The front page of the Syracuse Herald-American, from Sunday, July 4, 1976.
Click for full page.
(Discovered last week during cleanout of cellar)
Once upon a time, I was a newspaper major. Eventually I realized I didn’t have much talent or nerve for picking up the phone and cold-calling people. And that wasn’t a skill being taught at the particular college I attended (you were supposed to have it already, before you decided on that kind of career). Fortunately, I had the presence of mind after my sophomore year to understand that a newspaper career was not going to be possible for me. I just wasn’t going to be very good at it — and in any case, my point of view probably would never have been a good fit for the Syracuse community at large (or possibly, anywhere else!)
But although I understand that, I still don’t grasp the process by which new blood gets into journalism locally. I know an excellent local writer who has blogged for several years on environmental subjects; he has a clear, engaging style and characteristic focus that would be a really good fit to the greater Syracuse community. If I was running things (and if newspapers were still making enough money) I would do whatever it took to get this person on board as an occasional paid columnist. But we don’t live in that kind of expansive era any more — newspapers these days have to be concerned with collecting content, and not with developing a farm team.
I saw the much-acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire today — at a surprisingly well-attended matinee (Carousel really needs to move this film out of their basement suite of shoeboxes). For those who haven’t heard the buzz on the film, it’s about a desperately poor Muslim boy who has become a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (an Indian TV program in real life, by the way) and amazingly knows the answers to all the difficult questions. Although I didn’t find it Best Picture material, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours and would recommend it.
I think the enthusiasm for this film among American critics isn’t so much for its plot, which is a fairly simple rags-to-riches fairy tale, but for its setting. Modern India is an amazing, vivid place full of contradictions: extreme poverty next door to glittering high-rises… religious violence in the world’s biggest democracy… dozens of languages and yet everyone appears to speak English as a single lingua franca. More American than the real America — or at least, a place where everything is on the table in a way that can’t be spoken of here. In India, no one pretends there aren’t class distinctions. In America, if class distinctions are admitted at all, it’s only spoken of in the context of an allegedly large middle class versus “corporate robber barons.” (It’s easier to fold class into the umbrella of racism, which blunts class issues by changing the subject.) In India, poverty is in-your-face. In America, no one ever talks about the poor — unless some also-ran for president thinks it would make a nice touch to a stump speech. In India, celebrities get pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want; in America, they’re “just like you and me.” Supposedly.
In Slumdog Millionaire the audience has a hero to root for, even if there aren’t any really hissable villains. That’s because the screenplay makes the hero particularly likable against a backdrop of injustice and corruption, and if India has vibrant appeal, it’s because most of us don’t have to wash our clothes in filthy puddles. But it makes you wonder what’s been lost in an American society where everyone is officially more or less “doing fine” (because there are no poor people, just a middle class that hasn’t gotten all it’s entitled to). A country where there are no heroes, only successes.
If you’ve lived in a community for any amount of time, you will turn up in the newspaper occasionally. My personal relationship with the Syracuse Newspapers began as an error. I was listed in the “Sons To” column (instead of the “Daughters To.”) This is in my baby scrapbook — ha ha, hee hee — but sometimes I wonder, in this age of Googling one’s prospective friends, employees and mates, someone is going to see this “fact” in the archives and assume all kinds of juicily wrong things about me.
My next (and perhaps final) fifteen minutes of fame came when I was a contestant in the Herald-Journal-sponsored National Spelling Bee. They used to make a bigger deal of the Bee back then and there was a lot more coverage, so I was in the paper more than was entirely comfortable for a shy teenybopper. There was a very nice reporter who covered the Bee and even acted as a chaperone of sorts in Washington. But I must note something that caused me some private consternation. In one interview I was asked about study lists — the question was, did I know the words in one particular list in front of me? I think my oh-so-articulate answer was “Um, yeah.”
Imagine my horror the next day when I was confronted by a kid at school waving the paper and saying, “So you know all the words, huh? Wow, stuck up or what?” Aghast, I looked at the article, and in quote marks was me saying that “I knew all the words.” I know that is no big deal to an adult reporter — an honest shortcut maybe — but to a middle-schooler of dubious popularity such a quotation was pretty mortifying. I remember wondering, “Why did she (the reporter) write that about me?”
I just want to take this opportunity to deny it again. I never, ever said that. (However I would like to thank Jeanne for never writing about how I cried on the flight to D.C. because I was so nervous.)
Since then, my relationship with the newspaper has been fine. But maybe some other people haven’t been so lucky. The Post-Standard recently took some reader heat when they identified a family who had been foreclosed and evicted from their Town of Onondaga home. A matter of public record? Sure. The same as reporting on a crime or arrest? I’m not so sure it was necessary to name and shame them (particularly, as noted by some readers, another family that faced eviction wasn’t named). I admit I don’t understand what journalistic rationale calls for a reporter to call out ordinary people like this, however many months delinquent they were. Their names didn’t seem important to the story that was being told (a day in the life of an eviction crew).
Maybe the paper got the facts straight this time, but judging by some of the comments and letters from readers, there’s a fine line between serving the community trust and violating that sense of trust.
Coverage of the Beijing Olympics has a strangely ambivalent feel. On one hand, the media is busy drawing attention to China’s massive pollution problems, human rights violations, and architectural coverups of Beijing’s endearing everyday shabbiness. But the corporations that bring us all these messages, via the corporate-owned news media, are also furiously serving up the Olympic hype 48 hours a day. (NBC is boasting 3600 hours of coverage. To paraphrase Rita Rudner, I don’t even want to do anything that feels good for 3600 hours!)
Yet, all this show isn’t really directed at the networks’ traditional core audience; more like over our heads, at a comfortable global citizenry that many Americans feel less and less that they belong to. It almost feels like being forced to attend the lavish wedding of a bride and groom that you don’t know. (Or worse, the lavish wedding of your ex.)
I don’t remember much sentiment or even hype that the 1980 Lake Placid games would “transform Upstate New York” or even just transform the Adirondacks. Lake Placid had already hosted the Games before, and it was, and would remain, a mountain resort village. But that was before Calgary. I suspect the ’88 Winter Games in that Canadian city did for (or “to”) the winter games what the ’84 Los Angeles games did on the summer side: the Olympics as all-consuming media and pop culture spectacle, to be held only in rich countries. (Certainly, the transformation was complete by 1992 in Albertville.)
Lake Placid might someday co-host the Winter Games again, perhaps in a shared bid with Montreal or some other Canadian city. But that would have to wait for a future where not only would Upstate’s economy be better, but where the Olympic movement had somehow stopped being a “Great Game” or a royal wedding.