Pandemic Chronicles #2: Turning off the TV news coverage has made me better informed and less anxious
Television news coverage and commentary are designed to get an emotional rise out of us. They can inform but also inflame. That’s how they get and keep viewers and thus build their ratings. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, I found myself watching a lot of TV news programming. And with it rose my anxiety levels, without necessarily feeling better informed.
During the past week or so, however, I’ve cut my TV news viewing to a bare minimum. I’ve limited most of my television time to binge-viewing great television series. (For example, I’m delighted to recommend “Foyle’s War” — a crime drama set in WWII-era England — for its depiction of history, appealing characters, and rich story lines.)
I subscribe to a lot of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, both online and in print. I also listen to radio news coverage. I’m a news junkie, and I like to be an informed citizen. Furthermore, my work as a law professor and legal scholar requires me to be well-informed.
Because of the coronavirus, however, my focus has become more intensely local. While I’m interested in the national and global aspects of the pandemic, I’m now closely drawn to what’s happening in Greater Boston specifically and Massachusetts generally. I find that three regional news sources, in particular, have become lifelines for helping me stay informed about, and feel connected to, my local scene during this challenging time: The Boston Globe (daily newspaper), WBUR-FM (public radio news station), and Universal Hub (online news site).
Of course, virtually any news coverage related to this public health crisis is going to push some emotional buttons, but I’ve found myself less anxious and better informed by turning away from TV news and toward sites like the Globe, WBUR, and Universal Hub. They have also given me an even deeper appreciation for the high-quality journalism that still exists in this city, despite the challenges facing the news business. We need these resources now more than ever.
Imagine a bookstore as a sanctuary, a place of refuge to read, think, and reflect.
Reporting for The Guardian newspaper, Kareem Shaheen writes about Pages, a bookstore and cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, which serves that very role for Syrian refugees. The bookstore’s founder, Samir al-Kadri, wants nothing less than to “change the lives of Syrian youth”:
“I’m incredibly happy,” said Samer al-Kadri, 42, founder of the first Arabic bookstore in the city. “I get to meet this generation, between 18 and 25 years old. This generation is surprising me with their understanding, their openness, their dialogue.”
More than three million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian, live in Turkey. With Pages, Kadri hopes to create a space for young Syrians curious about the world, who want to escape the isolation of refugee life, and, for a fleeting moment, pretend they are back in their homeland.
Not surprisingly, the most popular titles at Pages reflect a longing for their home country and a recognition of the terrible situation they left behind:
Among the most popular books at Pages are translations of Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which tells the story of the legendary Persian poet Rumi, as well The Shell, a memoir by the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa detailing his torture and detention in the notorious prison of Palmyra.
The translated works of George Orwell are also popular, particularly Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian fictional worlds of which bear a striking resemblance to [Syrian President] Assad’s police state.
Let’s treasure our access to books
As I read this article, I thought about how easy it is for some of us to take for granted access to books.
I’m especially spoiled in this regard. I live in Boston, which, despite the general demise of brick and mortar bookstores, continues to offer abundant choices for buying and borrowing books. But even beyond such overly bookish locales, good books can be readily obtained via bookstores, online booksellers, used book sales, and libraries. Those on limited budgets can put together a very respectable personal library if they have a sharp eye for bargains.
It should humble the more fortunate among us that young refugees go to Pages bookstore in Istanbul in search of a safe and comforting place to read and learn. Let’s think about that the next time we’re tempted to watch a reality TV show or get caught up in a Tweet storm between politicians or celebrities. A bookstore, library, or simple shelf of books at home is a much better option for enriching our minds and souls.
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
Over the years I’ve learned quite well that I am a creature of (1) nostalgia; (2) habit; and (3) cities. All of these came together on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.
As I mentioned in my last post, I made a quick weekend trip to New York to attend a workshop. I decided to extend my stay through Sunday afternoon and play tourist in Manhattan. Well, maybe not as a true tourist, as I spent twelve years in New York (1982-94), but certainly as a visitor enjoying the metropolis.
I started my day with an early lunch at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, a Greenwich Village diner at Broadway & Astor Place that I’ve been frequenting since my law student days at NYU during the early 80s. Consistent with almost every visit there for some 34 years, I enjoyed a bowl of the Cozy’s incredibly good split pea soup with croutons. Of the hundreds of items on the Cozy’s menu, I’ve probably tried less than a dozen of them: Split pea soup, turkey burger or hamburger, rice pudding (best I’ve ever had), or maybe a sandwich or a breakfast platter for a rare change of pace. That’s it!
