Monday, March 07, 2005

Our Daily CA

This is an omnibus post about various problems at our daily paper, the Commercial Appeal. Come, take my hand and let us proceed....

First was a front page, above the fold story about Mayor Herenton's meeting with the school boards. The trouble? There's no reporting!

We go through nine paragraphs of stuff like this:
Think of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton's first meeting with the city school board to talk about consolidation as a first date.

He was gracious, starting the Thursday evening meeting with hugs and a couple of smooth icebreakers before easing into humble offerings like, "I don't have all the answers."

He wasn't there to make an aggressive pitch for his plan to merge the city and county school systems.

Instead, he came to woo, to gain support for a plan he knows faces an uphill battle.
It's only with the next to last paragraph before the jump to inside that we get our first actual bit of information:
Instead, Herenton shared a grim financial forecast.
We never do learn what that forecast is. Instead, we get a lot of random bits connected by a first-date reminiscence. For a topic so vital to the community, and a meeting that may be pivotal in grappling with those problems, we learn pretty much nothing. It's inexcusable for something this fact-free to have gotten past an editor, much less into a high-profile slot on the front page.

Next is another piece of literary writing being passed off as reporting. The facts of the story, as I gleaned them, are that a woman who died after seven years in a coma is having the circumstances of her attack reviewed, and that no police report was taken at the time which seems to indicate that police had no intention of investigating the assault.

What you get, though, is this:
Family members say her life was a mystery.

So was her death.

She graduated from college, got married and got a job as a social worker.

But she was also arrested 16 times in 20 years for sleeping in a bank, loitering in parking lots and stealing things like a $1.29 bottle of rubbing alcohol from a drugstore.

The first 20 or so years of her life she had family and friends and direction, the last 20 she spent wandering the streets with no friends except for a guy named 'Cowboy.'

That might be why police don't really know how Lenatta Burnette ended up the way she did.
After all this, we get the facts, finally. Then we get a whole lot of heart-string tugging about the "mystery" of her life. When I first started reading, I was thinking "She had adult-onset schizophrenia." But it's only when the facts of her life are laid out, the so-called mystery is "solved."
Her mother said she was a sweet young woman who graduated from Talladega College in Alabama and studied for her master's at Auburn University's Montgomery campus.

When Burnette was younger Harrison called her "Diana" because, like a princess, she got everything she wanted.

She was raised in Montgomery and moved to Memphis in the 1980s, where she married briefly. She had a son but did little to raise him.

During this time a severe alcohol addiction gripped her.
Oh. Well. That answers that, doesn't it? There is no "mystery" to an alcoholic's life. It is an ever-tightening circle that strips and burns off every bit of humanity in a person until only the body and the bottle are left. Then you die. This kind of romanticising for the sake of tugging the emotions is reprehensible.
Harrison believes her daughter was beaten in the street and that no one cared because that's the life of a street person.
Yeah, that's right. "Society" is "responsible" for "letting" this woman die. Not even her own mother supports that statement:
"Her life was just like that. It was very raggedy and she fooled with the low type. She did not have to do it; it was her choice."
Exactly. An alcoholic who doesn't want help can't be helped, no matter the intervention. You may slow things down, but you cannot prevent the inevitable if the alcoholic doesn't want to stop.

This was a simple crime report, a re-examination of a cold case. Turning it into a sob story helps no one. Again, aren't there editors who are supposed to stop this sort of writing? Or is this "telling the story of Memphis?"

Last is a guest editorial that appears to be from Bill Bouknight, a local pastor. The editorial only says "Bouknight" without any other identifying information. I'm guessing the print edition said more, but I'll explain in a bit why the online edition was so sparse in a moment.

Anyway, it's an "anti-evolution" column that could have been written by any high school student in the county. Why it made it into the Commercial Appeal is likely a consequence of the author's position in the community, as pastor of a major church. Beyond that, it has no purpose or information.

Bouknight, who doesn't seem to have any training as a scientist or much understanding of how science works, nonetheless proceeds to enlighten us on why "science" is wrong. I'm sure that Bouknight would be just as welcoming and respecting of a scientist who came to talk with his parishioners about the Bible's history and origins who had no credentials in Bible scholarship. I'm trying to remember the last time the Commercial Appeal had some good guest comment on Bible scholarship and history written by hard-science historians like archeologists.

I normally don't Christian bash. I'm very much live and let live on the subject, even though I am an atheist. If you want the hardline, try here. I generally respect a person's religious beliefs when they are a core part of a person's outlook and personality. The religious impulse is undeniably part of the human make-up, found in many forms in all societies around the world. It's the "why" and "what next" parts we can debate, if you want. I usually don't, because it quickly becomes personal and defensive.

All of that is to say if the Commercial Appeal, a newspaper supposedly dedicated to reporting the facts, is inclined to discuss these topics, they also have a responsibility to uphold a basic standard in the discussion. Bouknight's column fails basic standards of rhetoric and science. It should never have seen the light of print.

As to why I didn't know for sure who wrote this, I finally gave in and installed the Flashblock, Adblock and Bug Me Not plug-in extensions for my Firefox browser. I'm generally willing to tolerate ads, since they help keep websites free. But when I go to television station and newspaper websites that are so badly designed, so chock full of badly placed, badly written content piped in from external sites, that it takes minutes for a page to load completely, then I have to act.

Since installing and turning on these plug-ins, the pages load much, much faster. They're still slow, because they aren't designed for readability or accessibility, but out of convenience, bad inherited design and the need to crank out ads. If their webmasters would improve what they do, then I'd gladly, if reluctantly, undo what I've done. As it is, I don't expect anything to change, so, tough luck for them.

No comments: