Friday, April 11, 2008

Citizen Journalists, Methodist Canaries, and School Bullies

I hadn’t intended to do more weekly news roundups on this blog. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the best service I can provide anyone seeking news about the issues that engage my passion is to reflect on those issues, while pointing to sources that deepen my reflection. Readers who seek news reports about these issues are probably more adept than I am at finding those reports.

Nonetheless, as this week ends, I find myself with a handful of blog postings and news articles that really do deserve attention. Each rounds out points I’ve made during the week. Each furthers the discussion. The following articles/blog postings deserve attention, I think.
First, there’s a fascinating report in this week’s Christian Science Monitor by Takehiko Kambayashi entitled “Online Papers Challenge Japan’s Mainstream Media” (see This article focuses on a significant new cultural trend in Japan: the emergence of "citizen journalists,” who include students, housewives, lawyers, anyone with a point of view and information to share for the good of the whole.
The citizen-journalist movement is deliberately seeking to provide a counterpoint to the traditional news media in Japan. As the article notes, in the view of citizen journalists, the traditional media in Japan are part of the "information cartel" of the establishment, which yokes the mainstream media to government and big business.
The media in Japan have an exceptionally cozy relationship to the authority figures of government and big business, Kambayashi notes. In order to file reports in mainstream media outlets, one must belong to a press club. These clubs exclude reporters who do not belong to the accepted news outlets; they are found in government agencies and corporations across the nation. News reports rely heavily on information provided at press-club meetings.
The citizen-journalist movement is challenging the way the mainstream media do business in Japan. The movement has charged the media with failing to fulfill their role as a watchdog for government and big business. In the view of Ken Takeuchi, a former reporter for Asahi Shumbun, Japan's second-leading daily, while touting free speech, the traditional media actually thwart the free flow of information in Japan. Takeuchi says, "Those who talk about press freedom block the flow of information. It's wrong."
Citizen journalists note that the issues about which the mainstream media are willing to report are predetermined by the interests of government and corporate leaders. Since the majority of these are males, news stories focusing on the problem of rape in Japanese society, for instance, find it difficult to attain a hearing.
Mainstream media critics charge citizen journalists with being amateurs “driven by their activist causes.” The citizen-journalist movement responds by noting that the claim of the mainstream media to be objective is laughable, given its close ties to government and big business. In the view of citizen journalists, their movement provides much-needed objectivity in the Japanese media, by giving a hearing to stories suppressed by the old boys’ network of the press-club culture, by airing points of view that are dismissed by the mainstream media as “biased,” and by recovering the watchdog role of the media in any democratic society that wishes to remain healthy.
Why notice this article? The point is obvious, I think: our mainstream media are no different from those of Japan. In the U.S., the media have an incestuous relationship with government and big business. Reporters feed at the trough of major corporations which, in turn, call the shots for political leaders. Reporters are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them. And, let's face it, it's frankly easier to get a sound-byte summary of "the" news at a press-club luncheon sponsored by a corporation or the government, than to go out and dig for the truth.
To me, there is great hope and vitality in the emergence of alternative news outlets on the internet. Stories that don’t get a hearing in the mainstream media—despite the media’s constant noise about free speech—do receive a hearing on the internet. Points of view that are excluded from the macho world of the press club can now find a voice, through the internet. Democratic societies are healthier when every group has a chance to find its voice and tell its story, and when news important to all of us is not suppressed by the official guardians of orthodoxy.
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The second story that caught my eye in recent days is a posting by Shannon B. on Pam’s House Blend blog entitled “Why You Should Pay Attention to What Is Going on in Ft. Worth at the End of April” (see;jsessionid=D215FAF3FAF1E111A90E38BE8CB210C8?diaryId=5016).
I’m delighted with this posting, which explains the significance of the upcoming United Methodist (UMC) General conference. The conference, which is the annual meeting of worldwide leaders of United Methodism, will be held this year in Ft. Worth from April 23rd to May 2nd.
As Shannon B. notes, even for those who have no interest in religion, or who are not Methodist, the path charted by the United Methodist church is significant, because it says a great deal about the cultural path of the United States in general: “Something like the Methodist General Conference might otherwise not cause you to notice a news story or a blog posing because either you are not Methodist or have no interest in religion, but perhaps you may want to take some second looks at what is happening.”
The United Methodist church is “the canary of American social attitudes,” “a marker of the centrism of the United States.” This is a religious body in which several social and religious currents are pulling powerfully in different directions. Methodists in the northeast and the west have been strong advocates for the traditional social-justice orientation of the Methodist tradition. In those areas, Methodists have fought for the Methodist church to keep the Social Principles alive, to comment critically on economic injustice, on war, on racism, on sexism, and on oppression of gay and lesbian human beings.
