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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Our inability to get symbolism

People living the Medieval Ages saw the whole world as symbolic. Some say that the real crisis in modern times is that we are impervious to symbolism. That in our linear world, we see symbols merely as pointers. Religion is all about symbolism and if we can't get that, we can't get religion.

Last night's RCIA class was a calibration of what we've done so far. What have we learned, what has disturbed, what has excited and what has dismayed us? "All learning should complicate your thinking," says Father Bob. We were once 6-year-olds who walked into a classroom, had all this Catholic religion dumped into our heads, swallowed it whole and now it resides there like cement. It takes some chipping to knock it loose. Here's a sampling of the many wonderful fragments we've shared:

-- We're recovering our Jewishness and the Jewishness of Christ. Jesus was, after all, born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew. He is not the founder of Christianity, nor was he the first Christian. And by the way, he was Jeshuva and his mother was Miriam. We have Romanized their names.

-- One of the great weaknesses is that we can't get outside our modern world to understand the ancient world. For example, our relationship with light (as in Christ is the light of the world) is completely different than the ancients. Our modernity can be counterproductive to understanding the fundamental images in the Bible.

-- The Bible stories are our story, too. Religion offers no solutions and no answers. In the Book of Job, Job seeks a reason for everything and in the end there is no reason. It's one book, written by one author with one point of view. The books of the Bible don't agree with each other. "If you take Job literally you are in huge trouble," says Father Bob.

-- The battle in heaven when Lucifer falls is not a part of accepted Jewish or Christian canonical literature. The story is referenced in the Book of Daniel, but is found in an apocryphal writing known as the Book of Enoch.

-- A huge amount of Catholic legend is found in apocryphal writings, including anything about the birth of Mary and her parents. "It's a nice story, but it's not part of the official canon," says Father Bob.

-- What is the responsibility of the ordained and of the laity to update their knowledge?

-- If you've never been to an Easter Vigil, you're missing a huge chunk of Catholicism.

-- Catholics don't give much feedback. They either don't say anything or they walk away completely.

-- How many thousands of dollars in therapy fees could have been saved if only we realized our bad body image stems from Augustine and the Manicheans?

-- Christianity closed its canon within a couple of decades to our impoverishment. Where is our story since the New Testament? It is found in phenomenal writings of the early desert fathers and mothers and of more contemporary writers and thinkers such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

-- Religion binds people together and provides a way for them to read the world. All religions create, maintain and oppose other worlds. That's their function and why they are conservative by nature. It's also why radical fundamentalism persists.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A story that needs to be told

One of the most frustrating experiences as a freelance journalist is not finding an outlet for stories about which you feel passionate. I've had that happen to me on a number of occasions, but one haunts me, one makes me want to apply for a fellowship, one calls to me when I least expect.

Amina Silmi was deported from the United States more than two years ago in a case that reeked of coldness, tragedy and cultural misunderstanding. What I learned from my nearly two-inch file of research on that story was that Amina's situation was far from unique. She was swept up in the post-9/11 world that found mothers on the Alien Absconder List because of what their estranged husbands did without their knowledge.

The case swung from the highs of a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that gave the family hope, to the lows of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (appropriately known as ICE) decision to send her back to Venezuela. Overnight, the tone of the ICE spokesman changed from encouragement for Amina's case to cold and matter-of-fact.

When asked about the fate of her three American-born children, he coldly stated that she chose to leave them here.

She "chose" to leave them here. How does an illegal immigrant, a woman, a Muslim left alone by two husbands "choose" anything in her life?

I thought it an odd characterization of the events as they unfolded. Amini was heartbroken. We spoke after she arrived in Venezuela and in between sobs she would rage in anger and then become despondent, collapsing again in tears. When I asked about her decision to leave her children behind she responded, "This place is not for my kids. These people here are hungry and poor. I can’t support my kids here. I sacrificed my kids and I’m missing them so much. The government broke three hearts by sending me away.”

Her oldest daughter was 12 at the time her mother was deported. She would be nearly 15 now. I often wonder how she and her younger brother and sister are faring. How does a young girl navigate being a teenager under such circumstances? A year after Amina's deportation, I pitched doing a follow-up story on how the kids are managing without their mother. I was shocked by the response I received from the editor. She said that while Amina's story was unfortunate, she broke the law and as such her readers would never be interested in reading about her and her kids.

Such insenstivity, such a black-and-white view of the world seems to me a perilous trait in an editor. No matter now because the publication is no longer even in existence.

But the characters in this story still reside in my head and I still think their story is worth telling. It seems that other newspapers also find such stories worth telling. This week's featured series in the Nieman Narrative Digest contains a package of stories about an 11-year-old American-born girl dealing with the loss of her mother who was deported to Guatemala after a traffic stop revealed she had violated an eight-year-old deportation order.

