Dis Qualified

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A quick lesson from Journalism 101:

Experts are the individuals who have the most facts, usually gathered across multiple degrees and a long career. They are not the ones whose sole qualifications are smooth looks, a smooth voice, and, if possible, a sense of humor. The Fourth Estate demands expertise. “Fair and Balanced” is an amateur attempt at a quick Brand. It makes no sense. Real news is often not fair. Real news covers the facts, the verifiable facts, the indisputable facts no matter where they lead, and if they only lead in one direction then we all head that way. That is journalism. That is fair. Fairness is found in the research to unearth the absolute facts, not in the reporting. And balance has nothing to do with results. Thoroughness in research is where the balance exists.

I teach research methods. We discuss the best sources and how to eliminate the false ones, how to validate the authority of the source, and how to insure a phony source isn’t presenting itself as an authority. This is a challenge in a world where verification before publication is nearly non-existent.

Then we discuss the significance of knowing how to do this. I tell them it isn’t just for when someone in their future says, “Quick, write me a well-documented research paper with excellent sources.” That probably won’t happen again after college. It’s so when they’re finding the right company to work for, the best investment for their income, and the best advice on health and medical issues, they know they’re not being misguided by incomplete information.

It also helps when listening to pundits pontificate about what’s best for our country, our families, and our children. I don’t want advice from my neighbor who “also had that condition” on what medicines to give a family member. I prefer a, you know, what do you call it? Oh right, a doctor.

And yet, honestly, most people are doing just that: taking advice from people who are more qualified to grow vegetables than they are to suggest who should run our country. These fools have thrown a damp blanket over true journalism, which insists upon validation of all sources. In essence, the most popular disc jockeys in the country, they call themselves commentators, are making everything up as they go.

Sean Hannity is a conservative talk show host who discusses political topics and influences millions. His education? He dropped out of NYU and Adelphi. It was his radio experience that enabled his charismatic presence to cover for his lack of expertise in anything he discusses. In the world of Mass Communications, he is not a journalist, though he plays one on TV.

Rush Limbaugh is another conservative talk show host discussing political topics and influencing millions more than Hannity. His Education? He dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University. His radio experience enabled his smooth voice and sharp wit to cover for his lack of expertise in anything he discusses.

These two have absolutely no background or degrees in journalism and how to verify information properly, or political science, or any experience in either politics or journalism beyond being disc jockeys with opinions.

We simply don’t need another DJ.  

Here is a disturbing example: Mike Savage has written multiple best-selling political books supporting his commentary as a syndicated talk show host, though his three degrees are in botany, medical anthropology, and nutrition. He is not a journalist, not a political scientist, and not funny.

Thom Hartmann, as well, is one the most successful progressive talk show hosts as well as a business mogul, but his degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State didn’t qualify him for the multiple best-selling books he has written about politics. That came from his popularity in a completely unrelated field, broadcasting. Hartmann, like the others, used his popularity to present himself as an expert on politics, instead of the true experts who become popular because of their authority on a subject.

And these same DJs are the same people who lead the masses in knocking Main-Stream-Media. Let’s have a gander at a couple of the more popular commentators these other frauds have attacked: Chris Cuomo is a lawyer who is the brother and son of NY State Governors. Megyn Kelly, most famous for being ridiculed by President-elect DJ Trump, has a political science degree from Syracuse and a law degree from Albany. Come on. If you want to know what might have the worst effect on your future when congress changes laws, who do you consult? A botanist? Two college dropouts with no experience in either law or politics but managed to stretch a college DJ gig into a career because they have good voices? Or a lawyer with a political science degree; another lawyer whose family has been in the governor’s house for decades?

To teach at a university, you must have a terminal degree in the field you teach. I teach writing, as such my undergraduate degree in journalism, as well as my second graduate degree in creative writing directly informs my instruction.

This is a no-brainer. My brother-in-law, for instance, is a well accomplished tenured historian at Temple University and author of multiple definitive volumes in history, but he can’t teach chemistry. No one no one no one at all, no one at all, anywhere—no one—questions this. And education is not the only occupation which requires employees be learned in the areas they work. The oil industry hires scientists in their research and development divisions, corporations mostly rely upon those with an MBA to handle their financial plans and investments, and very few marketing directors have a degree in criminology.