Next was a walk up Broadway to 12th Street, home of the mighty Strand Bookstore, one of the largest used bookstores in the nation. When I first visited New York in the summer of 1982 in anticipation of starting law school that fall, the Strand was one of the few things on my must-see list. During law school years and beyond, a weekly visit to the Strand was part of my routine. Back then, it was a crowded, musty, dusty classic old used bookstore, and I loved the place. The Strand has gone slightly upscale since then, but every visit brings back fond memories and yields some new goodies.
I then walked up one block on Broadway to the Regal Union Square Stadium movie theatre, where I saw a revival screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” — my favorite movie of all time — as part of a 65th anniversary celebration of the film’s first release. As I wrote here three years ago, I had never seen this movie until the fall of my first year at NYU, when I was in desperate need of a study break and saw that it was playing at Theatre 80, a famous old revival movie theatre in the East Village. Little did know that within thirty minutes into the screening, I would know it was becoming my favorite movie.
Theatre 80 was small and cramped, but the crowd was loved the movie and applauded after the popular numbers. Regal Union Square had super comfortable seats and a huge screen, but the crowd was more sedate. Given my druthers, I’d prefer the Theatre 80 setting!
When I lived in New York, every week I’d pick up the latest copy of The Village Voice, the legendary alternative weekly. Founded in 1955, the Voice was still very much a part of New York’s cultural, political, and journalistic scene during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved its hard-hitting local political coverage and commentary, taking on the city’s power brokers with gusto. I also looked forward to its event listings, which played to those of us on a budget. Many a weekend was spent at movies, plays, programs, and other events touted in the Voice.
The current issue of the Voice, pictured above, showed how the times have changed. Running across the top was a bow to legendary Voice writer and reviewer Nat Hentoff, an iconoclastic defender of free speech and jazz aficionado, who passed away last week. The cover features were devoted to ways in which we can cope with the ups and downs of 2017, with an emphasis on mindfulness, healthy habits, and decluttering. It’s an interesting collection of articles, but the editors of the Voice circa 1987 would not have gone there.
Of course, anything to do with my experience of New York yesterday and today must include its sprawling subway system. As much as I love New York, its subways — more than any other element of life there — remind me that I now appreciate Boston’s smaller, slower scale in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, say, twenty years ago. The photo above captures just one of two big pages of weekend routing change announcements due to repairs, which are pretty much ongoing. By contrast, Boston’s comparatively compact subway system is much more manageable, notwithstanding its own major needs for upgrades.
And speaking of the creature of habit part, yes, I’ve mentioned most of these places and things on multiple occasions on this blog, usually with the same soggy sentiment. What can I say? They are parts of the story of my life and the sources of many treasured memories. I hope that you, dear reader, are not too weary of reading about them!
Visits to England over the years have given me a great appreciation for two venerable news periodicals published there, The Economist and The Guardian. A venerable staple in England, The Economist, has become very popular in the U.S. The Guardian, a long-time British daily newspaper, now offers a weekly edition perfect for those of us in other nations.
Of the two, The Economist is the better known. Published since 1843, it favors free-market economics and globalization, while staking moderate and occasionally liberal positions on social issues. All articles and editorials are unsigned, and great care is taken to produce each issue with a consistently understated, analytical, and often witty tone of voice. For liberals like me, it offers a thoughtfully reasoned, contrasting point of view.
The Economist‘s holiday double issue has long been an annual treat. Loaded with features on lively, quirkier, more offbeat topics than its normal fare — see the pieces under “Christmas Specials” from this year’s holiday issue — it’s an enjoyable way to spend a more contemplative turning of the calendar.
The Guardian has made a big American visibility push in recent years, especially online, with increasing coverage of major news events in the U.S. With its generally liberal social, political, and economic perspectives and a punchier style of writing, its weekly edition — global in scope and drawing from the Observer, Washington Post, and Le Monde — is emerging as an informative, left-leaning counterpart to The Economist.
The Guardian Weekly‘s year-end issue isn’t quite as elaborate as The Economist‘s, but it, too, is an informative assessment of the year behind us and in front of us.
Both periodicals are somewhat pricey as print subscriptions, so some may prefer to check them out online. For news junkies like me, they offer interesting, informed, and global alternatives to so much of the celebrity-driven drivel of typical American “news” coverage and the noisy, sound-bite yammering of our cable news stations.
Based on the strong reviews it’s getting, I expected to like “Spotlight,” the new movie about the Boston Globe‘s investigation of the priest sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. But I didn’t anticipate regarding it as one of the best suspense dramas ever made about crusading reporters chasing a blockbuster story. By the time it ended, I had already concluded that “Spotlight” compares very favorably to “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 movie about the Washington Post‘s role in exposing the Watergate scandal. In fact, I think it’s the better of the two.