It appears in The Charlotte Observer, which didn't feel compelled to quell a story even though her mother broke immigration laws.

I wonder now if we care a litte bit more about the complexities of immigration issues. Do we care what happens to three young Muslim children? Or have we simply become a nation that has forgotten how to care?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday movie reviews

I've developed the diverting habit of researching films I'll probably never see in a theater on Fridays. The habit stems from readings the movie reviews in New York Times and LA Times.

After reading a critic's review, I visit Apple Movie Trailers, where I find the quality of trailers to be best. Once I've seen the trailers of the movies about which I've recently read, then I'm off in a few other directions checking out all kinds of trailers, things for the kids, things I'll get on DVD and others I'll never see.

Sometimes, if I'm really interested, I'll even visit the movie Web site to read more. I'm a huge fan of back story so I'm always curious about how and why a film was made.

On this Friday, I'm keenly interested in seeing two films:

Babel, an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film starring Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and a wonderful assortment of international actors both famous and obscure.

The Good Year, starring Russell Crowe, for whom I harbor a secret crush. But Albert Finney, another one of my most favorite actors also appears as an enchanting uncle living in an French chateau.

I really ought to make an effort to see these on the big screen. Today is a marvelously gloomy day and ideal for blowing off work in favor of a film.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Everybody has to wander"

One of the problems Catholics have in understanding their faith is that they don't know the Bible and they don't know Bible history. Last night's RCIA class helped us to break down the human journey found in Exodus, the central story of the Hebrew Bible. It goes a little something like this:


Realization that something is wrong

Realization that we are powerless to change

Crying out

Being heard

Being called and brought out


Wanting to go back


Making a choice

Entering a new land

"This is everyone's story," said Father Bob. Exodus is a universal story about the human journey. It we get caught up in the details of how many frogs and which direction the wind blew we lose the overarching narrative of the story. You may recognize yourself in this story for a variety of reasons.

God makes the first choice for the Hebrews by calling them out. But they are afraid of freedom because it's something they don't know. They want to go back because at least they knew what slavery entailed. After wandering (the Bible says 40 years but we learned that 40 is a numerical code for "a really long time" or "as long as it takes.") in the desert (actually it's not the desert we think of with sand and tumbleweeds, the Hebrew translation is wilderness, someplace where we are exposed and there is nowhere to hide from God), the Hebrews make the choice themselves to pursue freedom and only then can they enter a new land.

"Everybody has to wander," said Father Bob. Because the only way to make a choice on our own, just as the Hebrews do after wandering, is to have spent time wandering. The "dump method" of Catholic teaching (basically we had everything dumped into our brains by second grade, including answers to questions we didn't yet know to ask) does not allow us to have doubts. It's easier for us not to question and just go with the knowledge. But that's problematic for people like me and, I suspect, a growing number of Catholics.

We are no longer the peasants in the field with at most a grade school education. We are highly educated and yet many who can be incredibly intelligent in all areas of their life, put on blinders when it comes to religion because "that's what we were taught in second grade."

"A lot of you are here because you wandered — from church to church, trying to find a place where you belong and doubting both intellectually and spiritually," he said. But we made a choice to know our faith deeper and find our way to a new land, to new understanding.

Like the Hebrews, the second choice was ours.

Friday, October 20, 2006

For the love of a white oak

The Charlotte Observer has this beautiful story about an old white oak tree next to its Town Hall. Thanks to Chip Scanlan for pointing it out. A terrific example of hyper local reporting with some amazing visual and audio to accompany the story. Have a great weekend and don't forget to head outside and the the autumn leaves before they drop.

Sshhh —writing in progress

Some writers say that they can only write if they go to a far island. They would go to the moon to write not to be disturbed. I think that being disturbed is part of human life and sometimes it's useful to be disturbed because you interrupt your writing and while you rest, while you are busy with something else, your perspective changes or the horizon widens. All I can say about myself is that I have never really written in peace. — Isaac Bashevis Singer

Regina Brett having a big week

Big-time props to Regina Brett for her past two columns. Today's was incredibly courageous in my opinion because she dared to illustrate in rather graphic detail the difference between one girl's emotional and yet loving decision to give up a child and another's horrific response to motherhood.

So often stories of such a profound human nature receive little context. It's so easy for viewers or readers to sit in judgment when they know only a smidgen of facts and have not one iota of context in which to understand a person's decision. Local television news should be wearing the bag of shame for its obscene coverage of the young woman who gave her child to Wooster Community Hospital.

After reading Wednesday's column about what readers want, the first question in my mind was what discussions were taking place in the newsroom that prompted this column? Regina? I think it's telling that a woman has bothered to ask this question and not the many middle-age white men running the paper.

