News as Political Agenda: Whatever Happened to Cronkite?


Our news programs have become promoters of a political agenda, no longer a broadcast of both sides of a position.  But isn’t that what Walter Cronkite did–present both sides?  Instead we watch Fox News or MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow, hardly ever both.  When did our news become so one-sided? When did we start choosing which news to watch based on our predilections?

It seems to date back to the landmark repeal by both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush of the Fairness Doctrine, first in 1987 and then again in 1991. The 1949 Fairness Doctrine had required all TV news coverage to present opposing viewpoints.  Once it was repealed, newscasters could push a political agenda.  Websites who cover current events often follow suit, with video clips to support their views. The media lesson was straightforward: News is not about the truth. It is about viewership aka advertising dollars.

News coverage is indeed evolving…and rapidly. All we need is a smart phone.  With the iPhone we become our own broadcasters. Think of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The photos and video may not have the polish of a professional news organization, but they capture the uncensored immediacy of the event.  Live, instantaneous news feels truthful  even though it precludes previewing the content to verify its authenticity .

We’re now able to take people quickly where they couldn’t go before. Take the Arab Spring, for example.  Or Mitt Romney’s muffled comments. It’s changing news one smart phone at a time. This is a milestone. But is it journalism? In some ways, it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Social media increasingly shapes what constitutes newsworthiness. Competition for viewers’ interest has never been more intense. Viewers have always voted with their eyeballs. While the Fairness Doctrine was in effect we voted on whether to watch Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley.  We chose who delivered the news not which news to deliver. Now it is in the media’s commercial interest to try to match active social media participants’ desires. It is not so difficult to see how an issue which is a major story to one television station or one major blog can be ignored by others: if  the story doesn’t match the participants’ desires. And it is not so difficult to see how the same set of facts can be reported on so differently: “facts” are aligned with the beliefs of the viewers.

And with top priority placed on news events that affect  Americans, some foreign news is completely absent. Compare BBC America or Al Jazeera with CNN or Fox and you will wonder if you are on the same planet.

What has happened to our news?  Opinion dominates, but not necessarily in a transparent way. Should news seek to be objective or skewed to appeal to a targeted audience? How are we to be informed about the world-at-large if our news is one-sided?

Grey Sparrow and Noctua–“Not for the Birds”

Grey Sparrow, Winter 2013
Grey Sparrow, Winter 2013

Grey Sparrow and Noctua Review are both digital and print (hybrid) publications featuring new artists and writers (both short story and flash fiction).

Because of the expense of producing print media or “hard copy”, the proliferation of digital journals allows new writers and artists more venues than ever before.  Journals such as Grey Sparrow and Noctua Review offer both, with the “hard copy” delayed but also available for those who are not quite used to reading almost everything online or in e-book format,  or who just need something for the coffee table.  For those who still believe that printed journals exude more “legitimacy” or “credibility”, some literary and art journals are going through a transitional phase by offering both formats.

Rethinking the way we receive information that used to be exclusively through magazines and newspapers is an exciting venture:  brainstorming new ways to distribute the pleasure and value of reading fiction and appreciating art.  I view them as complementary–almost mutually dependent–in presenting new ways to digest ideas.

The experience of each format is different, both physically and cognitively.   Print is less brilliant in terms of light and “glow” on the eyes and inert when it comes to interacting with the reader. In contrast, digital is bright, interactive and instructive in terms of displaying images, referencing literary illusions, background information, and posting comments.  I enjoy both the “touch and feel” of the paper version as well as the immediacy, interaction, and archival nature of digital media.

For me as a writer and artist, the two-way feedback allowable on the Internet, is an overwhelmingly positive tool to refine my work for a broader audience.  It allows the creator/crafts person to be more democratic in inviting comments and suggestions. The ease, low cost and immediacy of digital distribution is erasing the economies to scale needed for print distribution, once the exclusive providence of large national media channels.  Now we can all compete for viewers.  As content providers/ creators all of us can get potential worldwide distribution that was previously almost impossible.

I invite you to take a look at these two journals which are both digital and print  to see some new work in fiction and art, using the digital and print media distribution channels.  I have my artwork in both journals (Grey Sparrow, Winter 2013) and Noctua Review (June 18, 2013).

“The Big C”– Memento Mori or “Remember You Shall Die”

Big C 2The last stages in the cycle of life and death have finally attracted film and movie producers. I am talking about the formerly taboo twin topics of aging and death.  Perhaps as we baby boomers and our children, the “echo boomers”, see that the inevitability of death needs to be part of our cultural conscience, movies that sympathetically but unflinchingly portray aging and death have been increasingly gaining mainstream audiences and awards.  To name a few:  “Departures”, “Away From Her”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”  “Hope Springs”, “Quartet”, “Amour” as well as books such as “The Year of Magical Thinking”.  Is this is a societal flashpoint which marks a cultural change only beginning to take place? The subjects of aging, the changing of the landscape of relationships and friendships, the glibness of those who are trying to offer comfort have never been portrayed in such starkness.

