved one.

I’ve been involved in coverage of a funeral that left me feeling proud to be a journalist. There are few stories that connect with readers as directly and as profoundly. If you do it right, you can provide a valuable community service.

I hope the Harios family wasn’t unduly troubled by the media. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows – and that’s basically all of us – the pain cuts deeply. You don’t need any extra pain.

And helped by the news coverage – at least what I saw in our local newspaper – the family of Army Ranger Eric Harios can gain some solace in the fact that the larger Monroe County community was grieving with them.

Adding my voice – get out of Afghanistan

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

It’s been about a year since I read, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Khaled Hosseini’s second novel about life in Afghanistan. It followed his best-selling book, “The Kite Runner,” which has since been made into a movie.

But my mind went straight to that book when I read Deb Saul’s column a couple weeks ago about the war in Afghanistan, followed a few days later by news of Army Pfc. Eric Hario of Monroe County dying in a shootout with Taliban insurgents.

Deb, in her usual thoughtful and eloquent way, pointed out the folly of the U.S. thinking it could succeed in Afghanistan where two other superpowers (of their day) failed – Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

If you haven’t read “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” I highly recommend it, just for the power of the writing and the timeless messages of personal courage and resilience.

But beyond that, Hosseini’s second look at life in his homeland made an indelible impression on me for its insight into the socio/political landscape of Afghanistan.

I remember the heavy feeling in my heart as I put down the book, then thought about the U.S. soldiers dying there in a war that can’t be won.

The point that comes through the book with resounding clarity is that Afghanistan is a nation split down the middle, and both sides are willing to fight to the death for what they believe in.

Roughly half the country wants a democratic, secular government – the kind we’re trying to help them get, where religion and government are separated. And roughly half the country believes passionately that any secular government is evil, and that they have a religious duty to fight it. 

The point is, whichever side is in power, the other side is going to fight. No matter how strong we make the Afghan government and its army, they’re going to keep fighting. And the harder we try – the more innocent people we kill in the process – it will only drive more people to the other side.

The only solution to this is for foreign governments to get out of Afghanistan and let them figure it out on their own.

I know, I know, we can’t do that, for two reasons.

One, we can’t let it return to being an incubator for terrorism worldwide.

And two, after pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into Afghanistan for eight years, we have a moral obligation to help with the solution.

But as President Obama and his military leaders mull over what to do next, we can only pray that they’ll figure out that a military solution isn’t the solution. We can’t kill half the Afghans.

Rather, we have to turn all our attention to ending the fighting and starting the talking – the search for a political compromise that will hold the fighting to a minimum and will get foreign soldiers out of Afghanistan.

A “surge,” which seemed to work in Iraq by improving security enough to give the government time to start working, isn’t likely to have the same effect in Afghanistan.

The more we “surge,” the more we’ll turn the countryside against us. And this is a countryside that knows little except how to fight.