A notable career anniversary

Twenty-five years ago this week,  the tiny Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record hired me to be a sportswriter. It was a job I wasn’t sure I wanted in a field that seemed beyond me.

Two and a half tumultuous decades later, I’m working at one of the largest newspapers in the world  — and many days, the field still feels beyond me. 

USA TODAY intimidates on a couple of levels. Beyond the institutional heft of the brand, there’s an outstanding newsroom full of grand credentials and big egos.  I love working there, but it’s the the kind of place that amplifies the voice in my head that’s always whispered “you’re not supposed to be here.”

Yet if I’ve learned anything during the past 25 years, it’s this: You don’t need the right connections, the right academic degrees or the right  journalism awards to succeed in the news business (though they certainly help). You need to work hard and care deeply about what you’re doing. It’s that simple.

So thanks, Hickory Daily Record, for taking a chance on a kid with a mere bachelor’s degree and a few crumpled-up clips from his college newspaper. You gave me a vocation, but more than that, you set me on the path to realizing that I am supposed to be here.

Bob Dylan, ‘The Atlantic’ and — me?

music_rock_roll_bob_dylan_bands_band_desktop_1024x768_free-wallpaper-29003The other week, I wrote a little piece for USA TODAY about Bob Dylan being charged with inciting hate speech in France. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic used it as a jumping-off point for a remix-style riff on the free-speech issues raised in the story.

Interesting, entertaining and flattering all at once.

Here’s more of my writing for USA TODAY. 

The Web politicizes everything

People love to leap into political debates and disputes from the safety of their computers.

And why not? The anonymity, immediacy and reach of the Internet fires people up about politics. That’s good, in a way. We’re probably more informed about issues, and more engaged as voters, than at any time in our history.

But there’s a downside. Because the Web is such a polarizing, self-selecting information filter, and because we live more of our lives on it and through it, people politicize every aspect of life, even trivial ones like fast food or comic books  or coffee.

One of my favorite Twitter comedians, Uncle Dynamite, posted a fantastic essay on his Tumblr page about this disturbing trend a few months ago. Here’s a sample:

I don’t unfollow people for their politics because I understand that this really is who people are now. I don’t think they realize that because of this politicization, they’ve become greatly diminished. Boring, hectoring, supercilious, condescending, self-important and taken up with politics for much of the day. And YES, caring. Caring, caring, caring. We all care. I care. You care. Everybody cares. You don’t care that I care and I don’t care that you care. What’s important, everyone thinks, is that I myself care. You? You’re another story. (i.e. not as important as *my* story).

And more:

It’s important, in politicization, to never see the other’s point of view as even sometimes workable. Politics is a zero-sum game, unlike most of reality. “The other person’s view can only be stupid and evil. It’s motivated by money, by a desire to enslave people, or simply by wrong thinking made manifest. The candidate from the other party is not even human, could never be human, and therefore we are allowed to say the vilest things about him and do the internet equivalent of repeatedly poking him in the eye with a sharp stick. 

In that same vein, Sonny Bunch, a writer for the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon, wrote this recently:

This may sound odd coming from someone who has spent his life working in political reporting, but I find it extremely sad when people can’t separate politics from the rest of their lives. I’m not talking about people getting worked up about politicians; we live in divided times, so things are bound to get heated when talking about elected officials. I’m talking about people who say “I want nothing to do with [Person X] because he is a conservative/liberal/ Republican/ Democrat in his personal life.” …

I’d like to think I’m more tolerant about this sort of thing because I’m a conservative who loves pop culture. If I had to boycott every artist I disagreed with, well, my iPod would be pretty empty and my DVD shelves would be bare. Being tolerant of differing opinions is a defense mechanism, in a way: without tolerance for those I disagree with, I’d go nuts.

If you disagree with that last sentence, you’re stupid and evil and should be banned from typing on the Internet.

There are no new ideas anymore…

So the premise behind the well-reviewed Fox series The Following, about an English serial killer with an artistic bent who inspires a cult of copycat followers, bears a remarkable resemblance to a 2007 Law & Order: SVU episode, “Svengali,” which was about an English serial killer with an artistic bent who inspires a cult of copycat followers.

Coincidence, I’m sure.

‘Plenitude’ and American politics

I’d never encountered the word “plenitude” until a recent post at Reason pointed me to this fantastic 1998 essay, “The Politics of Plenitude,” by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken.

What is plenitude? For McCracken, it’s “a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict.”  So it’s “diversity,” if you like, though that useful word has been twisted beyond its original meaning in the public’s mind. (McCracken touches on why.)

The problem with plentitude from the right:

The right acts as if the many groups thrown off by plenitude harbor an anarchic tendency, that people have become gays, feminists, or Deadheads in order to escape morality. This is not the logic of plenitude. These people have reinvented themselves merely to escape amorality, not all morality. New communities set to work immediately in the creation of new moralities. Chaos does not ensue; convention, even orthodoxy, returns. Liminality is the slingshot that allows new groups to free themselves from the gravitational field of the old moralities they must escape. But liminality is almost never the condition that prevails once this liberation has been accomplished.

And the problem with plentitude from the left:

The only real plenitude that counts in the left’s scheme is that which has an explicitly oppositional quality. Thus, women’s groups are “diversity,” but country and western line dancing groups are not. Both of these groups may equally engage the individuals within them, both may represent a very substantial shift in cultural categories and social rules, both may mark differences that will continually breed differences, but it is only when the group is explicitly at odds with the mainstream that it qualifies as interesting. …

There is a deliberate narrowness to the left’s definition of plenitude. It is interesting to observe, for example, that the “Diversity Librarian” at the University of Michigan is responsible for collecting only in the following areas: minority studies, sexual orientation studies, and multicultural studies. This so diminishes the scope of the problem as to invite astonishment. Diversity overflows these categories. Real diversity happens everywhere–outside the designated political categories of the left, and its intellectual categories as well.

Much like Brink Lindsey’s excellent book The Age of Abundance, McCracken’s essay pinpoints how  the cheerleaders of America’s deeply flawed red vs. blue political system always miss the forest for the trees. Read the whole thing.

Slow news day at Muck Rack …

For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, I’m the featured journalist today on Muck Rack.

I’m surprised and a little humbled, though I need to correct a small part of their blog post about me. I personally was not a finalist for the 1999 Gannett Freedom of Information Award. I was part of a nominated team at the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. I supplied headlines, copy editing and page designs for the various projects that were recognized.

Anyway, it’s a nice little bit of recognition from the fine folks at Muck Rack, and I’m grateful for the honor.

Please, pass on the ‘charming’

The Atlantic‘s James Fallows thinks the Washington Post‘s homepage headline for this story on Mitt Romney’s perceived campaign gaffes — “Errors hurting Romney effort, some in GOP say” — is “charming”  because it reveals a lot  about “our craft, that of journalism, and the contortions we go through to abide by what we think are the rules.”

Fallows clearly believes the headline is another example of journalism’s “problem” with false balance — the idea that competing points of view must be granted equal weight in news stories, even when one side clearly doesn’t deserve it. (And who determines which side deserves to be discounted?)

I understand there’s a great deal of handwringing surrounding journalism’s “view from nowhere,” but I fail to see how a story in which Romney’s political allies go on the record to criticize his campaign fits that narrative.

That used to be called “news.” Or am I missing something?