And finally, Bob Dolgan's farewell in today's sports section will be the first of many as some of the PD's marquee reporters take advantage of a generous buyout. I found his thoughts particularly moving and I suppose it harkens back to my days as a young reporter. I got tiny glimpses into the world of sports reporting from my computer mate and I heard many colorful war stories, often involving the legendary Dennis Lustig, a little person with a zest for life and for the drink. Dolgan's column reaffirms that sports reporters are colorful lot. What touched me most was this line: "Today I am a much better reporter. But I was a better writer then."

My interview with Dana Priest

And here's a link to my interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post national security reporter Dana Priest appearing in this month's Quill magazine.

The printed version of the story begins:

In April, Dana Priest received the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for a body of work that includes the revelation of secret CIA “black” sites in Eastern Europe for holding foreign prisoners. Unfortunately, the timing of the Pulitzer announcement coincided with a great deal of furor from Bush Administration officials over the revelations and threats of subpoenas to reveal confidential sources. The matter remains unresolved, but Priest maintains laser-like focus on her work.

Latest UB story

Here's a link to the St. Francis article in last Friday's Catholic Universe Bulletin. Today's edition includes my story on Archbishop Fouad Twal, coadjutor bishop of Jerusalem, who was in town last Friday discussing how American Catholics can help the struggle for peace in the Middle East. Seems to be a theme here for me. I'm hoping that someday soon all this writing will allow me to visit the Middle East.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bushels of fun!

Stephen Colbert hosts iconic feminists Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda on the Colbert Report. Colbert invited them to talk about GreenStone Media and bake an apple pie. Check out the video courtesy of YouTube and FishbowlNY. Who says feminists have no sense of humor?

What Watergate did for journalism

* Corrected information

How many thousands of journalists over the past three decades were inspired to pursue journalism as a result of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein? Even their own children have entered the profession. Tali Woodward is a reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Jacob Bernstein is a features editor for W and Women's Wear Daily.

Generations of reporters were called for different reasons. Some found the celebrity and its accompanying power intoxicating. For others, the magnetism was speaking truth to power.

There’s not much that’s revelatory in Alicia C. Shepard’s new book, “Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate,” published by Wiley. But she does provide a context for how the dynamic duo changed journalism.

“…These two men influenced the modern history of journalism by exploring the advent of celebrity journalism, the controversial use of anonymous sources, the media’s relationship with the public and the executive branch, the importance of the reporter-editor bond, and the role of investigative reporting,” she writes.

The two gave us words that are permanently ingrained in journalism vernacular—reliable source, deep background, off the record, confirm or deny. Watergate legitimized anonymous sources, something that for good or bad has become a Washington staple. And it presented the great perils of superstar journalism, when the reporters become part of the story.

Out of the starting gate she sets the stage for her narrative demonstrating the dichotomy of personalities and the unlikelihood of them ever coming together as friends, let alone as colleagues.

* She draws from her extensive interviews with them for a 2003 Washingtonian article and from other key players—including Case journalism professor, former Washington Post reporter and prolific writer, Ted Gup—and to pull from strong interviews with the pair over the past 30 years.

She also had the enviable opportunity to pore through the archives at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. That included 75 boxes filled with 250 reporter notebooks, interviews, book galleys, typed notes, handwritten notes, memorabilia and two feet of fan mail, some of which is delightfully excerpted throughout.

Woodward said that his early fascination with The Washington Post stemmed from its coverage of Vietnam, something as a naval officer he considered a “lifeline.” “That propelled me into the newsroom,” he said. “The sense of immediacy in a newsroom and the newspaper was overwhelming to me.”

Over time, Woodward would look at the Post as his home and to Editor Ben Bradlee and Publisher Katherine Graham as his parents. “It was home,” Woodward said.

“There would always be exceptions made for Woodward not afforded to other Post reporters,” Shepard writes, and that is a great pitfall of celebrity journalism.

Bernstein was the cocky college dropout, the “newspaper urchin” who had a strong knack for writing human-interest stories that weren’t common at the time. But while he could be genius in his writing, he was also sporadic, anti-establishment and not altogether trustworthy. Woodward, by contrast was the steady, loyal, focused Midwesterner. While he was clean cut, Bernstein was a chain-smoking, longhaired eastern liberal. Woodward is a workaholic and Bernstein could quickly lose interest. Woodward wanted to please editors; Bernstein lived to piss them off.

But against all likelihood, these two came together when handed the Watergate story by the overnight cops reporters. Without the burden of family commitments, they were able to spend extraordinary hours working the story. While Bernstein was the better writer and able to grasp the big picture more quickly, Woodward used his killer instinct and laser-like focus on reporting. The two shared an intense respect and suspicion for all things powerful.

Along with a cadre of other reporters and many editors, led by “Boston Brahmin” Ben Bradlee, the two were able to accomplish reporting that had never been seen at the time. The White House Press Corps was complacent and lazy, regurgitating official statements. The two hotshots with nothing to lose permanently shook them from their collective malaise and changed how the Press Corp interacts with power.

Although he is incorrectly given most of the credit for the Watergate reporting thanks to Robert Redford’s movie, “All the President’s Men,” Ben Bradlee does deserve credit for creating the atmosphere in which such reporting could occur. He pushed the Post to become a national newspaper and put a premium on creative, solid journalism over cost cutting. He gave Woodward and Bernstein the twin luxuries of time and flexibility.

But at the same time, Bradlee also enforced a strict work ethic and standards and pushed reporters to get off their asses and report their stories. So the time and circumstances were ripe for collaborative, investigative reporting.

There’s a tremendous focus in the book on Woodward and Bernstein's relationship with Robert Redford and how the movie created from their book helped to explain a news operation to a public that was largely ignorant of its methods.

Shepard’s book also shows how media content has changed since “All the President’s Men.” Simon & Schuster had issued an embargo on the book prior to its publication. But Women’s Wear Daily broke the embargo in a rollout that resembles Woodward’s most recent book launch. The book was reviewed by Dan Rather in Rolling Stone and it was excerpted in Newsweek, but also in Playboy, then considered a slightly more serious publication, where Deep Throat first appears.

My favorite passages involved their interaction with then-New York Times now New Yorker “sartorially challenged” reporter Seymour Hersh. Now he’s someone who should be the subject of a book. Here’s his note to Woodward and Bernstein following the publication of “All the President’s Men.”

Just wanted to say that I read the excerpt (Part 1) in Newsweek just now and it was terrific; I wished I had written it (which as I told David Obst, is the ultimate compliment anyone can get from me) … the last book I daydreamed about writing was Humboldt’s Gift.

And keep out of Las Vegas. Sy

Shepard’s narrative moves quickly over the years 1976-2005 but includes the more salacious details of Bernstein’s personal life, which is frankly more interesting to read (though hardly new) than Woodward’s more cardboard existence. The exception is a quick run through Woodward’s attempts at management, which (with the support of many others) went down in flames thanks to one reporter who invented a story that caused the Post to have to return a Pulitzer.

Throughout the years, we see the development and now very familiar Woodward style of “instant history.” His books are characterized by saturated reporting, little context and use of omniscient narrator and while he continues to be roundly criticized for his approach by some, it’s also brought him professional and financial success. Woodward's books, for better or worse, continue to be news events.

Interestingly, some of what the duo accomplished early on is now being called into question. The use of anonymous sources has plagued reporting largely because its use prohibits accountability. Until fairly recently, the White House Press Corps had again sunk into a malaise that left an Administration largely unchallenged, and in this era of cost-cutting most newspapers can no longer afford the luxury of time and flexibility for reporters pursuing investigative stories.

Shepard’s book ends anticlimactically with the revelation of Deep Throat’s identity as Mark Felt, which lacks freshness given that it was so recently and thoroughly reported. The end of the Watergate story came when current Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said, "Bob, it's over."

She writes: “A thirty-three-year-old secret ended with the push of a ‘send’ button from” when “decades of secrecy and denial evaporated in a mere seven hours and forty-two minutes.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Changing forever how we hear the stories

For the past five weeks I’ve been learning—or rather unlearning—a great deal about my Catholic faith. At some point I’ll probably write further about this, but for now I want to share one story from last night’s RCIA class.

The story of the Good Samaritan in John’s gospel has repeatedly been misrepresented and most of us in class last night were left scratching our heads at how we could have missed so much from such a popular parable.

After Solomon dies, the 12 tribes of Israel split unequally. The northern 10 tribes are known as Israel and the southern two are known as Judah.

In 721 BC Assyrians overtook the 10 tribes of the north, not by exile but by intermingling. In effect they became a bastardized race known as Samaritans. The Samaritans worshipped on the mountain and were hated by the Judeans, who considered them half-breeds. The Assyrians reintroduced Baal worship. The ancient Hebrews believed in many gods but only one God for them. As such there is no one view of God found in the Bible.

Back to Jacob's well.... No one of that time, according to Father Bob Marrone, would have put the words Good and Samaritan together. It’s akin to calling someone a Good Terrorist. Baal, who was the Lord God and the greatest diety, was referred to as husband and he had five manifestations. So when Jesus says to the woman, “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” he is not discussing her marital status. He is having a theological discussion with the woman.

“John’s gospel is about whether or not she will accept Jesus as the messiah,” he told us. It's the theological difference between having to summon God (thereby attempting to exert control over God) and realizing that he is always present. It’s also about hearers who don’t want to hear anything they don’t like. “It’s futile to examine the details of the Bible stories. You have to read them for meaning and see yourself in the stories.”

My class is an intoxicating mix of history, art history, philosophy and theology. The Bible is filled with symbolism; something modern people aren’t so good at interpreting (and something the Reformation altered forever). Once we learn the meaning behind these stories, we never hear them the same way again.