But unfortunately, what you need to be qualified for a particular job is no longer clear. If you’re going to manage a health club, should you be an expert in fitness? Management? Business? Nutrition? Any one of them would be effective but only one of them would not be sufficient. This is why people often work in teams, staffs, faculty.

Administrations.

Can you imagine an entire staff at any business or office where none of the staff has direct experience in the field? Inconceivable. Can you imagine what would happen if the people consulted for the most important decisions were not experts in research and investigation but instead radio personalities or billionaires with experience in a completely unrelated business?

You get the picture.

So how do we understand the dangerous trend in recent years to dis an individual’s outstanding qualifications for something more appealing, more Reality Television-like? Facts never used to be so pliable; truth came after excruciating research and triple-checked sources. Informed individuals stood down when that research showed them wrong. Trust was a given.

The same criteria used by many people in this country to choose a president would not get them a passing grade on a research paper in a freshman composition course. Misinformation is childish. Incomplete information is embarrassing.

And inexperienced, uneducated, unqualified commentators are not journalists, they’re not advisors and they’re not looking out for our best interests. They’re simply dangerous.

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Dad’s Books

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I have a collection of books I received on Christmas nights through the years. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins, Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham’s Dove, and more. Of course, Christmas morning was filled with the normal toys, candy, clothes, sporting goods, one year a bike, a guitar another, a whirlybird which my Uncles commandeered for the day, and many more memorable gifts. Honest to God, we were very lucky; it was an awesome childhood.

But the books have a different history. While Mom and Dad collaborated in many things, like in most families my mother was Santa when it came to shopping, wrapping, hiding, and organizing the gifts. She went to great lengths to make sure she spent exactly the same amount on each of us. And while I really don’t think we were spoiled, mostly because our parents made sure we appreciated everything, I also don’t remember ever thinking there was something I was expecting but didn’t get; that is, I was never disappointed. Yes, Mom did well. On Christmas morning as we unwrapped our presents, we’d make sure to say, “Wow, thanks Mom!” even on gifts we saw coming. By the end of the morning, though, we’d make sure to also throw in “and Dad” to the thanks, but he didn’t mind when we didn’t, ever.

And like in most families we drifted into that quiet period after opening gifts when we were engaged in our new items, and Mom was getting breakfast ready as well as dinner for the company which inevitably filled the house. Dad would read the paper, and Christmas, which really started when we returned home from Midnight Mass, would do its magic.

But later in the day after everything settled down, Dad would emerge from some quiet place and have a stack of gifts for us, chosen, purchased, and wrapped by him alone.

Books. It was amazing how he seemed to know exactly which ones to choose, and I don’t remember him ever asking what we were interested in. He just observed and took it from there. He’d hand us each a book he had signed inside with a “Merry Christmas, Love, Dad” and the year. I don’t remember when the tradition started but it had to have been early since one that I received was The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone, which is the kids’ version of Dove. I wasn’t yet a teen.

As the years went by we came to anticipate the books earlier in the day, though he usually held out. There were some exceptions; like one year when he gave us each money. I bought Illusions by Richard Bach and asked Dad to sign “Merry Christmas, Love, Dad” in the book anyway. Another year he replaced the books with Broadway tickets to see Katherine Hepburn in “West Side Waltz.”

It became my favorite part of the day. It wasn’t just the books, though. While I cherish the memories of Christmas evenings on the couch or stretched out on the floor with our books, it was also a specific moment I got to share with my father and keep up on a shelf . 

I have kept the tradition going since my son was born. Winnie the Pooh, Curious George, Hamlet, anything by Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, or Thor Heyerdahl, and more fill his shelves. We really do formulate our lives based upon what we’re exposed to growing up. Michael has the kindness of Pooh, the curiosity of George, Schultz’s sense of humor, and Heyerdahl’s sense of adventure. Go figure.

I try and wait until the end of the day, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Now I understand that Dad didn’t just give us books; he gave us his sense of understanding, of knowing, of remembering and anticipating. When I look at the books Dad gave me, they absolutely anticipate my life—music, adventure, the sea. What did he think was going to happen with a list like that? Actually, probably exactly what did happen.