And now the award-winning Showtime television series, “The Big C”,–“C” is for cancer– just finished its four-part special finale to close its four-season run.  The story is Cathy’s (the remarkable Laura Linney):  a middle-aged high school teacher with terminal cancer who wants to be happier with her husband (the subtle actor Oliver Platt),  more involved with her  teenage-son (newcomer  Gabriel   Basso,  a mentor to her college-aged friend (Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame,) and a moral support to her brother (the unforgettable John Benjamin Hickey).   She wants to enjoy her last days with those around her –with a powerful energy to embrace what life she has left. The first three seasons celebrate the joy of fulfilling one’s bucket list and preparing for death with acceptance and positive control over how one chooses to die.

Fearless in its honesty about cancer, people who have to deal with a loved one’s cancer, and the broader topics of death and dying, the final four episodes of “The Big C” are riveting. The viewer cannot look away–even if the uncomfortable connections between life and death seem unbearable. “The Big C” portrays the balancing of living and dying, since death is the most uncertain certainty we know. Cathy decides to die alone: for her a death with integrity and with respect for her family.

Cancer is perhaps the most frightening medical diagnosis one can receive.  It is also, metaphorically, a mutiny of one’s self in which the death of the body is an attack on itself.  Life is savagely unfair at times, and Cathy faces this with triumph, dignity, and uncommon grace.  The horror is not minimized, although I could quibble about the ending not being as bold as it could have been. Nonetheless her journey in the face of death assumes mythic significance.  Dissertations could be written on the beauty with which this unforgettable program deals with the ineffable.


“Orphans”–Fostering and Festering


This year the 1983 play “Orphans” by Lyle Kessler is nominated for two Tony Awards: Outstanding  Revival of a Broadway Play and Outstanding Featured Actor (Tom Sturridge).  I hope that this emotional tour-de-force wins both awards!

This play debuted with Ben Foster (from “Six Feet Under”) as Treat, Tom Sturridge (“Being Julia”) as Philip, and Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) as Harold.  The story opens in a  dilapidated Philadelphia house shared by two brothers: Treat, a small-time hoodlum, and his younger mentally disabled brother Philip, who hides in a closet when Treat is not home. Philip is afraid of life outside.  With dire warnings from Treat every day, Philip darts around the house, jumping from couch to stairs, like Spider-Man or a flying squirrel. Treat has forced his brother to live a dangerously isolated existence through lies and insults.

The brothers’ delicate and codependent relationship is thrown off-balance after Treat brings home a drunk man, Harold, whom he has met in a bar and has kidnapped.  Harold has a criminal past and a suitcase full of stocks and bonds. When Treat’s plan goes awry, Harold hires him to be his bodyguard and, having himself been an orphan, sees some of himself in the two young men.  Soon he moves in and becomes their surrogate father.

Since the two brothers have lived alone since they were kids, Harold appears to be the kind of father the boys have always longed for.  He introduces the ways of a gentleman (fashion, international food, home decor) and Philip ingests everything. But Harold poses a threat to Treat who has relished his power as Philip’s father figure.  Yet Treat’s role as a father has not only wounded his younger brother but also borders on self-destruction. Treat’s discovery that Philip has taught himself how to read is a heartbreaking and emotionally explosive scene. (Think “The Glass Menagerie” when the mother realizes her daughter is more aware than she had assumed.)

The three actors eviscerate each other–ferociously–but also desperately need each other. The ferocity of the rage is raw and intimidating, unforgettable and daunting.  As Treat Foster’s rage is a dangerous assault on himself.  Baldwin’s Harold is genuinely caring and enormously humorous.

And Sturridge is playing the sort of role that comes with “Tony nominee” blazoned on his chest: a mentally challenged, socially deprived character. When he realizes the role his brother has played in stunting his development, he manically flies from the couch to the stair banister and back, sweat dripping and mucus running down his chin and t-shirt.  He has inhabited the part as if possessed by it.  The physicality is astonishing.

By the end of the play the audience was stunned, most especially by Sturridge’s astounding acting. Philip may be the unstable character in “Orphans”, but he’s the one you remember.A contemporary “Death of a Salesman” meets “Glass Menagerie”, the play surprises at every level. This play deserves to be televised as well as produced in other venues.   “Orphans” well deserves its two Tony nominations.