Reminds me of the following book review that appeared in the Oct. 26, 2005 edition of The Plain Dealer. I was particularly struck by the author's reference to Christianity's language of symbolism.

The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition(HarperSanFrancisco, $22.95) by Huston Smith

If you were a best-selling author and you were pretty sure, given your age, that this would be your final book, one hopes it would read with a certain strength stemming from intimate knowledge of your subject, and with a confidence that only comes with perspective.

That’s how Smith approaches how we reconnect to Christianity by offering his interpretation through the lens of Christianity’s first millennium.

Just when you feel as if his first chapter reads like an advanced philosophy course on worldview, the author says as much and invites you to read on assuring that the necessary connections will be made. And they are.

He does more to make sense of Christianity’s paradoxes than other contemporary religious writers. Transcendence cannot be described in human language, he writes, illustrating this with scientists’ struggle to explain the micro, macro and mega worlds.

The problem is when we try to interpret scripture literally. “Religion’s technical language is symbolism,” he writes. Jesus used stories to illustrate God’s love and teachings and he found the authority for his teachings “in his hearer’s own hearts.”
(Bold is mine)

Christianity is not an ethnic religion, but one based on historical events. What initially separated Christians from other Abrahamic faiths is that Jesus found unacceptable the lines that divide people. But divided is what we’ve become. Smith brings it all back to the beginning and makes the strongest argument yet for why religion matters today.

Wendy Hoke
Special to The Plain Dealer

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The news in "newsbooks"

I was having a discussion recently with friends about how some of the most in-depth reporting taking place these days is in books written by journalists. Before I had the chance to write about it here, the much more adept Jack Shafer has written about the interest and the impact of what he dubs "newsbooks." The most obvious reason for the existence of newsbooks is time—or lack of it.

The scoops found in the newsbooks indicate that the competitive pressure of the daily deadline buries as much potential news as it unearths.

And later...

By standing outside of today's news cycle, newsbook authors can recognize patterns and make connections that escape beat reporters filing four or five pieces a week.

Sure they sometimes lack deadline-breaking earth-shattering news. But maybe what they give is a chance to look at current events in some context, to connect the dots of daily journalism into a broader narrative. Sometimes that's worth the read, sometimes it isn't.

But as Shafer points out, there's clearly a demand. Just look at the current New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction.

Let's reserve the final credit for the newsbook's ascent to readers, that much-maligned group that is said to crave a diet exclusively composed of shorter news stories, gossip columns, and blog entries. Every time they buy a newsbook, they're voting with their dollars for complex, in-depth journalism. Isn't that good news?

On an unrelated but somewhat similar note, UPS today delivered Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, by Alicia C. Shepard. Published by Wiley, which incidentally is celebrating its bicentennial in 2007, the book has grabbed me right from the Preface. Think I'll have to put all other reading aside right now to zoom through this one. Expect a review here later next week.

My new favorite pen

I have a passion for good pens and am always on a quest to find the perfect ballpoint. While I've used the gels and rollerball pens and flairs and, of course, the Sharpie, my favorite pen has always been the Bic Accountant extra fine point pen preferrably in blue ink, though I do like a little variety.

Those pens are very hard to find and not readily had at the local office supply store or Target. So I decided this morning at Office Max to take the new TUL pens for a test spin.

I even went so far as to ask the cashier to open a box of 12 fine blue ballpoints so I could try before I buy. I wrote "test" on a scrap piece of paper at the counter. "Ooohh, this is nice. I'll take the whole box," I told the cashier.

I wasted no time putting the pen to use since I had to go to an assignment following my slightly-longer-than-expected trip to Office Max. The pen didn't disappoint. It flows smoothly, writes cleanly and generally feels good in my hand. Plus, it delivers that super-fine line that helps me to write more neatly -- and that's important in my line of work. I tend not to like the gel or rollerball pens for taking notes during interviews because I'm a very fast -- and sloppy -- writer and those tend to smudge and blur. Fortunately, I often take notes on my computer while interviewing people over the phone because I type much faster (and more accurately) than I write.

I used to have magnificent penmanship. All that went to hell when I went to college, started furiously taking notes and then decided to take notes for a living.

When forced to slow down, I can write beautifully still. And as I look over my notes from this morning, I see that the extra fine precision writing instrument has helped with my legibility. Good news all around. I can see the ad campaign now: The TUL pen helps me do my job better!

Of course now I'll have to find a sufficient hiding place for the extras in my box of 12. It seems that my sons share my love of good pens. It's my own fault. I've encouraged them by only buying good writing instruments, including Ticonderoga and mechanical pencils. If the older two see my new pens they'll be after those, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I'm in Web-design hell! Wish I was proficient in this stuff to just crank out my Web site. Was up until 2 a.m. trying to make a dent in the design. This morning I took a look at my progress and decided to change the whole front page. Now I can't get my navigation to work. Unfortunately, I can't get back to the site until evening when my brain is not at its finest.

