Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Letter To NPR

Listening to Scott Simon's interview of Mitch Albom this morning, in which the 2016 election was discussed, made me remember that even NPR, long held up by the far right as the bleeding-heart liberal socialist commie bandwidth of the radio dial, can suffer the same biases and lack of balance as the right-wing radio shows that most NPR listeners love to mock. The indiscriminate lumping of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the same "today's politicians, amirite?" category by both the guest (explicitly) and the host (implicitly) made my stomach hurt, as it was so emblematic of just how unbalanced the coverage of this campaign has been, and how casually this imbalance has been accepted and normalized.

Scott Simon's question, in brief: Are there concerns that you feel have not been raised during the campaign?

Mitch Albom: "Where do you begin? I think every major concern has been overlooked in deference to tawdry things and comments and who said what on a TV show or an open mic or a snippy remark in a debate. To raise one, and it would just be one, I haven't heard a word about education in this entire election season. Every now and then you hear Hillary Clinton talk about about a plan for colleges and that's about it. Being here in Detroit, our public education in this city is - it's shocking and the oversight of it and the oversight of the teachers and the funding is nonexistent. And the priority that's put on it is so low ..."

Then Mr. Albom talks about the fact that education isn't sexy, so it doesn't get coverage, but that literacy and learning to read is the true key to success in school and life in general. He advocates for free community college, and for more emphasis on early education, and early literacy education in particular. All this could still have been a commentary on the state of today's media.

On how the media have provided Trump, who rarely speaks about policy at all, much less education policy, with essentially an open mic, only recently beginning to fact-check and call out his lies instead of just letting him spew out over their airwaves.

On how at the same time the media have not bothered to cover Clinton's public policy speeches for the last two or three years, but instead have devoted 24/7 coverage to the repeatedly debunked email “scandal” or rumors of her health or whether she smiles too much or doesn't smile enough, despite the fact that Hillary Clinton actually has been discussing the topic of education for several decades and has detailed policy proposals on her current campaign website.

Since that's in fact what has been going on, I first agreed with Mr. Albom, assuming he was only speaking about the poor job the news outlets have been doing in making education a topic of conversation in this campaign. However, Mr. Albom then revealed that he himself must be paying attention only to what is being broadcast on those media outlets he's complaining about, since a simple Google search for “Hillary Clinton education plan” brings up a wide range of articles on both her current stance and her history on this issue. Either that, or Mr. Albom is a Hillary Hater. How else do you explain his answer to the follow-up question?

Scott Simon's question, in brief: Any last words on any of the various presidential candidates?

MA: "I have not been more disappointed in a pair of candidates in my adult life. You know, I'm very lucky, Scott, I get to travel around and I meet a lot of people and – I can't tell you how many times, and gosh, in your job, you have to do this too – how many times you have a conversation with somebody, and after they leave you go, 'wow, what an impressive person, what an incredible set of values, leadership, accomplishment, whatever' – and none of these people ever end up running for president."

He explains this phenomenon by saying that we have created a system where only thick-skinned people like rampant egotists or lifelong politicians will ever run, because these other more virtuous people he's been meeting are so smart they realize that if they run for office the media will rip their lives apart in the search for sensationalism, and "all of a sudden 50 or 60 years of hard work and accomplishment go out the window, and so what I have to say about these two candidates is summed up in a sentence that probably many people utter: 'This is the best we can do?'"

How can he believe that Clinton is just like Trump? If he doesn't believe that, why did he say these things?

Does he literally not know anything about Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, former Senator, who has an incredible set of values, who shows true and collaborative leadership, and who has a history of accomplishment that more than equals Mr. Albom's? I would think that his philanthropic soul should at least be drawn to her work with the Clinton Foundation.

President Obama, who is one of the most accomplished and capable people to hold that office, made his opinion clear at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: "I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America." Perhaps Mr. Albom missed the media coverage of that event.

Scott Simon definitely missed the opportunity for clarification with regards to whether the first quote above was meant as “the media are not covering education enough” (true) or as “neither candidate is talking about education” (false). If Mr. Albom truly believes that neither candidate has been talking about education, then he just hasn't been paying attention. But because he so casually lumped Hillary Clinton – and by reference her history as an advocate for children, for education, for women's rights, for universal health care, and more – with Donald Trump, whose lack of values, accomplishments, or qualifications on any level should make this not even a topic of conversation, I'm going for “Hillary Hater.”

This is the first time I've written to NPR on this topic, though it's not the first time I've yelled at the radio when a host has not followed up on statements that leave the impression of something that is demonstrably not true. But to have a guest essentially say "Trump and Clinton are equally unqualified to be president" and an NPR host not say "are you REALLY saying that? because it's not true at all, you know" doesn't mean NPR is being "fair and balanced" to me, because that unfair statement was not balanced by Scott Simon's questioning of its veracity.

I'm interested in hearing the other sides of the story, and wish I could talk directly with both men about values, radio production, interview strategies, and education. Since that's not likely, I'll keep listening, and keep writing letters.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


What brought this country to a point where so many people admire one man's openly admitted lawlessness and dishonesty in pursuit of his individual gain, no matter the cost to others?

That's the sentence that started what was going to be a medium-length Facebook post to follow up an article I linked to that referenced how Trump supporters seem to be incapable of criticizing him; when provided with made-up examples of things like writing off a white Siberian tiger for Putin's birthday as a "business expense," they instead list their own reasons why such tax-evasion schemes are actually good things.

