TV News Screens Make Me Crazy

I’m resting now; turned the TV off.  Trying to get over the headache I developed watching two of the cable news shows: MSNBC and CNN.

The problem is there is simply too much to watch, too many little things going on on the screen: the main screen with the anchor or the reporter, the double or smaller screen if one of them is talking to someone, the lower-third screen where they run the headlines about the other stories you supposedly need to know about, but they aren’t covering, and then, if you’re really lucky, you get another lower third screen that gives incoming tweets in teeny, weeny font from people watching who are commenting on one or maybe even two of the other stories.

I’m expected to concentrate on a minimum of three, possibly four different events going on at the same time. By the time I decipher the tweet about the headline, which has nothing to do with the new story the anchor is reading (because he/she has moved on to something else), a new line is scrolling on the bottom, teasing a story that will be coming up, after the commercial break. It’s maddening, exhausting, and headache-inducing.  It shouldn’t be this hard for me.  I used to be one of those people anchoring the news.  But that was years ago, before tweet time.

Maybe I’m hypersensitive about all of this.  Maybe the vast majority of people are comfortable with this barrage of information.  Maybe it’s possible to retrain my brain to make this less jarring.  I try occasionally, but my heart really isn’t in it; and the end result remains the same. I watch; I concentrate; I get a headache.

Part of my problem, I realize, is that I really want to understand the news.  I want accuracy, not just speed.  I want, dare I say it, context, not just headlines.  I want, in other words, what TV news is not designed to deliver.

Not only do I find that often I’m not understanding a story, I don’t understand why the story was chosen to be broadcast in the first place.  Why, for instance, am I watching the anchor talk about a new blog on the president’s dog, when the lower third banner is running a headline about home ownership figures being at their lowest in 15 years.? Who made the decision that home ownership was less important than the president’s dog; no, not the dog,…a blog about the president’s dog.

It makes you wonder at the beginning of each news day, when the list of stories is put together from hundreds of sources, who makes the cuts in TV news rooms across the country?  Who decides what’s important, or what we don’t need to know about? What are the criteria?

There are countless stories that don’t make it to the screen at all, not even in that lower-third grid.  Why don’t we know about them? How do we find out?  We could spend our days scouring various web news sites and newspapers, but how realistic is that? So we turn to TV news to be both our news filter and primary source; and the end result is, we don’t even know what we don’t know.

Not only do we not know how the choices are made, but we don’t have any idea who’s making them.  Until recently (OK, here I go being an old fuddy-duddy journalist), we could assume that those in charge of those choices had a certain degree of experience and education in the journalism field, that they had the years and knowledge to put the available news stories into contexts and make considered judgments on that basis. That’s how they got their jobs. Now, with those kind of credentials much less valued, the decisions and the decision-makers in those newsrooms are up for grabs.

Perhaps it’s no big deal.  We’re certainly being provided with a lot of stuff, a lot of visual bells and whistles to keep us occupied. Perhaps, in the end, it is enough to be entertained, and not worry about what any of it actually means.  If that is the case, then all we can do is trust that those deciding what we will see, how often and how much, will take good care of us; because we won’t have enough information to take care of ourselves.

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On Not Writing a Post and Not Saying Goodbye

This is a post about not writing a post.  It is a post about trying to avoid the emotions involved in writing about something and someone whose loss effects me deeply.  It is a post about trying not to cry.

I lost a friend several weeks ago.  His name was John.  The death was sudden.  He seemed fine and healthy, vibrant and working as usual with great skill and energy. Then one day there were signs, unusual fatigue, etc. that sent him to the doctor.  The diagnosis was a rare blood disease.  And despite the finest in medical care and access to every kind of resource, within three weeks, he was gone.

The memorial service was last week.  Initially, I didn’t want to go.  There were a whole jumble of emotions that I couldn’t sort out. I was terribly sad and a little surprised at the intensity of the sadness.  After all, I hadn’t seen him for several years.  He’d moved from Washington to New York, into an even more high profile activist legal job, and we’d lost touch.  But still, I knew he was there, and I’d hear about him, how and what he was doing. I needed his help on something once, and called out of the blue, and we talked as if no time had passed, and he helped me, his voice, as always, calm and reasonable. In the end, he had me laughing, as he usually did.