The movie’s title refers to the Globe‘s Spotlight investigative team, which spent months pursuing leads and interviewing individuals before going public with its findings in January 2002. Although the Globe was not the only journalistic player in this saga — Kristen Lombardi of the Boston Phoenix alternative weekly actually did a lot of the initial reportage on this matter — it took the dedicated resources of the Spotlight team to blow it wide open.
The individual performances in “Spotlight” are outstanding, and I anticipate that several of the lead actors will be prominent at Oscar time. Michael Keaton (editor “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (reporter Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron), and Stanley Tucci (lawyer Mitch Garabedian) are among those who deliver serious, believable, and understated performances.
The movie doesn’t pull punches about the gruesomeness of what occurred here. Nevertheless, it avoids lapsing into overly prurient detail or Catholic-bashing. It lets the story speak for itself, ranging from the impact of sexual abuse on the victims, to the enabling culture of a city, to the powerful institutional role played by the Church in attempting its cover up.
Of course, I may be biased in my praise. After all, I’ve been living in Boston for some two decades, and I remember well the Globe‘s work in uncovering the priest scandal. That said, this is really, really good Hollywood moviemaking. “Spotlight” mixes superb drama with an authentic look & feel, and it ultimately it drives home a bigger lesson about powerful institutions run amok.
Those who ask me about the potential value of extracurricular activities for college students risk being on the receiving end of a verbal serenade about The Torch. Allow me to explain….
My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in Indiana, recently announced the creation of an online archive of past issues of The Torch, the school’s long-running weekly student newspaper. As a former Torch department editor and reporter (1979-81), the notice catapulted me into a nostalgic state. I even dug out the bound volume from my first year on the paper, photos of which you may peruse here.
I quickly lapse into soggy memories over The Torch because it was the most important extracurricular activity of my college career. The experience of writing and editing articles for publication has paid professional dividends throughout my career, and many of the friendships formed with fellow staffers have endured to this day.
I joined The Torch in my junior year, and I pored myself into working for it. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.
It was a heady experience to write pieces for publication with a byline appended. Many members of the VU community read the paper, as our lively letters-to-the-editor section often reflected. (I learned that if you’re going to put your words out there for public consumption, you’d better have or grow a thick skin.)
Some articles demanded special attention to detail, thoroughness, and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. This meant many hours interviewing university faculty members and deans; our reporting had to be airtight on such an important matter.
I also did a series of articles covering the aftermath of a tragic student-on-student slaying that had racial overtones. Those pieces thrust me well beyond the comfort zone of reporting everyday campus events and activities. For several weeks I was regularly on the phone with sources from police departments, the county prosecutor’s office, and the local hospital, among others.
The Torch quickly became the social and intellectual hub that I didn’t previously have at Valparaiso. A former Torch colleague once wrote that it became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated issues related to academic and campus life. We spent a lot of time simply hanging out at The Torch offices, even when we didn’t have to be there. Looking back, I now realize that it was an exceptional extracurricular experience.
Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too earnestly (ditto). But we produced some quality reporting and thoughtful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions, as evidenced by multiple awards we earned from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association during those years.
The university’s Greek system was a regular focus for us, and we often took to task the behavioral excesses emerging from fraternity events. This was the age of Animal House, and along with toga parties inspired by the movie came some pretty egregious conduct. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were fully warranted in addressing these issues, many of which anticipated today’s concerns about student conduct at fraternity events.
However, we largely dismissed the positive social bonds facilitated by fraternities and sororities. Our office conversations were laced with regular putdowns of Greek organizations, to the dismay of Torch staffers who belonged to them. At a school with a largely conservative student body that embraced the Greek system, our newspaper was a liberal-ish, independent enclave, sometimes fueled by healthy doses of self-righteousness.
As a group of (mostly) liberal arts majors, we closely reported campus deliberations relating to the place of the social sciences, humanities, and general education in the university curriculum. These topics were frequently invoked in editorials and opinion columns as well. The more callow among us were guided by the work of three senior editors with strong intellectual orientations. Many of us were unaware that we were participating in an emerging national debate on the value of instruction in the liberal arts, but this troika was already marking academic trends by reading The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Only a handful of Torch staffers would build careers in journalism. One of them, Jim Hale (author of the “Insights gleaned” column pictured above), is currently a reporter for the Gettysburg Times in Pennsylvania. Previously Jim was a writer for the Gettysburg College communications office and a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune in Indiana.