"I'm a selfish person and much of my time and money goes towards pursuing my own goals and desires," that Facebook post would have gone on to say, "though I like to think that I'm getting better at not having this create a negative impact on the people around me." I would also have added (in an increasingly moralizing tone, I'm sorry to say) that at least I'm always aware that I am part of a larger society, and have a role and responsibility towards it, and ... and then I realized that I, too, have avoided taxes in the past (the IRS don't read blogs, do they?) and justified it in various ways. I, too, have expressed biased and even racist views, often those I'm not conscious of within myself at first, others that I've recognized and continue to struggle with. For example, I'd automatically assume the author of the linked piece, who describes himself as "a Southern white male veteran who lives in a very rural area," is a Trump supporter, or at least embodies some of their characteristics, just because of that description. Instead, he subjects those supporters to some trenchant castigation, and I'm once again left facing my assumptions, and questioning why they're there. It's true that when you see the clumps and colors on any demographic map, "southern white male veteran rural dweller" does tend to tick all the Trump-supporter boxes, but that's no excuse for my looking at those words and assuming that any individual person does.

There are many other words today defining the ways that we categorize and describe ourselves, some of which weren't part of the language when I was growing up. Agnostic. Republican. Feminist. Catholic. Vegetarian. Latin@. Gun owner, PETA supporter, single, married, transgender, genderqueer, male, female, other. Other. And that's really what it boils down to, isn't it? "Othering," another word that's younger than I am.

So much of what shapes our ability to be honest occurs long before we are capable of this kind of self-reflection [Ed. Note. Or perhaps it's just that I'm coming late to the party, and this is a realization that usually happens in one's twenties or thirties. I wouldn't be surprised.] and gets normalized and buried in the mental category of "just the way things are." Some things in this category can't be changed: I'm white and female and over 50. What can be changed are attitudes like "... and therefore superior to non-white people" or "... and therefore should behave in a certain way" or "... and therefore must believe what this other over-50 white female believes," all of which I would resent were they assumed about me. If I am honest with myself, I will be watching for these inbred instincts and consciously working to get rid of them, to retrain and reshape the paths in my brain that click in those specific neural patterns when presented with a certain image or idea. There have been times in the last few months when I've found myself spontaneously quoting scripture, of all things (not always the Bible, but usually), as the random access database that is my brain spits out what it thinks to be information relevant in the moment. If all of that and more is in there, and comes out of my mouth without prompting, what other learned language and behaviours am I demonstrating without realizing it, every single day?

Who's defining the word "honest" these days? Here's what Merriam-Webster says: free from fraud or deception; reputable, respectable; creditable, marked by integrity, marked by free, forthright, and sincere expression. In other words, someone you can believe in. If I'm not honest with myself (and others), how can I believe in myself? If I can't trust that other people are being honest with me, then I find it harder to believe in them. At the least, I will give them the benefit of the doubt, but it will color every interaction from then on. And I am sure that other people have come to that conclusion about me in the past, which is one reason that it's something I'm thinking about now, and working on improving. Yet there has been a new definition added in recent years, where "speaking your mind" and "telling it how it is" now mean "being honest with your listeners" even when the mind of the speaker is filled with hatred and bigotry and a terribly warped view of a fearful pseudo-reality and the purpose of the telling is to incite even more hate and bigotry and fear in those listeners.

If someone honestly believes a lie, and tries as hard as they can to convince others of the truth of that lie, are they a liar? That's different from someone who is desperately trying to convince themselves of a lie, and who needs everyone else to believe that lie so that they can be validated in believing it too. Or who just doesn't give a damn about the truth, and lies with impunity because they can and it's getting them what they want, or because it amuses them to lie to others and manipulate them.

What I do not understand is how a person can look at the well-documented history of Donald Trump's lies, including lying about the fact that he lied when the contradictory lies were both caught on tape [Ed. Note. There's another blog post in that somewhere, about English expressions that are still being used, but no longer have physical cultural connections to the things those words represent.], and still use the word "honest" to describe him. And if they can't use that word, why is "honesty" no longer on their list of important qualifications for the presidency?

Finally [Ed. Note. Thank god.], what responsibility is placed on the listener? It's just as important to listen honestly as it is to speak honestly, and we do so little of that in our lives, unless we're called by vocation or profession to do so. To simply listen to what people are saying, and then to try to hear both what they are saying out loud and what they are saying with their body, their intonation, their phrasing, their choice of words. To work through what was said, with the other person, until both sides have a clear understanding of exactly what is being communicated. This is not necessarily agreement with what was said, but agreement on what was said. But it's irresponsible to listen and believe something without questioning it, especially when it comes to politics instead of personal relationships. This is also why I do not understand how a person can look at all of the well-documented history of Hillary Clinton's honesty and discard it in favor of the rumors/lies about her without also questioning their own motivation and their reasons for doing so. "Well, I just don't trust her," that person will often say. Why? And if their answers to that question are things that I can refute with the equally well-documented proof that the specific rumor/lie is indeed just a rumor/lie, and they're only left with their "gut feeling" then there's something at work here other than the question of honesty, in my opinion, something in that person that's probably manifesting itself in other gut-level feelings like fear and unhappiness and worry about the future, all of which are playing into the hands of a person who's promising to solve all of their problems, starting by getting rid of all of those "others" who are causing them.

What brought this country to a point where so many people admire one man's openly admitted lawlessness and dishonesty in pursuit of his individual gain, no matter the cost to others - and we, as a country, are only now getting around to talking about it seriously, rather than mocking it? This is a problem that will not go away by itself after November, and it's something that America needs to address as part of who we are as a society, and how we want that society to look in the future.

How do you define honesty?