As the years moved on and we all moved out, we started giving him books; he absolutely loved reading. We had to coordinate sometimes so we didn’t get him the same one, and I don’t think we ever did. He received volumes about Brooklyn, about baseball and golf, about history—one of his passions. The last book I bought him was a first edition copy of John Grisham’s first book, A Time to Kill. He loved Grisham’s work. That book is on my shelf now alongside the books he gave me.

I thought the book exchange between Dad and me would end, but they have not. I can’t give him books anymore, so I write them. When I started working on a book about Michael and me training across Siberia, I knew it was going to be framed as a series of letters to Dad from me about our trip. Several pieces have already been published but I have a long way to go. I want to get it right. I want it to be a book he would have bought for me, signed, wrapped, and given to me late in the day, just when I thought I was getting tired, when his gift would wake me up and send me on some adventure well into the night.

Merry Christmas Dad, Love, Robert

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“Has this ever been published?”

 

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An editor who reads this blog wants to publish one of the entries from much earlier this year. This is not normal. Anything “published” is generally not considered for publication by someone else unless it is an anthology of some sort. Material published in blogs—really anything online, including Facebook—is considered published. Period. This is why for the most part when I am writing something if I decide it has journal/magazine/newspaper worthiness, I don’t publish it here.

In fact, I have several categories of writing. There is the “blog” file, which includes material more akin to a diary entry than any essay I would attempt to convince an editor to consider. Usually the material is too provincial or “me” driven for wide appeal. I try and make most work relevant to more than my ego-driven world, but when they really remain little more than observations and digressions, I file them for the blog.

Then there is the “reading” file. These may include publishable work that is not yet ready to be published, but more often includes “bar” driven work which hopefully never will be published. The latter is crowd-driven and doesn’t always translate well to the page, despite the popularity at a reading. One example is a piece I wrote about a language mishap with my mother at the airport. On paper it doesn’t work because you can see the punchline coming.

The “in progress” files are those that I have every intention of combing through and sending to journals, magazines, and newspapers. They don’t all get finished, let alone accepted, but these are the ones with potential. This is why you’ll rarely see me write about Siberia or Spain on this blog—that material is still in the “in progress” file for future publication elsewhere. Maybe. Hopefully. 

I have a “great line” file, filled with notes of, well, observations and digressions, which may or may not end up in any of the above publications. This often also includes lost grocery lists and to-do lists from my office. I found my license in this file once. 

Sometimes crossovers occur. One morning last May I sat at Panera and blogged about my trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Within minutes of hitting “publish” I reread it and thought it might be good enough for a newspaper and sent it to the Washington Post. About ten minutes later they accepted it and asked if it had ever been published. I went back to this blog, deleted it, went to Facebook and LinkedIn and deleted any reference from those sites, and wrote back and said “of course not.” Luckily their acceptance was only minutes after it appeared on here so only a few people might have read it. And recently, I heard a story about one young woman who was accepted in the New Yorker, a game-changer for any writer. Unfortunately, her mother or someone she knows was so excited she published it on Facebook, and the New Yorker pulled the piece. That makes my stomach hurt and it wasn’t even me. Stories like that are why writers are a bit protective of where the work goes. The definition of “published” now seems to be anywhere that is beyond a writer’s own computer.

Still, this is the first time for me that a publisher read the blog and wanted to put it in a journal.

Hopefully none of these distinctions reflects quality. The real file breakdown for me is more content driven. If something has content with broad appeal, I’ll work it for “other” publication, so that isn’t an issue. Still, content often tells me which file it goes to.

I like to think this blog is akin to a few of us sitting around a table at a pub long after most people have left, and the conversation moves from hysterical to ridiculous to some philosophical point, where we are savoring the last drink and take whatever we were talking about and, well, digress. This makes the writing more personal and, hopefully, more universal at the same time. In the end, the best stories cannot be recorded. They must be lived. It can be a hard balance for this writer between “living” my life and “writing” about my life. I tend to bend in favor of “living.” There is no file for that, so some stuff just won’t end up anywhere.

Sometimes my son and I will be out taking pictures and note how the absolute beauty we see just isn’t being translated in pictures at that particular time. With the eye it is indescribably brilliant, but the shutter speed and F-stop just didn’t do the job. Writing is like that. Some subjects cross my mind when I’m out for a walk and I can’t wait to write about them. But when I do, they fall embarrassingly short. Like how grateful I am to be able to spend so much time outside; or how much I miss having Scotch on Tuesdays with my dad, or how much I want to pick up a phone and call my friend Cole, or Dave, or Trish, but they’re gone, and I can never correctly capture the emotion which falls between grabbing the phone and putting it back down.

 

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News Cycle

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This past Sunday morning I listened to the news while I drove home from a village across the river. No wonder I am on blood pressure medicine. People argued over the choices of the transition team for the new administration. An NFL player was shot and killed during a road rage incident. An Oakland resident complained about the response time of the paramedics to a deadly fire. Protestors in North Dakota waited for reinforcements from a group of veterans. Political analysts all agreed at the dangers of a pre-inauguration phone call to Taiwan. A man from Nevada did very well on the quiz show with NY Times Crossword Puzzle editor Will Short. Oklahoma State lost.

I turned into the driveway and wound my way through the four hundred feet of woods to the house and remained outside all afternoon. I found myself in desperate need of a little peace of mind. It seems the seasonal changes in nature are the only persistent and predictable aspects of life. When I am in the woods or walking along the water, I could as easily be ten-years-old as fifty-six, and it could as easily be 1969 as 2016. I could be on Long Island, or in central Massachusetts, or here at home, finishing off a cup of tea on the porch as wrens come and go for safflower seed.

Yesterday the sky looked like it might snow though it was in the fifties. It had that low gray layer of late autumn haze out over the bay so that I could look right at the sun. It was pale yellow, almost a mere shadow of a glow. Just a few days ago the sky was so deep blue it was as if there couldn’t possibly be a storm anywhere in the hemisphere; one of those days. As far across the bay as I could see, and to the west up the river, nothing. Not a single disturbance moved the water or the trees or even the marsh-reeds, which tend to bend at the slightest brush of breeze even when a heron takes flight.

So I stayed outside all day yesterday. Mostly I raked, but I also moved planters around, piled empty pots behind the garden shed, and cleared off the trail in the back woods where deer bed down at night, and at dusk a fox always scurries around waiting for Michael to toss some leftovers into the brush. The oaks are nearly bare, except for a few that keep their leaves until spring. This land has mostly hardwoods, so the view above isn’t impeded anymore, but down at eye level an abundance of holly keeps the property green all year. The laurel, as well, remains, and a little higher up the thin pines stay green.

It might snow this year. It seems every year snow falls more regularly. Three years ago it snowed so much I don’t remember it clearing out enough to see the grass until well into February or March, which for this part of Virginia out on the Chesapeake is unusual. I’ll take it, or the heat, doesn’t matter. Ice cold hands from doing work without gloves or a back covered in sweat in August are equally satisfying. I like being in nature, wearing it, letting it penetrate beyond the visual so that all of my senses come to life.

From my perspective in these woods, whether the view be unobstructed across fields and waterways, or blocked, able to see only the nearby thicket like shadows on the wall of a cave, it is a beautiful world; despite the news today we live in a beautiful world. While humanity votes in and casts out, the natural world bends and turns and spins and thrusts itself forward in endless revolutions of perpetual next. This country is still an infant, despite what we call history as well as histrionics. It teethes on change and feeds on self-indulgence. To be fair, it always has.

But this country, where the river has ebbed and flowed for tens of thousands of years, and the watermen still cross the reach each day before dawn like their great-grandfathers did, is stronger than any news cycle. Here in the early morning a channel marker rings and the oyster boats return to their docks by the time the morning news anchors have poured their first cup of coffee and sign on to keep us informed about what is “important.”

I have no argument in nature. I have no sense of conflict. The paths are not compromised by a lack of decorum, the deer are not prone to an absence of character, and the osprey and eagles which frequent these skies do not suffer from questionable integrity. Nature is neither crass nor belittling; it does not lie. The trees remain firm in their convictions, the birds—with one exception—do not mock other birds, and the skies, whether cloudy or clear, have no ulterior motives.

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