I can draw what I want, I just can't create it. I'm using Freeway 4 Pro, which is supposed to be easy for the HTML-impaired. It is easy in some respects, but I can't make the whole thing work and I don't understand enough about it to know what I'm doing wrong. Ugh!

Can't I just snap my fingers and have this done? Or pay someone to do it for me? Anyone?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Too adorable!

Who is that handsome devil in a tuxedo? Why, it's Mikey Hoke! He was ring bearer at his cousin Kelly's wedding over the weekend. He cleans up well, no?

Good thing we have that photo for posterity because later on we got the true Mikey, shirttails out and all, boogeying with the bride.

Speaking today at CWRU

Later this afternoon I'll be speaking on a panel at CWRU about investigative reporting with journalists from Jamaica, Latvia, Rwanda, Iraq and Sudan. It's a program of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, CWRU journalism department, the Cleveland and John Carroll University chapters of SPJ and the JCU Center for Media Ethics.

This is the fourth such panel convened to meet with journalists from foreign countries. Over the summer we met with journalists from Moldovia and in the past we've met we've met with journalists from Russia, India and other African countries. Joining me for the third time are Dave Davis from The Plain Dealer, David Knox from the Akron Beacon Journal and, for the first time, Ted Gup from CWRU.

The program is free and open to the public from 2:15-3:30 p.m. today in Room 223 of Guilford Hall on the CWRU campus.

Latest story in UB

Here's my latest story from the front page of Friday's Catholic Universe Bulletin. Unfortunately, it's not available online, so I've posted the story in its entirety here. My next assignment is interviewing Archbishop Fouad Twal, coadjutor archbishop and Latin patriarche of Jerusalem while he's in town on Friday night.

I'm fascinated witht the idea of visiting the Holy Land. A number of things are happening which heighten that desire. Namely, I'm in my fourth week of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) at St. Peter Church. I'm filling my notebooks with observations, insights, questions, challenges, problems, epiphanies, etc. from this experience. At some point down the line I hope to write about it. For now, it's my very personal quest to reconnect with my faith under the guidance of a brilliant, compassionate, engaging and thought-provoking teacher.

Path to peace
St. Francis’ journey calls all to world of understanding
By Wendy A. Hoke

The Nile River divides the Egyptian city of Damietta near the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its location and entrée to the Holy Land, it was frequently attacked and in 1219 became the focus of the Fifth Crusade.

While thousands of Christian soldiers took up arms against Muslims, one person among them followed his heart and the example of Christ. He sought a way toward peace and understanding through dialogue with Malik-al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. St. Francis of Assisi’s initial goal was to convert the sultan to Christianity or to become a martyr while trying.

But what he learned from that pilgrimage changed his life, sending him on the path to peace. With his Feast day just past, his message of brotherhood and understanding among all humanity resounds as loudly today as if we were back in the Dark Ages.

“Damietta was a huge Muslim city and the pathway to the Holy Land in Egypt,” explained Father Bob McCleary, adjunct faculty at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology. “Francis wanted to dissuade people from the war.”

The fighting was terrible and Francis had rightly predicted the Christians would ultimately lose the battle. Sickened by his fellow Christian’s violent behavior, Francis decided to visit the sultan. Though mystery surrounds how he gained admittance, it is widely believed that Francis and Brother Illuminato were thought to be Christian wise men by the sultan’s guards.

“He wanted to be a martyr but he succeeded in being a man of charity,” explained Father McCleary.

Francis entered the sultan’s camp empty-handed as a peacemaker. “He did not consider, whom he had been taught by Christianity to be his enemy, as his enemy,” said Franciscan Father Michael Cusato, director of the Franciscan Institute at New York’s St. Bonaventure University, and a native Clevelander. “He approached all people, beginning with the leper, as his brothers.

“We know he did not insult their prophet or religion, but talked about why he is a Christian and why people find the right way to God. We know he didn’t insult the prophet or he wouldn’t have come out of there alive,” said Father Cusato.

“The brotherhood was God’s most beautiful creation and he saw the Muslim as his brother, too. It was the first real dialogue between Christians and Muslims,” Father McCreary said.

It’s something the church has sought to recreate in recent years, most recently with mixed results.

According to historians, the sultan also was impressed with Francis as a servant of God. “This wasn’t a modern dialogue as we think of dialogue,” explained Franciscan Father Steven McMichael, assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “Francis did have some appreciation for Islam. He learned some things about Islam, such as how they pray and how they experience God, that showed up in his own Christian belief.”

He encouraged a ministry of presence—living peacefully among Muslims—which serves as a model for Catholics today.
“What impressed him about Islamic culture is that its daily rhythms are centered on prayer,” said Father Cusato. “When he returns to Assisi he encourages Christians to have a mindfulness to prayer.”

So just how influential to his life was Francis’ meeting with the sultan? Father Cusato has a theory.

“When he is at La Verna where he receives his Stigmata, he writes on a piece of parchment,” the Franciscan said. “On the front are praises of God, on the back are some very enigmatic writing often thought to be a blessing to brother Leo, one of his companions (the popular Blessing of Aaron).

“It seems he has very much on his mind, particularly a new military push that the Christian church launches on Egypt and the sultan’s men in 1224. He goes to La Verna and prays very hard about this. The text he writes is very similar to the 99 names of Allah in Islam. On this parchment, he draws a very strange head lying on its side, with a cross shooting out of its mouth. I’ve theorized that the head is the head of the sultan and that’s he’s praying for the sultan, to protect him from harm and accept Christ before it’s too late,” Father Cusato said.

Father Cusato’s theory appears in the newly published, “The Stigmata of Francis of Assisi: New Studies, New Perspectives,” published by Franciscan Institute Publications.

“Meeting the sultan confirmed to Francis that we are all brothers and sisters. Neither converted the other and yet they met each other as men of God.”

Their meeting appears to have changed more than Francis and the sultan.

“Almost immediately we see some iconography in the eastern world showing these two men,” Father Cusato said. One of the sultan’s own spiritual counselors had engraved on his tomb that what changed his life was the meeting between a Christian monk and the sultan in his tent.

So what does it mean to engage in meaningful dialogue in the spirit of St. Francis? According to Father Cusato you have to understand each other’s perspective. “Until we in the west understand the anger, sense of oppression and world of Muslims in the Middle East, unless we can look beyond the slogans our political leaders give us and ask why, we’ll get nowhere. But it works both ways. They need to know us as well.”

Hoke is a freelance writer.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Roadmap to readable news sites

Because this makes way too much sense, I’m including both a link and the transcript of the whole post. For the uninitiated, Doc Searls is a tech author, pioneer, evangelist, etc., who has been covering technology probably longer than I’ve been alive. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But read this anyway because it provides a road map for newspaper Web sites to evolve. Thanks to Romenesko for the link.

Tim Rutten reports (and I pointed to yesterday), the LA Times has a monetary value of $2.5 billion and "a balance-sheet-engorging 20% margin". So why does Wall Street hate it?

Simple: Because newspapers are a rusty industry. They have tail fins. They print lists of readers every day on the obituary page. Worse, as a class they are resolutely clueless about how to adapt to a world that is increasingly networked and self-informing. And Wall Street knows that.

So, to help the papers out (as I did for public radio on Tuesday), I immodestly offer ten hopefully helpful clues.

First, stop giving away the news and charging for the olds. Okay, give away the news, if you have to, on your website. There's advertising money there. But please, open up the archives. Stop putting tomorrow's fishwrap behind paywalls. Writers hate it. Readers hate it. Worst of all, Google and Yahoo and Technorati and Icerocket and all your other search engines ignore it. Today we see the networked world through search engines. Hiding your archives behind a paywall makes your part of the world completely invisible (bold is mine). If you open the archives, and make them crawlable by search engine spiders, your authority in your commmunity will increase immeasurably. Plus, you'll open all that inventory to advertising possibilities. And I'll betcha you'll make more money with advertising than you ever made selling stale editorial to readers who hate paying for it. (And please, let's not talk about Times Select. Your paper's not the NY Times, and the jury is waaay out on that thing.)

Second, start featuring archived stuff on the paper's website. Link back to as many of your archives as you can. Get writers in the habit of sourcing and linking to archival editorial. This will give search engine spiders paths to wander back in those archives as well. Result: more readers, more authority, more respect, higher PageRank and higher-level results in searches. In fact, it would be a good idea to have one page on the paper's website that has links (or links to links, in an outline) back to every archived item.

Think about how much sense this makes. Sometimes we enter into a story mid-stream and wouldn't it be convenient to find the archive of stories written about the topic in a handy little box?

Third, link outside the paper. Encourage reporters and editors to write linky text. This will encourage reciprocity on the part of readers and writers who appreciate the social gesture that a link also performs. Over time this will bring back enormous benefits through increased visits, higher respect, more authority and the rest of it.

Oy! This has been proposed many times here locally and I'm not sure what the hang-up is, probably something to do with fears about sending traffic away from the site. Or maybe sending people away from non-Guild work? I don't know but I can tell you that this is stifling the ability to evolve.

Fourth, start following, and linking to, local bloggers and even competing papers (such as the local arts weeklies). You're not the only game in town anymore, and haven't been for some time. Instead you're the biggest fish in your pond's ecosystem. Learn to get along and support each other, and everybody will benefit.

This happens to some degree, but not with any sense of purpose. For example, reporters should be using bloggers who specialize in topics as sources. You find out pretty quickly who are the reliable bloggers and who are merely the bloviators. But some of the people writing are considered experts and should be tapped accordingly.

Fifth, start looking toward the best of those bloggers as potential stringers. Or at least as partners in shared job of informing the community about What's Going On and What Matters Around Here. The blogosphere is thick with obsessives who write (often with more authority than anybody inside the paper) on topics like water quality, politics, road improvement, historical preservation, performing artisty and a zillion other topics. These people, these writers, are potentially huge resources for you. They are not competitors. The whole "bloggers vs. journalism" thing is a red herring, and a rotten one at that. There's a symbiosis that needs to happen, and it's barely beginning. Get in front of it, and everybody will benefit.

I proposed recently to the PD Reader Rep that the paper give local bloggers a job to do. Have them stretch their arms into the political reporting process. Or have them ask people across the seven-country region what one thing they would do to help alleviate poverty in Cleveland. All of that reporting could be used to create a dynamic story that could actually change Cleveland for the better.

Sixth, start looking to citizen journalists (CJs) for coverage of hot breaking local news topics -- such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and so on. There are plenty of people with digital cameras, camcorders, cell phones and other devices that can prove mighty handy for following stories up close and personally. Great example: what Sig Solares and his crew did during Katrina.

Yeah, this should soo be happening. I think it's happening behind-the-scenes, but we need to get more purposeful about these efforts. And for crying out loud, we hopefully don't need a massive natural disaster to see its merits.

Seventh, stop calling everything "content". It's a bullshit word that the dot-commers started using back in the '90s as a wrapper for everything that could be digitized and put online. It's handy, but it masks and insults the true natures of writing, journalism, photography, and the rest of what we still, blessedly (if adjectivally) call "editorial". Your job is journalism, not container cargo.

Hee, hee ... not container cargo. That's pretty funny.

Eighth, uncomplicate your websites. I can't find a single newspaper that doesn't have a slow-loading, hard-to-navigate, crapped-up home page. These things are aversive, confusing and often useless beyond endurance. Simplify the damn things. Quit trying to "drive traffic" into a maze where every link leads to another route through of the same mess. You have readers trying to learn something, not cars looking for places to park. And please, get rid of those lame registration systems. Quit trying to wring dollars out of every click. I guarantee you'll sell more advertising to more advertisers reaching more readers if you take down the barricades and (again) link outward more. And you'll save all kinds of time and hassle.

I think I've made myself clear on how I feel here. Though I do owe a big-time nod to Denise Polverine for doing me a very great favor related to some of my work there. Thanks, Denise!

Ninth, get hip to the Live Web. That's the one with verbs such as write, read, update, post, author, subscribe, syndicate, feed and link. This is the part of the Web that's growing on top of the old Static Web of nouns such as site, address, location, traffic, architecure and construction. Nothing wrong with any of those static verbs. They're the foundation, the bedrock. They are necessary but insufficient for what's needed on the Live Web, which is where your paper needs to live and grow and become more valuable to its communities (as well as Wall Street).

Lemme unpack that a bit. The Static Web is what holds still long enough for Google and Yahoo to send out spiders to the entire universe and index what they find. The Live Web is is what's happening right now. It's dynamic. (Thank you, Virginia.) It includes all the stuff that's syndicated through RSS and searched by Google Blogsearch, IceRocket and Technorati. What I post here, and what others post about this post, will be found and indexed by Live Web search engines in a matter of minutes. For those who subscribe to feeds of this blog, and of other blogs, the notification is truly live. Your daily paper has pages, not sites. The difference is not "just semantic". It's fundamental. It's how you reclaim, and assert, your souls in the connected world. It's also how you shed dead conceptual weight, get light and nimble, and show Wall Street how you're not just ahead of the curve, but laying pavement beyond everybody else's horizon. It's how your leverage the advantages of history, of incumbency, and of already being in a going business. (The hard part will be raising your paper's heartbeat from once a day to once a second. But you can do it. Your own heart sets a good example.)

Tenth, publish Rivers of News for readers who use Blackberries or Treos or Nokia 770s, or other handheld Web browsers. Your current home page, and all your editorial pages, are torture to read with those things. See the examples Dave Winer provides with rivers of news from the NY Times and the BBC. See what David Sifry did for the Day Fire here in California. Don't try to monetize it right away. Trust me, you'll make a lot more money — and get a lot more respect from Wall Street — because you've got news rivers, than you'll make with those rivers.

That's enough for now. More later at a link I'll put here...

As Doc says, "Discuss."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Continental piece is online

Here's the Continental Magazine piece. Now I've got to get back to some serious pitching. May be a little quiet here at Creative Ink for the next few weeks.