In the late 1990s, I did a week-long retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Vermont. He gave most of the talks, of course, but occasionally a lay member of the core group of his order spoke to us as we were gathered. We all maintained the noble silence except for designated periods when non-frivolous conversation was OK.
One day a lay woman, a core member of the order, addressed us. I don’t remember why she was speaking — maybe to introduce a meditation, or to collect for some cause — but she made reference to the “lies” told by the news media. In my 10 years in newspapers, I never met a reporter or editor who came to work intending to lie or to do harm. It had been a while since I had worked in journalism, but of the hundreds of people present for the retreat I suspected there were others from the news industry. If I felt offended and excluded by what she said, how would they feel?
No one believes that the media are perfect, and there’s plenty of room for criticism, but to paraphrase Pogo, I have met the media and they are us. We humans with our biases and imperfections gather the news and report it. Some industry moguls do influence the way individual articles are played, but in most instances newsroom writers and editors argue over what’s the biggest news on any particular day and therefore what deserves the most attention.
As events and articles are considered for their newsworthiness, one question is constantly debated: Is news what the people want to read and hear, or is it what’s in their best interest to read and hear? In other words, which story should get more play: the sensational murder involving a celebrity, or the conference to end world hunger?
Some media outlets tend toward one side of that balance and some the other, but few are so purely positioned that the decision gets made automatically. So arguments about news play continue day after day.
As someone who remembers when articles about police brutality toward blacks were suppressed because they might spark a riot — when some editors thought they knew best what people should read and hear — I don’t believe that’s a judgment for journalists to make. So, I come down on the what-the-public-wants side of the argument. But I’m probably in the minority today among progressives and liberals.
Returning to that retreat in Vermont, during a period when discussion was allowed, I happened to find myself in a group with the woman who had spoken of media lies. Here was my opportunity to do the right thing and bring to her attention that she had slipped and said something offensive to some of us gathered. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches compassionate speech and deep listening, so surely she’d appreciate the perspective I would bring her.
Wrong again! She responded by telling me everyone knows the news media lie. Even a member of the media had recently written an op-ed article saying so. If even a member of the media said it, how could anyone take offense?
I tell that story because a fair-minded observer would think of a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat as one of the least likely places to encounter divisive speech. Yet here was a core member of the order not willing to consider that her words could be considered offensive.
May we never hear offensive speech, but we know we will, and when we do may we hear it with an open heart, and forgive. We are not perfect and will slip as well.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine