China and its Discontents

Archive for January, 2012

What is News?

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I’m taking a class on journalism that requires us to blog (not a journalism class, but a class on journalism). So I thought I would put those posts here too. Readings from the class will be referenced (but don’t worry, the references are quoted and explained).

In asking, “What is news?” I was reminded of a question recently posed in the form of a blog post by Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times Ombudsman: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Should newspapers point out that X politician made Y and Z false statements? The obvious answer is yes (Jim Fallows at The Atlantic generally summed up my views). Fallows’ critique of the media is common today, and has been common for a long time: that many journalists engage in superficial “horse race reporting” (where facts are presented without context and meaning) and “false equivalence” (where two opposing truth claims are treated as equally plausible). This critique is even mentioned in one of the readings, “If you call to mind the topics which form the principal indictment by reformers against the press, you find they are subjects in which the newspaper occupies the position of the umpire in the unscored baseball game.” (Lippmann, 50)

Some of our readings make the opposite case. According to Halberstam, news is not about providing context or explanation: “News reports, on the other hand, need not be explanatory and those explanations which do appear in news account are often adscititious intrusions.” (Halberstam, 13) Halberstam’s definition of the news would seem to rule out a lot of important news. Financial reporting on the recession, for example, would be useless without context and explanation of the causes and actors involved in the crash. Similarly, Halberstam’s emphasis on events as news would rule out most news stories concerning global warming, or other long-term patterns that impact us in dramatic ways.

I know that personally, I would like to believe that journalists exist as the fourth estate, uncovering malfeasance and inserting themselves into the political process in a way that makes everyone else more informed and better citizens. This sort of reporting would require context and explanation of events and long-term patterns. Lippmann argues strenuously against this idealistic vision: “If the newspapers, then, are to be charged with the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic, they fail, they are bound to fail, in any future one can conceive they will continue to fail.” (Lippmann, 117-118) That might be a straw-man argument. I don’t think that the media, by fulfilling its public purpose, will hand down the truth from on high to the masses. Every person makes autonomous judgments. Rather, news media should seek to make people better-informed citizens, regardless of the political conclusions those people make. After all, Morson’s example of the degraded conditions at the Ridge Home nursing center could lead someone to conclude the government should improve the center, or that the government should abolish the center.

Written by Will

January 24th, 2012 at 11:07 pm

A Rant About Women? How About a Rant About Life.

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I am so glad Sheryl Sandberg recently shared via Facebook an old blog post of Clay Shirky’s from two years ago, “A Rant About Women.” The post is old in internet terms, but the content is classic. Some of the comments are even better than the original post. The gist is: women aren’t as good as men at being “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks… self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so.”

Shirky puts this starkly as a male-female divide, but I would hope any self-reflective person struggles with the delicate balance between being genuine and authentic vs. confident and successful. Ultimately though this is a false choice. We don’t have to sacrifice either, and quite often these qualities reinforce the others. If you find yourself becoming inauthentic as you rise professionally, “you’re doing it wrong.” But when you are authentically confident, people recognize both your authenticity and your confidence, and reward you for both (this might be an exaggeration solely supported by my personal experience). Maybe it’s hard to achieve that state. But that’s the point. It should be hard. There’s no point to it otherwise.

The two top comments were really superb. First this:

I recognize the unfairness when the societal differentiation is considered. But I have also noted the worth of taking for your own the strength of “not caring about” …so much. A good example is in your average male bonding: it’s not that men don’t have their limits, and certainly can trigger the threshold whereby an outright fighting response is provoked with another man, but that bonding almost universally includes a higher threshold for taking cracks, jabs, humorous insults, swipes, etc, and, when you learn how to give them well and in a good-spirited way (I cannot emphasize the second modifier enough), the joy shared by all. The essence of success in this comes from that differentiation learned over time from men’s interactions to develop in-sensitivity, “to not care so much”. Individuals can wisely adapt for themselves virtues learned from the stereotypical schools of women’s sensitivity and men’s insensitivity, suited to taste. In the above case, it’s about our feelings, but the callous of not-caring-so-much also becomes a tool of confidence for other things.

All this being said, hopefully the true difference between an asshole and an admirable person is prudence of application. Sadly, that too is an art not so easily learned, except by falling down, getting up, and reflecting.

In addition to the lesson of “not caring so much” (i.e., being above the criticisms/jokes), I would add it’s helpful to be below the compliments people give you.

The other great comment read along the lines of “known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, and unknown-unknowns” a la Rumsfeld. Or as a friend restated, “ignorant knowing and knowing ignorance.” The point being, we do well on both personal and professional levels when we operate in the realm of known-unknowns/knowing ignorance.

Written by Will

January 22nd, 2012 at 8:36 pm

The White Paper at Trinity and the New Social-Academic Paradigm

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This post is in the way of an apology for not posting for many months. I submitted an op-ed to the Trinity Tripod a month and a half ago, but never posted it here (and it’s not on the Tripod website either), so here it is!

Have most Trinity students read President Jones’ White Paper? No. But if they have heard anything at all, they know he ‘wants to get rid of the fraternities’. What we cannot forget is that President Jones proposed two ‘helixes’, one academic and the other social, “neither of which can be separated from the other.” In other words, it is useful to think of the big picture – the Jeffersonian, holistic, “intellectual village,” as idealized in the paper.

As I was reading the White Paper, several ideas came to me that have been on my mind since I arrived at Trinity in 2008, some of which President Jones touched upon. The first is the notion of belonging. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it rates as the third most basic, behind physiological needs and safety. The kids at Trinity who don’t feel like they belong here or to any particular community on campus transfer. And President Jones mentions this need. This lack of belonging cannot be answered by only an academic or a social solution – it must be a combination of both. We belong to both groups on campus, and to a larger campus community. These senses of belonging are inculcated by a strong academic ethos marked by intellectual curiosity, where students are inextricably tied to professors in and outside of the classroom, and when we feel we are welcome across campus anywhere we go, as President Jones says, on a meritocratic basis.

A couple of months ago I was having a conversation with my father on pedagogy and the recent acts of bigotry and prejudice at Trinity. Out of that conversation, I came to realize that these acts occur because there is a disconnect in values between some students and the larger campus community. The value system exemplified by our mission statement has not been fully institutionalized – our values are not cohesive, our community is dysfunctional. We lack communal norms. This too can be solved by both an academic and social solution. When students come to Trinity “for the right reasons,” when students and faculty are on the same page, we establish communal norms. When we all share certain communal academic and social experiences, such as the first-year “great books” seminar program proposed by President Jones, norms are established. The best academic model is that of the Socratic method, of proleptic questioning: the faculty ask leading questions that provoke knowledge that a student has but has not yet put together in a coherent fashion. Students come to class having done the reading and are excited to engage in difficult material. This is what we must inculcate at Trinity.

Let’s not get lost in the particulars and remember that there is a greater purpose to the intertwined helixes. Let’s move forward, start a conversation, and ask the hard questions. Let’s be present and active in our little “academic village.”

Written by Will

January 3rd, 2012 at 12:53 pm