"Hmmm." (Watch out when your e-mails begin that way. An ad hominem attack usually isn't far behind.) "You suck. Why can't you write more positive journalism??!!?"
"Positive journalism." How do I even start to dissect what this means? Let's be smart alecky and start with the negative. First, examine the accuser's context. He's usually p.o.-ed that I'm "picking on" the Bush administration (but he was silent when I supported Clinton's impeachment). Or he's pro-corporate &endash;- "capitalism" they call it &endash;- while ignoring corporate welfare's assaults on actual free enterprise of small businesses and the rampant corporate negligence that has created the runaway tort climate. Or he's a gun nut (the First apparently exists to protect the Second, and not much else, he believes). Or he's "colorblind" to anything but that old white, male status quo.
Thus, any journalism that doesn't comfort his comfortable notion of is "negative." Never mind that the point of America, they tell us in the history books, is to "let freedom ring." Bounty hunters of "negative journalism" have defined freedom, damn it, and we're supposed to go along with the program, wave the flag at whatever they throw at us, and "bee positive."
Of course, this wing of the positive journalism movement is a sham and a cover -&endash; much like Fox News' heralding of its own "balanced" news coverage. (If you're so damned proud of being conservative, why not call it that?) They're trying to snooker the American public, and succeeding much too often for comfort. They're out to convince people drunk with popular culture, marketing images and rote TV news that questioning the powerful is "negative." Their long-term anti-media campaign, which really took hold in the Reagan/Falwell '80s, is coming to fruition. How many times lately, say in your own extended family, have you heard the words: "The media is too liberal" or "I'm tired of negative journalism." I'd guess you're starting to hear the second one more than the first. Why? Because it's the new catchphrase as it becomes more obvious that the corporate media is, shall we say, a bit less than flaming liberal. So positive conservatives are trying to discredit the questioners by accusing us of conspiratorial negativity.
This reminds me of the campaign by Kirk Fordice, the first Republican governor in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Fordice ran on a smiley-face campaign where he sneered at those who criticize the state (or, more aptly, the state's old-style conservatives). Once elected, he kept a campaign promise and erected new Welcome to Mississippi signs with the following tag line: "Only positive Mississippi spoken here." Of course, the guy soon outed his own doublespeak: He proved to be the angriest and most negative governor we've had here in Mississippi since the 1960s, culminating in a nasty divorce and public embarrassment of his popular wife. So much for joyful family values. (The paranoid welcome signs started coming down soon after Fordice left office, thank the Lord.)
This drowsy, "positive" reporting too often shelters downright evil: Consider the press during Nazi Germany, Jim Crow, the witch hunts of the Cold War. It allows for corporate plunder (Enron, anyone?), the establishment of one religion above any others and the resulting contravention of freedom of religion (a return to "freedom to worship as he does"), the squelching of dissent as has happened since Sept. 11, racial profiling and the round-up of US citizens without regard to their constitutional rights. Locally, it covers for powerful elements who want to destroy urban cores, empowering big-box retail over local business, the erosion of educational ideals and student rights, sweeping law-enforcement nets that throw more people of color into the prison industrial complex.
Now the positive &endash;- sort of. I agree that actual negative journalism is destructive. By that I mean sensationalist media coverage that overplays criminal behavior and helps turn society on certain groups (African Americans, Arabs and the mythical youthful "super-predators" come to mind.) The Kerner Commission found back in the 1960s that the media overplayed the negative aspects of inner cities and "ghettos." They still do. And the press, especially television, gives violence way too much play: the whole "if it bleeds, it leads" voyeuristic ratings-hungry nonsense. From 1992 to 1996, US murders fell 20%, but ABC, NBC and CBS increased homicide coverage 721%, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Most frustrating to people trying to effect positive change, too many of the forces driving the conservative move against "negative journalism" aren't trying to change many of the misconceptions perpetrated by sensationalist journalism. Too much of it supports their agenda. They're trying to discourage the muckraking that can and does comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable, that chiastic compliment Clare Booth Luce paid to as Eleanor Roosevelt. These supposed purveyors of the "positive" are actually trying to protect and comfort the comfortable. Yuck.
All that said, the positivists have a point, or at least a hook to draw in believers. That is, it is easy to get frustrated with the world, especially right now, and try to use every inch of copy to damn the bastards, so to speak, and expose the excesses. But there is a place for authentic sanguine journalism that matters. This struck me when I interviewed a group of South Bronx teens last year who had published a report about the New York Times' lopsided coverage of minority youth. Their findings hark back to the Kerner days and show that much work is to be done. I wrote about those kids -&endash; teens like Joseph Vazquez, now studying the ministry, who dared to talk back to an institution and say, "you're getting us wrong."
But was my coverage of Joseph and his friends in the Village Voice positive or negative? My story was negative about the New York Times, but positive about these teens. It was positive it if made Times editors rethink their choices. I'd suggest that the solution lurks in there somewhere. We cavilers need to keep the big picture in mind, which I suggest that many of the elite, including the left, are not doing. We shouldn't have the privilege of using this space, or any forum, just to sound clever or to one-up an enemy. We all do it; I sure have. My boyfriend keeps an eye on my work, which he usually agrees with, but constantly challenges me to find the positive or insert a bit of loving kindness or at least end with a call to action and ideas for turning the negative into a positive. He inspired me to pick back up Deborah Tannen's book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War on Words [Ballantine, 1998] to look for ways to ensure I'm not just tinkling in the wind.
Tannen says the media too often create a polarization by using the so-called objective two-sided model -&endash; the Crossfire and Chris Matthews varieties that usually tell us nothing. She suggests instead: 1. Don't demonize opponents. 2. Don't affront deep moral commitments. 3. Talk less of rights, and more of needs (that one's hard for me, I admit). 4. Leave some issues out. 5. But be passionate, engaging in a "dialogue of convictions." And, she adds, be imaginative with your arguments.
My call to action? Let's take back the word "positive." Hmmmm.
Donna Ladd (donnaladd.com) is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.