Another reason I didn’t want to go to the memorial was the same reason I didn’t want to write this post.  I was afraid I would start to cry (as I’m doing now), and not know how to stop.  I’m not a crier.  That’s not my nature.  I’m one of those stoics who gets through by sucking it up and looking impenetrable. I’ve been around long enough to have had a lot of practice. But this time, over the past few days, it hasn’t been working.

Is it because he was fundamentally such a good, decent man, strong and principled and unbelievably smart? Or is it because he seemed to have figured out how life worked and how it ought to work, and was willing to share that wisdom? Or is it because he was just so damned much fun? I know I loved all of those things about him.  I loved him as a friend I assumed would be there making sure that this bizarre, off-kilter world would somehow keep coming out all right.

My tears, I suppose, mark the end of my denial.  I know he and those special qualities that so defined him are truly gone. At some point, the tears will stop, and I will be able to remember him without them. But not yet…not yet. Not now.

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The Crumbling Lives Under “Stand Your Ground”

As a Black woman observing the Trayvon Martin case, I can’t help but have strong opinions about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. After all, by citing that law, George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, was initially able to keep himself from being charged and arrested on the spot.  It was his justification for shooting to death an unarmed Black teenager on his way home from the store.

I have no empathy for Zimmerman.  No matter how many times I heard the law explained, it still made no sense to me.  It seemed like a justification for murder, pure and simple, used by a man whose moral code allowed him to follow and pull the trigger on an unarmed boy.

As far as it went, I saw the law as a problem for Florida lawmakers who would determine Zimmerman’s fate.  But then came Tulsa.

Again, the brutal killings in Tulsa, Oklahoma were, according to reports, as straightforward as they could be.  Two white men, driving a white pickup truck, drove to a poor black neighborhood one night and started stopping individuals, asking for directions, and then shooting them. Within an hour five people had been shot.  Three were dead.

I had little interest in learning anything about the two men arrested for the crime, except perhaps, why they had done it. There didn’t seem much to learn. They were identified as Alvin Watts, 33 and Jake England 19.  They were both  white, although England apparently indicated that he was Native American. They did not like black people.  That was clear.  What began to interest me in England’s case was why.  And the more I learned, the more I started running into three familiar words: “Stand Your Ground”.

It turns out that Oklahoma is another state with one of those Stand Your Ground laws, and in this instance it played a role in the death of Jake England’s father, Carl. Shortly before his rampage, England referred to that death on his Facebook page, noting that it was almost exactly two years earlier that his father had been shot to death, and that the man responsible Pernell Jefferson, was a “f…g ni…r.” (fill in the blanks).

According to reports, Jefferson had gotten into an argument with the boyfriend of England’s daughter at her apartment. There was a scuffle, during which Jefferson got hit with a bat, and left, apparently to get his gun and come back to “settle things”. Meanwhile, Carl England, the father, joined the boyfriend to track down Jefferson, and on finding him, went after him with a “stick”.  Jefferson shot England in the chest, killing him. Later, he  invoked the Stand Your Ground law to successfully avoid getting arrested for the shooting.

According to the law, Jefferson had “no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony”.

Jefferson is currently in prison on a separate, earlier conviction for “feloniously pointing a firearm”.  He is scheduled for release in October, 2014,

What the heck is going on? How did the death of three innocent people in Oklahoma, and an unarmed teenager in Florida get connected to this relatively recent and little known piece of legislation?  What kind of law is this? What were state legislators thinking when they put it into effect? Florida lawmakers are now addressing that question. As a result of the Martin case, a special commission has been appointed to reexamine Stand Your Ground.  Perhaps other states will follow. It cannot come too soon.

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How TV Found Trayvon Martin But Lost Random Victim

It would be hard to find many people these days who don’t know who Trayvon Martin was: the unarmed African American teenager shot to death on his way home from the store by a white Neighborhood Watch member. The exhaustive press coverage showed Martin as an outgoing, well-mannered young man, close to his parents and the rest of his family. As the president said, if he had had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.  And for the most part, the public empathized ; we felt his loss.

Why then don’t we feel the loss of Bobby Clark, Dannaer Fields, and William Allen?  Who are these people?  How is it that their shooting deaths at the hands of two white assailants in Tulsa, one Friday night in April, a few weeks after Martin’s death, left them largely reduced to the press graveyard of “random victims”?

