What’s the way out? Research in media, racism and lobotomies

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"Are you a cop, too?"

"No, I'm just a reporter," I said, grabbing my notebook and recorder, climbing out of the front seat of the cruiser. I didn't know how to talk to a 16-year-old who'd just been placed in the back of a police car.

Several hours earlier, we had pulled over next to a double-parked SUV and told them to move. Here it was now, mid-afternoon, and we went on a high-speed chase across Holyoke, Massachusetts, because the teenagers in that car had been driving around with an air gun, telling people it was real.

When the cop pulled the SUV over, he waited a few moments for backup and then approached the car. The kids had stashed the gun under the back seat, but told the police when they saw it that it was real.

This was the sort of thing that got 12-year-old Tamir Rice killed by police in Cleveland.

Maybe these folks were better cops, maybe the kids were just lucky. All that happened was they got arrested.

I was on a ride-along that day. I showed up at the police station around 7 a.m., signed a waiver, met the officer I'd be riding with, and climbed in his cruiser. He said that Mondays were typically slow, that we would more than likely park near the railroad tracks and ticket a couple of drivers with expired registrations, maybe get out of the car and talk to some of the merchants.

He couldn't have been more wrong about how the day went.

There was a foot chase, there was a car chase, there was a fatal accident.

It took me two whole days to go over my notes and my tapes and get a succinct (OK, maybe that's not a good word for it) 120-column inch article (about 4,000 words — the equivalent of a 16-page paper).

This was years ago, before we were putting our stories online; only some news outlets were moving their stories from the paper to the web, and they certainly weren't writing with the intent of getting their stuff out there fast.

Twitter wasn't even Odeo yet. Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school. The World Trade towers were still standing.

There were no immediate public reactions unless you were physically in someone's presence. There was no YouTube.

It's not a time I'm nostalgic for. I'm just trying to paint a picture of the world we lived in. Most of you remember that time, but you might not really remember how different day-to-day life was. You might not remember what news consumption was like. You might not remember what our interactions were like.

Nobody immediately sprung into reflexive reaction like we did in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Baton Rouge, in Charleston, in Minneapolis, in Charlotte. Nobody got on Twitter to shout. Police departments didn't get body camera footage out to the world in a single swoop.

We relied on storytellers to gather information and tell it to us.

***

Chuck Palahniuk's short story "Zombies," part of his 2015 collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread, about kids who are too smart to ever be happy, so they start a trend of self-lobotomizing using AED kits from schools and gyms and airports.

It reminded me of our hero in the film Pi, Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette. Exhausted from trying to find a pattern in pi, overwrought by migraines and hounded by both Hasidic Jews and Wall Street firms, Max lobotomizes himself with a drill.

When asked how they made the scene look so realistic, director Darren Aranofsky is fond of saying, "We did one take then rushed Sean to the hospital."

***

Who are we now?

We are all journalists, inasmuch as a journalist is one who journals. We're all doing it in public, too.

We are not all reporters, however. We react, but we don't necessarily report what's happening. We let someone else do that, then we journal a link to it.

One of the things that I learned while I was a reporter was not just to tell the story, but to give it some context. Not just why did it happen, but why is it important? What are the implications for us as a community? As a species?

We're supposed to have some perspective on things, but in a world that demands everything now, now, now, it's difficult to do enough research to make it worthwhile. A lot of elder statesmen are getting out of Dodge before it becomes entirely impossible to have a reasoned, researched discussion.

So far it's difficult, but yet impossible.

***

We need an exit strategy.

I'm not talking about anything drastic — not death or explosions or anything.

Hopefully not lobotomies.

We need to take a step back, to slow down, to give things time. To allow ourselves the opportunity for reflection, for observation, for discussion.

A lot of this sounds familiar to me.

In just two weeks, the US has an election. It's an important one: It's between (primarily) two candidates who are not particularly well-liked among the general populace. They are very likely the last people of their generation who will run for president.

There's a half-generation — the one President Obama belongs to — that will be prominent for a few election cycles.

The next younger half-generation, the one I belong to, is called Generation X. We're famously derided for not giving a crap about anything.

Some of that comes from the apathy toward community our parents showed. While Baby Boomers drastically changed the world we live in, they also stayed away from religious groups, recreational sports leagues and social and professional groups like Rotary and Toastmasters clubs, among others. A Harvard professor did a giant study on it.

Gen Xers may or may not get into politics, and if not, we're going to see those Obama's age in politics for about 20 more years and then Millennials will take office. That's the generation that grew up with mobile phones and ubiquitous high-speed internet; the generation coming out of college to have job titles that didn't exist a few years ago.

We have no idea what the world will look like in another couple of presidential cycles. But if it keeps speeding up the way it is, we might need to worry about exit velocity.

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