By contrast, Methodism in the heartland and the south tends to resist the focus on social justice, preferring instead a language of individual conversion and of resistance to the emphasis on the Social Principles. Just as Methodists in the south once resisted the movement to abolish slavery, and then supported segregation, many Methodists in these parts of the country today fight fiercely against proposals on the part of their brethren in the northeast and west to welcome gay and lesbian persons.
For those of us who are gay and lesbian, and who recognize the important role religion plays in shaping social attitudes that significantly affect our lives, the United Methodist church is, indeed, a bellwether. To the extent that the Methodist church (to which George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton both belong) continues to maintain that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” to the extent that Methodists in states like Florida continue to uphold right-to-work laws that permit gay employees in Methodist institutions to be fired without cause, to that extent, gay and lesbian persons will continue to find themselves embattled in America’s heartland.
As well as in society at large, given the significant role churches like the UMC play as arbiters of mainstream culture across the nation, and the preponderant role churches like the UMC play in our federal government, through their members in Congress and the White House . . . .
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And, in conclusion, a brief notice of two recent blog postings that take notice of recent reports that the story of Billy Wolfe’s bullying in his Fayetteville, Arkansas, high school may be more complex than initial reports suggested.
Posting on the website of Institute for Creative Thought Crimes, in his “Revisiting the Bullies of Fayetteville High,” David Allen engages readers of a previous blog posting of his about the Billy Wolfe story ( Allen notes that after he initially posted a summary of the New York Times article that broke the Billy Wolfe bullying story, he began to receive comments from people purporting to be students at Fayetteville.
Allen states that these comments repeatedly maintained that Billy Wolfe got what he deserved when he was beaten up, that Billy Wolfe is a bully who has earned his lumps. As Allen maintains, “the gist of the comments always come down to the same excuses, rationalizations and counter-charges,” and the comments are “illuminating about the culture at the school.”
Indeed. Though, as I have stated in previous postings about this story, there may well be more to the story than we initially heard, I now sense a cover-up, a wide-ranging campaign by many parties to spin this story in a way that justifies the long-standing bullying of Billy Wolfe in the Fayetteville school system.
As the cover-up and the spin-doctoring get underway, I’d like to challenge those with some authority to make a difference in the culture of the Fayetteville schools to listen seriously to people like David Allen, when he says that the noisy campaign to vilify Billy Wolfe and exonerate his attackers illuminates the culture of the school.
If that’s true (and I propose that it is), what’s wrong with the culture of any school (and they are everywhere across our land) that produces and protects bullies, while vilifying the one bullied? Deal with that question, and you will be a long way down the road to resolving the problem of bullying in your school system.
A second Billy Wolfe article that caught my attention this week is Jonathan Fast’s “Billy Wolfe—Part II” at Huffington Post’s blog ( Fast, too, notes the subsequent stories that seek to provide the “whole story” about Billy Wolfe’s bullying, by maintaining that he was the aggressor rather than the victim.
In Jonathan Fast’s viewpoint, even if these stories are accurate, “None of this behavior should come as a surprise.” Fast notes that “we know that victims of bullying are often bullies themselves, and vice versa.”
Violence is inevitably cyclical. School bullying is no different in this respect from any other form of violence. One punch leads to another punch. One taunt leads to another taunt. Some of the students who have committed horrendous acts of violence against other students and school officials in American schools in recent years were themselves the victims of longstanding, repeated bullying.
Which school officials and parents did little to counter, and which they often implicitly justified . . . .
More violence is not the solution to violence. Schools have to find a way to break the cycle. As Fast concludes, “Even if Wolfe did behave really badly, having other boys punch him as a punishment, or as an expression of their anger, is not acceptable. If he did it, he shouldn't have. If they did it, they shouldn't have. Punching does not bring about justice, end the violence, or improve the situation in any other way.”
To solve the problem of school bullying, schools have to deal with the cultural roots of this form of social violence. That means looking closely at what gives bullies the signal that they should bully and can continue to bully with impunity.
We are the problem, and we will not heal this endemic disease in our schools until we admit that and face our problem.
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And, to keep faith with Ms. Sue De Nimm, whom I have promised that I’ll season my sober musings about serious issues with humor, a joke. But a warning in advance: I dreamed up this joke—literally so; it popped into my head in a dream after Sue challenged me to locate my own funny bone. And it probably makes no sense at all to anyone except me.
With that proviso, here’s my joke for today:
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are playing the knock-knock game:
Gertrude says to Alice: “Knock, Knock!”
Alice: “Who’s there?”
Gertrude: “There!”
Alice (with exasperation): “Who’s there?”
Gertrude shoots back: “There there!”
Alice, with increasing frustration: “There there???!!”
Gertrude: “Oh honestly, B. There is no there there!”
(I know, I know—I can hear the groans right through my computer screen.)

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