Confessions of an alienated journalist, revisited
In his song “My Back Pages,” Bob Dylan, who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, told the world that “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
All writers have back pages. For me that phrase signifies things that I wrote months or years ago when I was the same person — but different, maybe even older. I have argued that reading your old stuff does more than bring back memories. It reveals a map of the path you have traveled. By retracing that path, you may learn from your mistakes and find a powerful new destination to follow.
The day after the 2004 presidential election I wrote an essay for Poynter titled “Confessions of an Alienated Journalist.” Here are the first few paragraphs:
I stood in line for two hours Tuesday to vote, predicting that a big turnout of young people and new voters would push John Kerry over the top. This morning I’m looking in the mirror, wondering, as a journalist and a citizen, if there is something fundamentally myopic about how I see the world.
It seems that the Democrats are insensitive to “moral values.” This puzzles me because I think that opposing a war, or working for economic justice, or making healthcare more available in America all derive from a moral vision. Apparently, it is not the moral vision — the set of faith and family values – that helped re-elect George W. Bush.
I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. “Different” is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens. Maybe it’s worse than that because we usually see and suspect the alien in our midst. The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible.
More than a decade later I was surprised to read on the pages of The New York Times that the president’s brother, Jeb Bush, had read my article and praised it in an email to a Florida political writer. He worried, he wrote, about the detachment of most journalists to the concerns and values of millions of Americans.
“I think [journalists suffer from] a complete misunderstanding about the things that make many people tick," he said. "Going to church, abhorring what is on television. Worrying about how kids view the world through the lens of the culture expressed through the media, a respect for traditional marriage, etc. These are concepts that are viewed in the media as weird, old-fashioned or narrow minded….The fact that mainstream journalism doesn’t understand it is a problem.”
So, Jeb Bush, it’s your turn now. Please help me understand why Donald Trump is the next president of the United States, and you are not? Please help me understand why all those church-going traditionalists you claim to understand so well voted for him, and not for you?
Here I am, 12 years later, more surprised, more confused, more alienated than I was in 2004. My concerns from back then seem quaint in comparison to what I am grappling with now. I need help, a compass for how to think and act.
Maybe I can take a page from our next president, who thinks of himself as his best advisor. (At times, when I am struggling with my own writing, someone will hand me a copy of one of my own books as a lifeline.)
I was gratified to see that a former student of mine, Nelson Graves, wrote a post-election piece for the New Straits Times in Malaysia in which he cited my work from 2004. He reminded me that I had written not one, but two essays back then. The first one, quoted above, described my alienation. The second, a month later, titled “Beyond Alienation,” outlined what I was trying to do to get back my bearings as a journalist and a citizen.
I had argued that “My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist.”
In 2004 to get my vision back I practiced some new behaviors, designed to expand my horizons. I exchanged messages with a “spunky Creationist,” tuned in to a religious radio program, and went to a yard sale at a nearby evangelical church, a place I had driven by for more than 25 years without ever stopping. I exchanged a few words of greeting with some nice folks and walked away with a decent golf bag — for only five bucks. I listened to Christian music radio.
I spent some time contemplating the virtues and vices that separate journalists from so many segments of American society.
I wrote, “Mainstream journalists have been accused of some serious vices: arrogance, narrow-mindedness, elitism, and bias. (One person who responded to my essay called me a religious "bigot.") The opposite of vice is virtue. The opposite of pride is humility. So I'm wondering if the long-term cure for my funk might just be a set of civic and journalistic virtues.”
Among those virtues, I focused on four: tolerance, empathy, attention, and self-doubt.
Here’s how I described each:
Tolerance: I’ve come to think of tolerance as the greatest American virtue, and the one that is most misunderstood. I think we confuse tolerance with acceptance. And while people may want to be accepted for their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, religious affiliation, or cultural beliefs, they are asking too much. It is enough to be tolerated. The individual journalist must learn to tolerate people and ideas that he or she may find personally repugnant. Editors must be willing to create news coverage in which such folks can recognize their lives and their values.
Tolerance does not require giving airtime to truly marginal or dangerous ideas, but even these must be countenanced as part of news judgment. It may be hard for the individual journalist to govern his personal distaste for the work of a Marxist historian or the founder of a religious cult, but such discipline is part of the job. Tolerance requires tolerating the intolerant. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have in some expressions an idea of the infidel, which almost always leads to religious hatred and violence and almost always is a knife at the throat of democracy.
Empathy: My dictionary defines empathy as: "Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives." By definition, it is easier to empathize with the person most like us. When tragedy strikes, we can be inspired to empathize across cultural divides. Great human suffering, wherever it occurs, calls attention to our common humanity.
The great challenge is to feel the pain of those who suffer from the things I enjoy. I have read all…"Harry Potter" books twice, and seen the movies countless times. To me and a generation of children, they are a source of inspiration, an encouragement to literacy, a splendid diversion from the cares of the world. To some, this imaginative universe of wizards and witches is a threat to deeply held religious beliefs. As a person, I don't have to be neutral about Harry Potter. As a journalist, I need the capacity to at least imagine, and try on the shoes, of someone with a radically antagonistic perspective.
Attention: The good journalist needs to pay attention, to keep watch, to be curious about all corners of the community and the nation. My personal interests and biases push me in a few directions and keep me from turning toward others. So I've got to make an effort. With Outkast I can "shake it like a Polaroid picture." But I can't name a single person or group — I assume Amy Grant doesn't count — who performs Christian popular music. That's unacceptable (so I'm looking for some recommendations….).
In the 1970s Sally Quinn wrote these wonderful features for the Style section of The Washington Post. Despite her own liberal proclivities and social sophistication, she was attracted to story subjects who followed a different path. She profiled women such as the author of "The Total Woman," who preached a form of ultra-feminine submissiveness of wife to husband. Others may disagree, but I always felt Quinn was fair to these women, that she captured their lives and values without sarcasm or irony.
Self-Doubt: Self-doubt is the opposite of arrogance. I have a feeling that my own confession of self-doubt was the door that allowed others to begin a conversation with me about America's cultural divides. Self-doubt does not mean the abandonment of deeply held principles or religious beliefs. In fact, self-doubt may result in their being tested in the fire and strengthened. Self-doubt begins with an internal dialogue, questions that test your biases: What if I'm wrong about gun ownership in America? What if that hiring practice isn't fair? What's so wrong about posting the Ten Commandment in a public place?
In the 12 years since I wrote my essays, multiple forces converged — some would say conspired — to give us Donald Trump. I want to make sense of them, the way I wanted to make sense of what forces in the world had evolved to result in 9/11. Journalists are notoriously bad at the long view. Only when the house collapses do we find the cracks in the foundation.
As I look ahead as a citizen and a journalist, I will continue to examine my back pages. Dylan was right, I was much older then, I’m younger than that now. I’m younger than I was in 2004, in the sense that I think I know less. I’m younger than I was in 2004, in that I have no other choice but to look ahead.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misattributed a story about The Pillsbury Bake-Off.