As for me, I did some part-time reporting for a couple of local newspapers in northwest Indiana, and later I served as an editor of the law school newspaper at New York University. Though I did not pursue a journalism career, The Torch served as an ongoing tutorial on the importance of tight, clear, well organized writing. In terms of aspirations, at least, these qualities have manifested themselves in virtually everything I write: Scholarly articles, essays, reports, op-ed pieces, and, yes, blog posts.
In fact, I know that my affinity for the blogging medium traces back to my days at The Torch. Writing this blog is an engaging pastime for me, like being a newspaper columnist, albeit with a much smaller readership! Writing my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, requires more analytical smarts, but it, too, has roots in my collegiate newspaper experience.
The old chestnut about understanding your present by comprehending your past certainly applies here. I did not have an academic career in mind when I was a collegian. My intention was to go to law school and eventually to start a career in politics. (I also was active in student government and in political campaigns as a college student.) However, as I flipped through the pages of The Torch, I understood how reporting on the ups and downs of academe planted seeds that keep sprouting in my life today.
Equally important, I remain good friends with everyone whose byline appears in these photographs, as well as others who were part of the mix. Our paths cross regularly through periodic get-togethers, e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Many of these friendships have matured and deepened over the years. This only reinforces my belief that something good was happening at that campus newspaper office some 35 years ago.
Portions of this post were adapted from a previous piece on the importance of extracurricular activities, written for Minding the Workplace.
Not too long ago, a popular Sunday tradition was spending a good chunk of the day reading through the Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Millions experienced the tactile delight of opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff waited to be discovered. Even the advertising flyers were fun to page through, especially around holiday season.
The hefty Sunday newspaper has been a journalistic tradition for well over a century. One of my favorite coffee table books is Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), which celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.
The World on Sunday and the tradition of Sunday newspaper reading represent an aspect of pre-digital culture that may be hard to understand for those weaned on an online world where wishes for news and commentary are instantly gratified. Fortunately, some of the major newspapers still land on doorsteps with a healthy thud on Sundays, containing some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces.
Growing up in Chicagoland
My Sunday newspaper habit goes back to growing up in Northwest Indiana, where local papers and the Chicago dailies were readily available. Among the Sunday editions that regularly got my attention were the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Hammond Times, and Gary Post-Tribune. The Tribune excelled at covering my beloved Chicago sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.
These papers deserve credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie. The Chicago influence was especially strong. The Windy City was a great, great newspaper town back in the day, fueled by the city’s colorful politicians, sports figures, and crime bosses. Beyond the headliners, however, the reporters and columnists who toiled for Chicago’s daily papers also had a knack for digging out the stories of everyday people. The human interest story had a regular place in the city’s newspapers.
Sundays in New York
When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday New York Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out on late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.
My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the now gone NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite-ever newspaper.
And now in Boston
My Sunday paper of choice remains the New York Times. The Times has not abandoned the idea that the Sunday edition of a newspaper should be something special. I especially look forward to its Week in Review and Book Review sections.
The major daily here is the Boston Globe, and I have an online subscription. I have an on again, off again relationship with the Globe, and for now we are on digital terms only. In fact, despite a surfeit of subscriptions to printed periodicals, I increasingly get much of my news and commentary online.
And to be honest, I wouldn’t trade the remarkable world of information and news available online for the days of waiting for the paper to be delivered. I, too, have been spoiled by point and click access to news coverage from around the nation and the world. However, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good choice.
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for another blog three years ago.
Before heading into the office today to pick up some work (I’m one of those academicians who embraces quirky work hours), I stopped by the Boston Common Coffee Company, a downtown café, for a late lunch. It is there, while enjoying a sandwich & greens, iced coffee, and part of a cookie, that I realized how weird I have become. No, it’s not that I’ve changed all that dramatically over the years. Rather, it’s how the world has changed around me.
You see, while sitting at a small table with my food, drink, and a few sections of the Sunday newspaper, I looked around and realized that among the 20 or so people in the café, I am the only one reading a newspaper. In fact, I’m the only one reading any kind of hard copy material at all. Just about everyone else, whether alone or in a small group, has a gadget or laptop out.
Of course, it was a younger group of customers, as befits a coffee place located among buildings of two urban colleges with dorms full of summer visitors. So the generational thing certainly was at play. By contrast, when I was in law school at NYU some 30 years ago, on any given Sunday you could go to a neighborhood coffee shop and see students trading sections of the Times, Daily News, and Post over a (usually late!) breakfast or brunch.
Though I get a lot of my news online, spending time with a hefty Sunday newspaper remains a treat for me. There’s a small sense of adventure in flipping through the sections to see what awaits me. And when coffee and a bit of good food are added to the mix, it makes for an extraordinarily pleasant way to spend part of a day.