Babel and Begats

The revival of political reporting after the 2014 election and holidays reminded me of Genesis 11. That’s where you find two teasures: Babel and Begats.

The revival of political reporting after the 2014 election and holidays reminded me of Genesis 11. That’s where you find two teasures: Babel and Begats. You know the story of Babel, something about hubris and its costs. Here’s a brief sample of the Begats from a modern Catholic translation: 

“When Shelah was thirty years old, he begot Eber. Shelah lived four hundred and three years after he begot Eber, and he had other sons and daughters. When Eber* was thirty-four years old, he begot Peleg. Eber lived four hundred and thirty years after he begot Peleg, and he had other sons and daughters..."

Millennia later, we’re still faced with Begats: lazy thinking begets sloppy writing which begets sloppy thinking which begets sloppy public policy. 

Whatever motivated biblical writers and their editors, it’s no excuse today when journalists defend stenographic reporting and writing by saying, “That’s what he said.” 

As we head into the 2016 presidential, senatorial and congressional campaigns, there will be a lot of lazy thinking and sloppy writing. In two years, I’m sure I’ll write, “I told you so.” 

Meanwhile, here are some Silly Season phrases that recall Babel and Begats and suggest when to turn the page or change the screen or channel: 

“Special interests.” Endless damning of “special interests” demonstrates the poverty of a speaker’s intellect and reporter’s acumen. Every political, economic, ethnic, religious or racial interest is special. That’s why they donate, organize, campaign and march. I want reporters to tell me about their influence on voter opinion and public policy. 

“Outside money.” Outside of what? Family? Cheviot? Partisan money comes from everywhere as elections for Congress, governors, state, attorneys general, state supreme courts and legislatures increasingly are national proxies or referenda. It’s meant to buy results and access. That money is as ubiquitous as it is toxic — and our Supreme Court says the rest of us don’t have a right to know who’s purchased our elected officials, judges and justices. 

“Politically motivated.” What isn’t? The question is whether an allegation, indictment, prosecution or whatever raises questions of public concern. Even when hostile assertions clearly are “politically motivated,” that shouldn’t deflect reporters from their substance. Then there is the language of activism that too many journalists embrace without thinking or caring that it suggests they’ve chosen sides in some newsworthy controversy. 

“Clean coal.” No such thing. The phrase also suggests that other coal is not clean which seems to be self-lacerating. Coal is dirty to mine, transport and burn. It can be treated to control or reduce emissions. That doesn’t make it clean. 

“Teenager.” Michael Brown was 18 when Ferguson, MO., police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed him. Repeated use of “teenager” is manipulative without being informative. Would he have been any less black, unarmed or newsworthy if he were 20? How about “young man”? Timothy Thomas was 19 when he was shot and killed by a Cincinnati cop. He apparently aged out for reporters who rarely if ever called him a “teenager.” 

“Police brutality.” We allow police to use force to protect themselves and us. Sometimes, their use of force is violent. Reporters should ask whether violence was excessive. Did it go beyond the limits our communities and courts place on police use of force? Savage or cruel? That could be brutality. However, activists shouting “police brutality” doesn’t make it so. It’s one thing to directly quote that phrase, but an ethical breach when journalists slide down the slippery slope into bed with activists and equate police force or violence with “brutality” as a shorthand. 

“Civil rights leader.” A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Maurice McCrackin, Theodore Berry, Marian Spencer, William Bowen, Webster Posey and others were civil rights leaders. Anointing Al Sharpton is an abuse of the term. Inserting himself into others’ causes and convening credulous reporters doesn’t make Sharpton a civil rights leader. His career includes the lie that whites attacked teenager Tawana Bradley, his anti-semitic diatribe that helped provoke a deadly pogrom in the New York community of Crown Heights, and his role in the lethal arson of Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem. Call Sharpton an activist or provocateur and you’re right but for reporters to describe him as a leader is to mislead. 

“Bullet proof vest.” Nope. Stops some bullets. Not all. When referring to police, use “body armor” or “bullet resistant.” 

“On the ground” is verbose for “there” or “here.” Sort of like the Nixonian Era and unlamented “at this point in time.” Verbose for “now.” “On the ground” reflects reporters’ embrace of military language to seem knowledgeable. Drop it. On the ground. 

