The neighborhoods of Fred Rogers and Donald Trump

Sam Smith – An exceptional new documentary on Fred Rogers hit a theme for me about two thirds through: I realized that Mr Roger’s neighborhood was the exact opposite – in decency, integrity, friendliness and happiness – of that being created by Donald Trump.

Fred Rogers wasn’t a perfect individual. He was, in that fine definition of a saint, a sinner who tried harder. He took his own difficult childhood and turned it into something else not only for him and for millions of others. Nothing could be further from the cruelty, falsity, and greed projected in Mr. Trump’s neighborhood.

As I watched the film, I was reminded again of how television and movies have chosen mainly not to celebrate the good but to reflect the evil around us. This is not wrong in itself, but without any major alternatives to this cynical media world, how do we learn how to behave differently? To love? To be kind? Where are our role models for good?

The reason Mr. Rogers moves even adults is in part because he was a model of how we might handle things differently. He was a little corner of hope and joy in a nation that would soon  join Mr. Trump’s neighborhood.




Dealing with the banality of political evil

Sam Smith – Having been in this racket for six decades, I’m aware that some things have changed dramatically for the worse and yet the public and the press regard them as normal –as Peter Dreier points out, what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.

Among these has been the fading of moral voices – whether from academia such as Dreier or religions other than the evangelical right. It is amazing,, for example, that only 25% of Christians are evangelicals – and not all them right wingers – yet the media has let them have a disproportionate share of space on issues like abortion and gay rights.

Similarly the media seems immune to the possibility that the most successful exercises in diplomacy do not typically involve the military. Nor does it ask when our last successful war was or when was the last war approved, as required by the Constitution, by the US Congress.

Part of this is because history and cultural context are an almost trivial part of journalism these days. Among the things you might otherwise learn is that the banality of political evil is far more bipartisan these days that it once was.

Yes Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam and Kennedy lied about Cuba but their total lives were much more complex. It wasn’t until I began looking at the Clinton story during the 1992 campaign that I stumbled not only upon a Democratic version of repeated fiction but a stunning acceptance of it by liberals and the media that would continue for a quarter century.

Many of the things I wrote about Arkansas would never appear in the more conventional media. I won’t bore you with the details, but how many even today realize that three of Hillary Clinton’s closest business partners ended up in prison? Or that Whitewater was, in fact, a real estate scam in which the unwitting bought third rate property 50 miles from the nearest grocery store and, thanks to the sleazy financing, about half the purchasers, many of them seniors, lost their property.

Such information was so unacceptable in Washington that for a period I was banned from DC’s NPR station and on two occasions, my invited appearances on CSPAN were blocked by higher network officials. To this day, I have never run into such a collection of good stories for which there was such stunning disinterest by the media and liberals who should have cared.

I had always thought one of the jobs of a journalist was to uncover the truth for the public about its leaders. As far back as the 1990s I began to feel a growing disinterest even by those I thought were in a fellowship of mind.

Then there was the Bush administration with the Iraq War and it felt more comfortable, for example, to write a piece for Harper’s comprised entirely of Bush administration and supporters’ lies about the war. But a decade and a half later, few still seem concerned that we were conned into a struggle that about which those in power still tell untruths.

And while Obama was, on a day to day basis, more honest than such predecessors, his underlying story also contained fictions that to this day seem to interest only a few. For example, he had neither the ethnic heritage nor the progressive politics for which he was credited. He, in fact, spent more time at Harvard Law School than he had with a black parent. And curiously, at a time when discussions of race blossomed, few seemed to notice that skin color is only one factor in ethnicity. I have long felt that Obama could have been far more effective and successful if he had presented himself as America’s first bi-ethnic president, someone who had lived and understood the complications of a multicultural society.

Add to this the hidden fact that Obama was in part the creation of the same conservative Democratic Leadership Council that had given us Clinton and you have another clue as to why something like Obamacare didn’t work out better.

Then consider the post-Great Society desertion of the white working class and its economic issues and one begins to sense that this is a cultural rather than just a political problem.

