James Rainey on “Good News”

James Rainey writes a column for the Los Angeles Times. His opinions focus on developments in the media itself–changes in NPR’s coverage, shifting foci at newspapers, etc. His editorial from Wednesday, March 25, 2009 discussed a topic of importance to me–Good News. He, of course, was actually talking about news being reported through typical news venues–newspapers, television, radio–that actually describes good things taking place. He made no reference to the theological concept of that “Gospel” means “Good News.”

Rainey gives some recent examples of Good News reporting. Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, recently asked for and then reported stories of people responding positively during negative times. The Cape Cod Times recently ran a picture of the first crocus in bloom on its front page, apparently a minor victory for on of its editors. But the largest portion of the column described an award-winning journalist named Frank Greve.

Frank Greve writes for the California-based newspaper publishing company McClatchy. Greve went on the “Good News” beat some years ago. Initially, his shift in focus received an negative reaction from colleagues. But eventually, they started to appreciate his work because he “still reported and wrote with rigor.” Rainey wrote:

“Greve has noted how delayed licensing of drivers has driven down the teenage accident rate. He’s written about how many old people remain sexually active. He’s raised doubts about whether we should really need to worry about pharmaceutical contamination in drinking water.
That list of topics might seem like a hodgepodge, but there’s a common theme. Bad news grows out of conflict or loss. Good news often means just following the conflict through to a resolution.” (emphasis mine)

That assessment, that good news is often the resolution of what initially seemed like bad news, is a good word for me. There are obvious parallels here to the arc of Passion and Resurrection; Good Friday and Easter. However, I’d resist reducing our understanding of those events to the level of day-to-day news. But I find the reframing helpful. In my mind, there’s been a line of demarcation between “Good News” and “Bad News.” Rainey’s statement shifts the metaphor so as to suggest that good news and bad news belong to the same narrative axis.

In one of my favorite studies of Metaphor in Ortony’s Metaphor and Thought, Donald Schon describes how those dealing with community problems can empower themselves to see new solutions if they will shift the metaphors they use to describe the “problem.” He talked about the difference between seeing a neighborhood as “broken” versus seeing a neighborhood as “developing.” This is more than wordsmithing a more positive spin on problems. By seeing a neighborhood as “developing” he said, community workers begin drawing from a very different set of models, resources, and case studies in order to bring about positive change.

Similarly, I think Rainey’s insights suggest a way of rethinking the “problem.” The dichotomy between “bad news” and “good news” that I had been clinging to framed our situation in static terms. Rainey’s way of thinking introduces the idea of movement, the potential born in every moment for change. Yes, to be realistic we must accept that “good news” is also on a narrative axis with “bad news.” Situations will change–sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. But here and now, it is at least hope-producing and I think tangibly helpful to reframe our current problems as developing good news.

Pitts on Church Decline

An editorial by Leonard Pitts suggests that recent declines in religious affiliation among American adults has its root cause in the ugliness that religion has become. This, of course, has been the critique for centuries. Pitts runs through the typical–albeit dated–litany of religious offenders: Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, religiously motivated terrorists, churches that deny access to Democrats and gays, advocates for the 10 Commandments in courthouses, priests guilty of and a church complicit in pedophilia, and religiously motivated councils and organizations pressuring schools. He failed to mention the six televangelists recently under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee for inappropriate use of contributions and the now two-year old scandal involving former National Association of Evangelicals president and mega-church pastor, Ted Haggard. When issuing a wake-up call, its best to be a little more up-to-date.

Pitts is grateful that he knows more about God than what he sees in the well-publicized scandals. Apparantly, he is a rare bird. All of those other people who are leaving the church are just not as enlightened. Unlike Pitts himself, they have been burned by religion but not warmed by God directly.

This is one of those situations where I think a journalist thinks someone else’s business is far less complex than his own.

Pitts writes for newspapers. Traditional newspapers are declining at an even faster rate than churches. Are newspapers declining because of incompetent reports and the scandals of fabricated news reports? Is Jack Kelley–the former USA Today reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who was discovered to have fabricated news stories–to blame for people’s loss of faith in newspapers? Do we blame National Review reporter Thomas Smith? Are the the moral failures of journalist the biggest contributor to the failure of traditional outlets for journalism. OR is it more the result of larger changes in the way information is accessed and processed?

It’s easy to blame people we don’t like whether they are liberals who have negated the role of civil religion or conservatives who use religion as a blunt object or wackos of whatever abhorrent ideology. In doing so, we fail to ask two of the most important questions imaginable–how am I personally contributing to the problems before us? And what am I going to do to change that? In the end, if we can figure out who’s to blame have we succeeded in making real improvement or just shielded ourselves from accusation? Or to put a finer point on it, how will God respond to us if all we do is complain about the people in religious leadership who have let us down? Will God say, “Well done good and faithful servant?” OR will God ask, “Why didn’t you do anything to offset their offesnes?”

Let’s be clear about something. People are not motivated by religious beliefs to do acts of violence. Acts of violence emerge from our inherent sinfulness. People may use religion to justify their violence but it is not the cause. As for the ministers who have blown it and thus caused the ugliness in religion I say, I think without trying I could name a hundred good, decent, committed, tolerant, well-meaning, balanced ministers who are slogging their way through as best they can. Given time, I think I could find a hundred righteous for every scandal Pitts could name. But despite the overwhelming amount of good to bad, we’re all dealing with stuff that’s bigger than figuring out who’s to blame. All of us are pretty confused about how to move into the future with ministry practices that will relevantly respond to our current setting. I can’t speak for all of us but, speaking for myself, the few highly publicized idiots in our business are annoying and ocassionally tragic but largely irrelevant from a larger perspective. Yes, we have to police our own and I think we do as good a job as any industry at confronting serious moral failures. But in terms of the nationwide departure from religious institutions, the impact of scandals that Pitts names are ripples in comparison to the changing cultural tides before us.