“Africa.” It’s a continent, not a country. Sloppy reporting and editing boomed as Ebola killed dozens, then scores, hundreds and thousands. Even “West Africa” was unhelpfully loose when we knew we could write about Liberia, Sierra Leona and Guinea. 

“African.” It’s not a synonym for “black.” Lots of Africans are not black, including Arabs, Tuaregs, Afrikaners, descendants of Indian and Malay indentured laborers and the interim president of Zambia; he’s the first white to head a black-majority state since the fall of apartheid in South Africa. We should choose “African” to only when we’d use “European” in a similar situation. 

“African costume.” That’s a local news media favorite. It’s dismissive when it’s “Nigerian,” “Masai” or some other identifiable black African culture. You know damn well that no local reporter would say female Oktoberfest servers are wearing “European” costumes. 

“Islamic.” This deserves a column for itself, but here’s my suggestion: Write “Islamic” only when a similar situation might benefit from “Christian.” That might be identifiably “Islamic” or “Christian” studies. Or charities. Both faiths are too huge, sprawling and diverse to routinely lump under one label. 

“Enormity.” When he opened the Senate, Mitch McConnell referred to the “enormity of the task before us.” The rest of his speech suggested he meant “huge.” Enormity, however, is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “a shocking evil, an immoral act” or “great evil or wickedness.” Or maybe he did mean “enormity” now that the GOP controls the Senate, the House and Supreme Court. 

“Refute.” It means to disprove, while “rebut” usually means to contradict. Huge difference. I can prove it.


• Back when college was affordable, I was a student reporter at the University of Minnesota and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to Minneapolis to speak at an Urban League dinner. His hosts said there would be no time for an interview. Undeterred, I joined the small crowd at the airport, notebook and pencil ready. I also had an utterly unfamiliar handheld wire recorder used for dictation by a journalism department secretary. King came off the airliner and set down his bag as he and locals embraced. He already was a civil rights leader as a Birmingham, Ala., pastor. I picked up King’s bag and followed him into the limo. As the doors shut, a local judge, a rare Negro elected official, looked at me and said, in effect, “Who the hell are you?” 

“Ben Kaufman from the Minnesota Daily. I was told Dr. King wouldn’t have time for an interview at the hotel but I hoped we could talk on the ride in.” 

King laughed and asked for my first question. It was so dark I couldn’t see my notebook so I took out the little wire recorder, did what I hoped would turn it on, pointed it at my subject, and we talked until the limo stopped at the dinner venue and everyone got out. 

“I’ll carry that now,” the judge said, pointing to King’s bag and I walked back to our campus newsroom to write our student paper’s exclusive story.

• My encounter with Martin Luther King Jr. was years before the 1963 March on Washington. By then, I was working overseas. Last week, during intermission at a Eugene Goss concert in Mt. Lookout, we saw a video of the march, prepared by Cincinnati’s Pushpot Media. It was the first time I’d seen and heard what became the “I have a dream” speech. The entire speech is far more powerful than the more familiar quotes. 

• Amber Hunt’s reporting for the Cincinnati Enquirer is evermore impressive. Her recent Sunday probe of workshops promoting “flipping” and “flopping” real estate is a welcome antidote to motel seminars which could lead attendees into Ohio legal trouble. There’s nothing wrong with buying low and selling high; that’s a key to profits. It’s the methods that can contravene Ohio law on unlicensed real estate brokering. Hunt said no one revealed that a recent program for which people paid $197 single or $297 for a couple. Oh, and coincidentally, folks had to sign a waiver freeing seminar sponsors from any trouble they encounter using their real estate methods. 

Inside that same day’s paper, Hunt warns against scams like unsolicited calls offering to cure home computer Microsoft “problems.” My call came from a young man with a South Asian accent. He had to speak over the hubbub of the call center to offer his phony remote computer-cleanup service: Our home computers don’t use Microsoft. Had the Enquirer employed Hunt years ago, dishonest brokers and money lenders could have suckered fewer local families into home loans that impoverished them and led to foreclosure. 

• I continue to read the Enquirer’s James Pilcher’s Herculean efforts to clean Kentucky stables of knee-deep nonsense over the Brent Spence Bridge replacement. James is a friend and a fine reporter. I hope he lives long enough to drive to work across a new Pilcher-Spence bridge. 

