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Original Essays | February 6, 2014 0 comments
One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary... Continue »
All the (Good) News That's Fit to Printby Jason Mark
Although this kind of news may be discouraging, there's no question that it's important. The uncovering of unsavory truths is an essential element of any healthy republic, made all the more important in an era of declining newsroom budgets. But the fact is that muckraking gets old. As a reporter, I've done a bit of muckraking myself stories about farm worker abuses and the offshoring of white collar jobs, articles that hopefully led to some small improvements. I'm proud of that work. After a while, though, the exposÃ©s become tiring. And so I've come to feel that there may be more purpose in writing the good news than in reporting the bad.
That idea is what motivated my co-authors Kevin Danaher and Shannon Biggs and I to write our new book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots. As we put it in the introduction: "Personally, we've had enough of the bogeyman fright tales, the reports about how bad everything is....Let's stop telling their story the stories of abuse and corruption and injustice and start writing our own, the stories that carry the pulse of struggle and the quick heartbeat of triumph over adversity. Enough with the hand-wringing. It's time for fists in the air."
Fortunately, if you look hard enough, there's no lack of people who are striking that pose. For example, we tell the story of LaDonna Redmond, a Chicago mother who, when confronted by her son's extreme food allergies, decided to create a system of urban farms in her neighborhood. We write about the residents of Norco, Louisiana, who fought a years-long battle to force Shell Oil to address the consequences of decades of toxic exposure. We also report on the hundreds of US cities that are dedicated to halting climate change, and the growing number of companies that are balancing economic needs with environmental concerns. These stories, I'd like to think, read pretty well. They each have a bit of the thrill of the chase, in this case a pursuit of justice and ecological sustainability. The better angels of our nature may just make for better copy.
If so, then why don't we see more of this kind of journalism? Newspapers routinely carry profiles local heroes, and Yes! magazine has created a niche for itself featuring positive stories. But the old newsroom maxim "if it bleeds, it leads" still rules the front pages and the nightly broadcasts. Readers tell media pollsters that they prefer upbeat stories, but circulation climbs when shocking news is on the cover. Headlines of disaster seem to sell more copies than profiles of courage. We're all a bit complicit here. After all, how many hours of tsunami coverage did you watch?
Perhaps the problem is human nature, a bit of instinctual schadenfreude. Maybe it has to do with our preconceptions: we expect pollution, war, and layoffs; peace and prosperity, on the other hand, strain credulity, and so are a harder sell. Or it could be merely a question of presentation, a prose problem. It's difficult to keep a positive story from sounding sappy, and therefore just slightly unbelievable.
As a writer, I've had to confront this challenge. Muckraking may be depressing but it's relatively easy. The tales of abuse write themselves. As a sadistic restaurant critic once remarked, bad reviews are fun to write, and even more fun to read. Good reviews or good news can be boring to write and slightly annoying to read. Having to consume a 4,000-word profile of an outstanding heroine can be inspiring... or irritating, like being forced to spend an hour listening to the person who's the best and brightest in the class.
One of the dangers in writing a positive story is that sympathy will turn into sentimental schmaltz. In the pages leading up to the protagonist's victory over the big, bad polluter, the writer has to be careful not to let the triumphant horns and strings get out of control. The task is made all the more difficult by the demands of a cynical reading public. We 21st century Americans have become infatuated with irony, and so it's hard to embrace the idea of an unvarnished victory or an honest-to-God hometown hero. Such tales leave us slightly embarrassed. Sincerity is out; sarcasm is in.
Which is all the more reason why we need more success stories. Inspiration is worth running the risk of cheesiness. Plain old optimism can serve as an antidote to the cynicism of a winking age. That, at least, is the belief of Grace Bauer, who successfully campaigned to shutter an abusive juvenile prison. "People said it could never happen," she told us, speaking of her victory. "But people underestimate the power of compassion and a commitment to justice."
It's a difficult act figuring out how to be at once suspicious of the present and sanguine about the future. But that's the task of anyone who is eager to build a more sane and humane society. The trick is to master the everyday art of balancing a skeptical eye with a hopeful heart.
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Jason Mark's second book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, will be published in September. He lives in San Francisco, where he co-manages an urban organic farm (www.alemanyfarm.org) and edits the environmental magazine Earth Island Journal (www.earthisland.org).