In one TV news report after another, the details of the crime were constantly repeated: two white men, in a white pickup truck, drove into a poor black neighborhood and started shooting people; some were pedestrians simply walking by; others were good samaritans who responded when their killers stopped them to ask for directions. Within one hour, in a 3 square mile area, five people were shot. Three of them died. Was it cold-blooded…yes.  Were blacks deliberately targeted…yes. Who were these two men who’d been captured and confessed to the police?  We were finding out. So much speculation. So many questions.  Except for this question – Who were the victims?

For the most part, on those rare occasions when the question was posed during a TV report, the journalist’s answer was fast and glib: The victims were simply “random”, aka: disposable. Perhaps it was that they were not appealing enough.

Bobby Clark, for instance, was 54, the son of a school bus driver, and had been diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was a teenager. He’d been evicted from his public housing apartment, and was living with one of his brothers. The social worker who made sure Bobby got his disability check each month described him as gentle and quiet. Someone else remembered him walking the streets sometimes with his guitar, stopping occasionally to play for a friend. That Friday night, when the shot came, Bobby had been standing on a corner, waiting for his brother.

And then there was Dannaer Fields, 49 years old.  They called her “Donna” for short because it was so hard to pronounce her real name.  She’d had her problems too: drug addiction, alcohol addiction.  But she’d apparently kicked the habits, become active in her church, and was living with her brother.  That final night, when the two men pulled up in the white pickup truck and the shot came, she’d been walking home from a friend’s house after an evening of dominoes.

Even less is known about the third victim, William Allen, except that he was from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and was young, only 31.  The other two men who were shot, hospitalized and released were Dean Tucker, 44 years old, and David Hall, 46 years old.

These people are not “random”.  They are, however, all poor and all black.  Somehow, they became minor players in the telling of this story.  It is our loss.

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Losing Trayvon

It’s now been a little more than a month since young Trayvon Martin was killed walking home from the store with his now famous Skittles and can of iced tea. There are a few things that are known facts.  He was not armed and he was shot to death by a man named George Zimmerman.

But now, everyday, there is a new lead to the story: demonstrators in cities across the country demand justice for Trayvon,…protestors start wearing hoodies (the sweater in which he was killed) to show their solidarity,…Zimmerman is in hiding…Zimmerman’s friends say they’re in touch…Trayvon’s girlfriend says their cellphone conversation as he was walking shows that he was followed and attacked…Zimmerman says he was followed and attacked…Trayvon was a nice young man…Trayvon was tardy and sometimes skipped school…a grand jury is going to be convened, and the new Black Panthers issue a “bounty” for the capture of Zimmerman.

Everyday, a new headline, sometimes it seems simply to fill a news vacuum. “It is four weeks since Trayvon Martin’s death”.  “It is five weeks since Martin’s death”, etc., etc.  And as time goes on, the rhetoric and the leaked stories seem to grow.  The escalation is frightening, because the stakes inevitably grow.  What if someone takes the Panthers up on their offer?  What if the grand jury does not hand down an indictment?  What does the face of justice look like from one moment to the next.

But most importantly, what about Trayvon’s face?  The more he becomes a symbol, the less he remains that flesh and blood teenager, who loved Skittles and had a girlfriend, and got in trouble with his parents for occasionally skipping school. How many of us find ourselves outraged at what his death has come to represent, but distant from the individual grief due him as our child, who lived so briefly and was taken too soon.

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Suzanne, Put Your Hand Down!

It’s funny. As a former broadcaster, I often found it strange how complete strangers would come up to you and talk as if you’ve known each other for years. Some times it was good, and the conversation was positive. Some times the person was angry about something, a story, a reporter, etc. Often times it had something to do with your appearance: the jacket you wore last night, your most recent hair style, your glasses, etc.

Shortly after I’d started anchoring at a local station, a woman and her tween-aged daughter stopped me on the street, and looking me up and down from my short Afro to my plain black pants and shirt, said they were convinced that I had to have gotten my job because I was intelligent (as in not attractive). It took me a moment to get it, and it gave new meaning to the term, back-handed compliment. It also gave me the opportunity to work on my new skill of smiling beatifically no matter what came my way.