So if we are to be honest, we must admit that as a society we have increasingly treated as normal political characteristics we still claim to abhor. The evil of Donald Trump is not our fault, but our failure to act loudly and firmly enough against its earlier manifestations made his rise easier.

The media is not helpless to deal with this. It after all helped to create Trump first by its enthusiasm for his show business manifestations and then by assisting Americans come to believe that TV show hosts are a reasonable source of presidents. It also bought heavily into the Trump lie that running a family business is equivalent to running a normal large corporation and that in either case selling stuff to customers for your own profit qualifies you to serve citizens in their best interests.

The media’s job is not merely to report what is happening and being said but to lend it some rational meaning. If a bridge collapses, you talk to engineers and not just the people who were on it or the politicians who built it.

Some newspapers are doing a much better job of fact checking of late but there is little of this on television. The key question is: when Trump lies, what should you do about it? Reporting lies is not a journalistic responsibility, pointing out lies is.

And the media needs to take responsibility for the fact that the people they feature on their pages and on the air easily become voices of authority and reason to the public. Even in the 1950s and 60s, when you read the news you found voices of intelligence, morality imagination and clarity even if they were outside the system. These voices often lack the sort of power the media respects in part because the media rarely talks to them. How would CNN cover Martin Luther King Jr if he had arrived on the scene last year?

It’s time to make wisdom, justice and moral understanding at least as big a part of the news as those who con every microphone they approach. If the people we hear through the media are mainly hyperbolists, liars, and other forms of manipulators, where do we get to learn what is sane, logic and moral?

My time with Billl O’Reilly

2004 – Reader Chas Edwards used the right word when he described your editor’s appearance on the Bill O’Reilly show as a “smackdown,” for television of this variety has far more in common with professional wrestling than with professional journalism. And like a professional wrestler I went on the show knowing full well that I was the designated loser. Bad Bubba O’Reilly was to show his infinite skills against Ultimo A-Train Sam with the latter left humiliated on the mat.

Some have inquired, and not too gently, why I would submit to such nonsense. Leading aside the shameful truth that I enjoy nonsense immensely, things like the O’Reilly show are merely the outward and most visible sign of an artificiality that pervades television. Everything that television does becomes television rather than what it starts out to be.

For example my few minutes on Fox required numerous phone calls, including a “pre-interview,” follow-ups and useful advice on how to facilitate the O’Reilly experience. Upon arrival I was layered with powder to make me look as much unlike myself as possible although, as I pointed out to the duster, making me up is a bit like George Bush trying to balance a budget. And then I sat for 45 minutes as people rushed back and forth on unknown but important missions including Britt Hume who sincerely wished me luck tackling O’Reilly and Bill Kristol who said hello and then quickly turned and left when he realized that his greeting hadn’t been necessary.

And to what end? To spend a few minutes talking to a wall that for the purposes of television I was to imagine as Bill O’Reilly. How an industry that spends so much money on everything else can only give you a wall to talk to is puzzling and I know of no one who has experienced one of these remote interviews who finds it comfortable.

I comforted myself by recalling the time I was interviewed in my office and placed in a chair in front of the camera. A bored young intern sat in a chair under the camera and I was told to direct my answers to him, answers to questions being provided over a speakerphone 160 degrees off my starboard bow by an interviewer in New York. Three minutes into the interview the intern fell asleep, a development unnoticed by the crew on the other side of the camera. So for the next ten or fifteen minutes I had to inform a dormant slacker on some matter of great concern without totally breaking up. On the whole, I prefer walls.

Besides, I got to talk with the Bosnian driver of the car Fox News had sent for me. And by the time we had reached the UAW headquarters where my next meeting was, he had indicated that he would switch from his current political apathy to voting Green in the next election. So you see, it was worth it, after all.

2011 – Your editor recently took on O’Reilly and managed 104 more words than the interviewer. Further I actually gave two answers of 78 and 84 words. For only one brief instance did O’Reilly outtalk Sam. Sam was reduced to five or less words in only 31.11% of his replies.



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