Monday, December 15, 2008

Sitting Here Giving My Reporting Students Their Final

Half the final is always a police report -- a real police report rich in irrelevant detail and bureaucratic language -- that the kids must boil down to 100 words. They may, of course, keep going after that act of summary, but they must not "go chronological," as I put it, too soon.

Story telling is a natural human act. Some do it better than others, but we all appreciate the art of Scheherazade, for whom the maintenance of suspense was an act of survival. Yet the aim of certain kinds of journalism is the destruction of suspense: Here is what happened raw and simple. Perhaps that sort of tight focus is a form of misdirection, even dishonesty, in its arrogant assumption that the reporter's frame somehow corrals the truth.

That's the student of Media Studies talking, and it's the right kind of talk. News is made (I obviously don't mean fabricated, only that certain information is selected and pulled downstage) by whoever records it. But that does not mean the summary lead is not a useful thing or always a dishonest thing. If you go too Postmodern and say the critic rules the text and the text is indeterminate as is the material world which is a kind of text, you may become as foolish as one of Swift's floating philosophers, trapped in solipsism.

So I teach the summary lead without shame, though I also try to teach the modesty that should accompany its use.

But moderation in all things, including modesty. Read Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts"

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Marvelous brilliant cruel poem. It's all about burying the lead, a reporter would say.

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