• Cardale Jones is my hero. Not because of his quarterbacking for Ohio State, but for speaking candidly if naively about the corruption of professional college sports and complicit administrators and faculty: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL [his emphasis], we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” He’s right. Jones must pose as a student for OSU to employ him to make millions for the university. 

• I was lucky. Athletes in my UC journalism classes were baseball players, members of the women’s rowing crew, and played lacrosse or soccer. All were students who played sports rather than athletes who played student.

 Many if not most Americans who start community college or a four-year degree don’t finish. So they lack the sought-after credential and probably are in debt. Will the Enquirer provide local context to Obama’s “free” community college? Given the cost of even community college, will the proposed grants do anything more than push up prices to take advantage of the windfall of public money? 

• Tip to politics reporters covering Mitt: forget the Irish Setter atop the family station wagon; ask about the Harold Stassen hood ornament. 

• It isn’t enough that Fox media giant Rupert Murdoch searches for the bottom and poisons cable TV news in this country. After murders at Charlie Hebdo and a Parisian kosher supermarket, Murdoch tweeted that “Maybe most [are] Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” Minutes later, he tweeted,“Big jihadist danger looming everywhere from Philippines to Africa to Europe to US. Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy.”

• Maybe it’s the water at Fox News. Contributor Steve Emerson, a self-styled American expert on terrorism, falsely claimed that Britain’s second-largest city, Birmingham, is "a totally Muslim" city "where non-Muslims just simply don't go...In Britain, it's not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don't go in," he told viewers. "Parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn't dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.”

• Parisians have enjoyed vicious satire and public protest for more than two centuries. When they took to the streets after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, their signs said “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis Ahmed.” And that wasn’t satire. Ahmed Merabet was the wounded Muslim police officer executed in the street outside the magazine. The NYTimes had a riveting Page 1 image of Merabet watching a terrorist approaching to execute him. Others blurred the cop’s face and expression; wisely, the Times did not. 

• During the search for Charlie Hebdo killers, journalists had to keep reporting in the absence of information from French police. That official silence reflected lessons learned in the 2008 Mumbai massacres in the rail station, Jewish center and luxury hotels: tweeted/broadcast speculation and information were recycled almost instantly to the Pakistani Muslim gunmen. 

• Journalists know the complaint: “I was there and it didn’t happen the way you said.” Well, enroll me among the complainers. Helen Epstein’s recent essay in the New York Review (of Books) included assertions that were so wrong that I questioned the rest of her seemingly scholarly essay about the southern African nation of Zambia. Here’s the troubling paragraph: 

“On the eve of independence in 1964, 2 percent of Zambia’s 3.5 million people were white, but they controlled everything in a system resembling apartheid. In the lucrative copper mines, blacks were barred from management jobs, and had separate toilets and changing facilities. In the towns, blacks lived in separate neighborhoods, had separate cinemas, were banned from white areas after 5:00 PM without a pass, were forbidden to ride in the front passenger seat of a car driven by a white woman, and could not enter white shops but had to make purchases through a hatch in the wall.” 

I was there. Her description contradicts my experience and it’s much closer to the brutal, racist 1960s apartheid system of South Africa. As the first news editor in charge of the multiracial, multinational. startup daily Zambia Times in 1964, I lived on the Copperbelt and directed news coverage leading up to and including independence. Northern Rhodesia/Zambia did not have a pass law; that was South Africa. My white female colleagues shared front seats with black African and mixed race colleagues. When it became obvious that British-ruled Northern Rhodesia would become black-governed Zambia, merchants abandoned racist practices in cinemas and retail shops. Was there employment and housing discrimination? Yes. If I remember correctly, black miners’ upward mobility was limited by race; top skilled jobs on the mines traditionally were reserved to whites. Most whites - including miners and mine managers - lived in white neighborhoods, often in company housing that reflected their ranks. Black African miners lived in townships near the mines in company housing. 

However, no one fussed when a black African colleague moved his family into a predominantly white neighborhood. He could afford it. Similarly, no landlord is his right mind turned away educated, upwardly mobile black Zambians who were beginning to move into government, corporate and mining company jobs.

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