A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1827
July 25, 2016

WATCHING TRAIN WRECKS

MONTPELIER – If I were an owner or advertising sales manager of a media outlet – newspaper, radio station, television news channel, even a blog site – I would be hugging my knees with glee during this current year. Advertising revenue is out of sight. There’s more exciting news happening than even the Times has room to print, and it keeps crashing upon us as reliably as the surf on Huntington Beach. The “traitor” Ted Cruz gets booed off the stage at the Republican Convention, Donald Trump presents his dark dystopian vision of the United States, and we turn from that with optimism to a sunny vision of the two Democratic contenders entwined in a unifying embrace, only to discover that Julian Assange, Vladimir Putin, and Wikileaks have struck again: We find that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her accomplices have been working to undermine the antiestablishment candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Uproar ensues, the chattering experts behind the anchor desks slip into hyperdrive speculation, and ratings soar.

It’s fascinating – rather like being stuck in a supermarket checkout line while the person up front hunts for his credit card, affording you time to read the salacious articles of bad faith, adultery, dysfunctional childhoods, and cult worship of our beloved celebrities.

There’s this to remember, though, always, about the media: They thrive on calamity, crashes, collisions, and controversy. They could cover what most of America is doing instead of fighting wildfires, but not many of us would follow with much interest a Methodist church potluck in Iowa or the lives of retirees doing volunteer hospital work. I’ve mentioned before my bemusement when once, in the far North, the only television station we could get in our double-wide hotel was from St. Johns, Newfoundland, and the big story that month was that there was only one candidate for mayor of St. Johns. That was enough of an anomaly that the station flogged it all evening and again the next day. Advertising had quite deserted the station, which played (also over and over) a demonstration of a new toilet that with only a few cupfuls of water could flush 40 ping pong balls down a 4-inch-diameter transparent plastic soil line. Watching grass grow would have been equally entertaining, but there was no grass in sight.

People the world over would rather watch a train wreck any day than a chicken pie supper, and the folks who bring us our news know that. And they know who’s watching when, too. That’s why, when all the younger folks are at work, and we old, retired, financially challenged and anxious folks are watching the morning news chats, the ads all run to incredibly cheap life insurance (guaranteed no physical examination!), reverse mortgages, and discreet, plain-wrapped home delivery of diapers and disposable catheters. Call 1-800 blah, blah, blah. That’s 1-800 blah,blah, blah. I breathe a silent prayer for all my vulnerable fellow senior citizens.

Over 65 years ago now, in a class session called “Rhetoric, Argument, and Logic,” our teacher wrote carefully on the blackboard, as if it were the word of God, the Latin phrase, Cum grano salis. It meant we were to take everything we read or hear with “a grain of salt,” that we should never suspend a healthy skepticism; that nothing is ever totally what it seems. In some instances, he pointed out, it’s easy to spot the buncombe – in the flim-flam come-on for a carnival side show, for example – but the job becomes trickier in analyzing advertising and even more so when reading purported “news items.”

What? Who? Where? When? How? Why? These are the questions, in order of importance, that a news story should answer. Sometimes it’s not possible to answer all of them with the information available, but many writers try to, anyway. You can tell where supposition starts, our old teacher told us, when adjectives begin to creep into the text. A “horrendous crash” or a “terrible tragedy” needn’t be called such; the first three questions will make it obvious. When you see them, it’s time to sit back, maybe check to see who wrote the piece, and pull down the skeptic veil, the way an optometrist shows you two different lenses and asks, “This – or this?” And if the writer begins to use adverbs – “tendentiously reminded his audience” or “carelessly ignored the gate and warning lights” – tune it out. It ain’t news. As the cops say, “Move along. Nothing to see here.”

The great problem, of course, is that democracy, with its guarantee of free speech, is fertile ground for the seeds of controversy and the concomitant fervor of news writers. How dull the Republican convention would have been if it had nominated Mitt Romney again, or the Democratic if Bernie’s faithful had wisely (there’s an adverb. Be careful!) followed his possibly disingenuous (there’s another) advice to rally around the lady. To be a reporter or commentator there this week is to be a happy hog in the mud – which may be an appropriate image in more ways than one.

Probably the best example of democracy is the town meeting, at which any citizen of the town is welcome to air his opinion on any warranted item. Overseen by a usually good-humored moderator, it generally moves along to a considered consensus or vote. Only when somebody starts his opinion by saying, “I’m a sixth-generation Vermonter, and I...” do I suddenly feel the need for a men’s room break or a cup of coffee. We have to remember that our honored forebears came here to get away from nations where they weren’t free to express themselves, and that over time that impulse has become enshrined in our public discourse. We’re the most contentious, disputatious, disagreeable people on the planet. But, if we can only keep from breaking this precious thing that’s been handed down to us, we have unbelievable potential. As Woody Guthrie once sang, “...if you don't let Red-baiting break you up, if you don't let stool pigeons break you up, if you don't let vigilantes break you up, and if you don't let race hatred break you up, you’ll win!”

Photo by Willem lange