Another time, I was late getting a present for a friend, and rushed into a nearby department store to t ry to find something appropriate. I’d been doing some work around the house, and had on jeans and a tee shirt. I found what I thought would make a good gift, and handed my credit card over to the sales clerk. She looked down and read my name, then turned to me, outraged. “You are not Renee Poussaint” she said. “Renee Poussaint wouldn’t be caught dead coming out in public looking the way you do!”
Recognizing that there was no right answer to this charge, I took the gift and left.

It is truly amazing how proprietary you can start feeling about people you see regularly on air. For me, one of those people is CNN anchor/correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. Suzanne is an excellent reporter, and has been for years. I’ve long admired her work. But she is not a good anchor. It’ not her fault. She’s just not comfortable doing it and it shows in a myriad of ways. Clearly, after she’d been on for a while, some producer must have told her that she was coming over as too stiff, too much like a regular correspondent; that she needed to give her presentation more pizzazz, more emotion, put herself into the story so that the viewer will be able to relate to her. Suzanne’s answer? She points…with her left hand…with a pen in it…relentlessly. Not only does her left hand point, it hovers, and swoops, and lunges at the camera, as if it is not connected to her…as if it has a life of its own.

The swooping doesn’t seem to have any relation to the story she happens to be reading, and it’s distracting. Unfortunately, since it’s in the foreground you can’t help but notice is, and after a certain point it’s as if a little animal had decided to take up residence and dance.

I know that some folk will feel that this is an overreaction, and perhaps it is. All I know is that I have found myself on occasion yelling at the screen, (aka Suzanne), demanding that the hand be made to disappear, the the pointless pointing stop. So far, it has had no effect. Perhaps, someday it will get tired and just lie down and sleep. Then the rest of us will be able to just go ahead and concentrate on…what was that again? Oh yes:…the news.

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Houston Funeral and Teaching Moment

Some time has passed since Whitney Houston’s funeral, time that can be used for some reflection and perhaps some small “Ah ha!” moments. I probably couldn’t have written about it earlier because there was too much “stuff” twirling around, not the least of which was sorting through my emotional reactions.

Reaction One: It is amazing how long it’s taking to get the findings of what actually caused Houston’s death. I’m sure there are solid scientific reasons, but it’s irksome because the main benefactors are those members of the press who gain their own notoriety and ratings through sheer, wasteful, unsubstantiated, negative speculation.

Was she drinking? Was she in the tub or out of the tub? What kind of pills were in the room? Was it legal or illegal medication? Was it a combination of drugs and booze? Was she despondent? Could it have been a cry for help that went terribly wrong? Could it have been a heart attack? Did she cry out; if not, why not? What color was the rug in the room? (I just threw that in because it’s equally irrelevant).

The fact of the matter is that no matter what the scientific findings eventually say, the speculators will continue their game without end. Houston, and her train wreck of a life are easy, tempting targets that give them too much ammunition to stop.

Reaction Two: I have new respect for Kevin Costner and his willingness to walk into a black church for a massively high profile black service and not only come out alive, but kicking. I cannot tell you the number of black folks who rolled their eyes and came up with “No, they didn’t!” when they learned that Costner was not only on the guest list, but that he was supposed to speak! After all, how many lifetimes ago was it that The Bodyguard came out? Interracial romance is a daily reality at least on east and west coast city streets. So what was the big deal? Costner answered the question and more. He didn’t claim to have some lifetime close friendship with Houston where they kept in touch through the years. He just told a story, one story about Houston’s insecurities when she auditioned for the film, and his determination to fight for her inclusion. And he told us how the two of them had one important thing in common – the Baptist church. That was it. The enthusiastic response he got was a testament to his storytelling ability as much as anything else.

I actually found myself getting a little teary-eyed when he got to the part about fighting for her. How rare it is still in our culture that a black woman has that experience!

Reaction Three: Non-blacks had the rare opportunity to experience what the black church means to our community. The doggone service was THREE AND A HALF HOURS LONG! But there was no question of turning it off and walking away. It had myriad parts: performance theater, worship, celebrity sightings, down home “shoutin” music, a mother’s true grief, preachers – at least one of whom seemed to have forgotten whose funeral it was, and a message of forgiveness…no matter what our child Whitney had or had not done in her life, it was all beside the point. And anyone who couldn’t deal with that needed to step aside. It was a kind of aggressive grief that has been common to black folks for generations….and totally necessary in a country where for hundreds of years the only time a black person’s life could be celebrated was at his death.

Sweet dreams. Whitney

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