Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 9:19 pm

To share?

Filed under: Journalism,Sad — Lex @ 9:19 pm
Tags: , , ,

Good people share what’s theirs. Journalists share what belongs to others — sometimes freely given, sometimes obtained with the leverage of an open-records law or a not-so-disinterested third party, sometimes just stumbled upon, but what belongs to others nonetheless.

The difference is so stark that to use the same verb in both instances seems almost absurd. Accordingly, the dynamics of that interaction raise all kinds of moral and ethical issues and questions, and good journalists think about those questions all the time, weigh them anew with each new story, trying to strike the most moral balance between competing ethical claims.

But the phenomenon is larger than journalism, and it arises in the context of the new HBO drama “Treme,” a fictional show about all-too-real post-Katrina New Orleans. I haven’t seen the show (I don’t have HBO and don’t watch much TV that doesn’t have a Carolina Panther in it). But I’ve seen the phenomenon. For decades, I’ve seen it. And as, through reality TV and blogs and Facebook and roll-your-own talk-radio shows, we increase in both our ability and our inclination to share what’s ours, the likelihood that we will, at the same time, share what belongs to others only increases because the old boundaries are thinning and fading. And so the moral and ethical questions grow more important, not less.

“Treme” is the creation of David Simon, who also created “Homicide” and “The Wire.” And if I lived in New Orleans, I know I would be fascinated by what he intends to do with my town far beyond the fact that, simply because of his own resume, might well make New Orleans “cool” again.

If I lived in New Orleans — and I speak only for myself here, particulary since I don’t live in New Orleans — I would want to see truth on the screen. I don’t mean I’d be looking for stuff that actually happened on a fictional drama, of course, and I don’t just mean that I would not want to see New Orleans stereotypes, as if all residents are drag queens or Mardi Gras partiers or musicians at a jazz funeral. No, I would want to see a show that accurately reflects the conditions of my life and those of my friends and neighbors — the visual and aural and gustatory details, the pressures, the issues, the problems, the stuff I think about day-in and day-out.

And I think I also would like to see some evidence that the makers of the show understand that I and mine are still part of America and that the producers are conveying that much-denied reality in a way non-New Orleanians can recognize, because almost five years after George Bush went on national TV and made some lavish promises, those promises remain unfulfilled and I suspect that a lot of New Orleanians, and former New Orleanians now unwillingly displaced, are deeply angry and resentful about it.

Conveying that kind of sentiment well is easy to screw up. Characters could come off whiny or preachy if they address it directly. But you don’t want to overdo the subtlety, either, because the message is too important. It’s a tough nut for even a pro like Simon to crack, but if I lived in New Orleans, I think I’d want him to try because otherwise what’s the point of the series? 

Athenae, herself a journalist and a big New Orleans fan although she’s from much farther upriver, gets it, and at Back of Town, a blog about “Treme,” she lays it out:

Who has the right to tell your story and hear your story? Who has the right to be let in that deep? Telling a story is letting someone into your heart, into the things for you that are like the things of the church, the things you don’t talk about, that are knit into your muscle and bone. We were always trying to be conscious of that, at my last paper, that ain’t nobody obligated to give you [stuff] about their lives and that if they do, you tread on that as if it’s sacred ground. We didn’t always get there but I’d never say we didn’t always try. Here’s the crazy thing, though: Show up on someone’s doorstep after their grandkid died in some horrific car accident or school shooting or something, call up somebody after 20 years who said he was molested by a priest, invite yourself to a funeral, join a Muslim family for dinner after their children have been spit at on the street, and more often than not people want you there. They invite you in. Feed you, even. They talk for hours.  They want their story told.

We all know as … human beings, somewhere deep down, that our own memories only live as long as we do and the way we teach each other how to live is to tell our stories. And if we can’t tell them ourselves, we tell them this way: Books. Newspapers. TV shows. Movies, even. Radio. We’ve expanded the campfire where we used to share tales of the hunt to the entire [expletive] world. This is how we do this now.

Is it exploitative? It can be, if done badly. It can be terribly destructive, breaking something up into little pieces and putting it out there for the rest of the world to see. It can be scary. … I’d never tell anyone to do that kind of thing if they didn’t want to do it. I have zero quarrel with people who’d just as soon any storyteller at their door went … away.

And audiences can be total [expletive]s. The worst thing about being in any kind of communication medium is that you’re basically just throwing [expletive] out there and you have zero control where it lands. Somebody might be inspired to go shoot up a freeway, and that isn’t in any way what you meant, but damned if they didn’t just hear what they wanted to hear. Somebody else, though, might get it. Somebody else might take it up. Somebody else might make their life’s work something glorious because of something that you said. And that’s always been a chance I’ve been willing to try to convince others to take. So who has the right to tell the story? Whoever wants it bad enough to get it. To show up on the doorstep, to do the work to get inside, to crawl around under the skin of something and get people to talk.

And once it’s out there, there will be lots of people who can see your heart. Who will know your secrets. And who will remember, long after you’re gone, who you were and what you did. And it’s not up to anybody but you to decide if that’s worth it.

(Commenter Maitri adds: “People will do with your tale what they will, but be as patient as possible, because chaos theory states that dynamic systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. We can argue about where ‘initial’ begins, but what you say and how does matter along the way.”)

What happened to New Orleans five years ago was a disaster. What has happened since has been a disgrace. And yet it’s a disgrace a lot of people are stuck living with, and if David Simon, with his skills and his big bank of viewer loyalty built up over the years, can reward the patience of those people by conveying that message to a large audience not necessarily aware of what’s coming but primed to appreciate it, he will have done New Orleans and those who love her a huge service.

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