By Mark Vander Vennen
In mid-December I had a deeply meaningful experience. I spent an hour with my Dad, who was 90 and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, just before he passed away. He was heavily sedated and essentially unresponsive. It was late at night. I sang to him. I talked about what a blessing he had been in his life. I said that he would soon meet his Maker and Redeemer, and it will be beautiful. I thanked him for being my dad. I gave him a blessing, kissed him on the forehead and said goodbye. The presence of the Spirit of God in the room was palpable. Though we expected him to live for a couple more days, he passed away a few minutes after I left.
The experience was deeply moving. I felt like a very small part of a much bigger picture, but I felt included in that picture. It felt like a gift and I was hugely grateful for it. I know that my experience is not unique—I have heard other similar stories. But I thought: this is a profound event. It felt like I was on holy ground. But an event of such meaning like this will never make the evening news.
That got me thinking about how many other truly important or newsworthy events will not make “the news.” And it gave me my New Year’s resolution for 2019.
Let me first describe another experience, as backdrop to this. In the early 1980s I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a Catholic Worker home for the homeless. Without exaggeration (I’ve seen pictures), my inner city neighbourhood looked like Rotterdam after it had been bombed in World War 2. Most of the homes were charred roofless skeletons destroyed by fire. Less than a mile away stood the international headquarters of Rockwell International, then the third largest military contractor in the United States. This was at the height of the Cold War. Billions of dollars passed through that building (but missed our neighbourhood completely) as Rockwell now designed the most advanced nuclear weapons of mass destruction then known to humankind.
The contrast could not be ignored, and I felt constrained to act. I joined a group called Christian Peacemakers. Unwaveringly committed to nonviolence and peace, we undertook regular “witnesses” on the steps of Rockwell International. For about a year we were regulars on the six o’clock news. We were, in fact, media darlings. And we thought that was a good thing, especially for getting our message out.
But then something happened. We were appalled at how inaccurate the reporting was. And this is what really dumbfounded us: some reporters were especially sympathetic to our message and wanted to help get the message out. But their reporting seemed just as inaccurate and unsatisfactory as any other reporting. The presence of the media also altered the event.
So striking was this that for the next year we actually set things up so the media would not cover our events. We gave them incorrect days and times. They showed up a day afterwards; by the time they came we had already engaged in a meaningful witness. And we were much happier about it.
What was going on here? I started to think a lot about Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan’s mantra that “the medium is the message.” The sound-bite and technical constraints of the media overpowered the media’s ability to tell a story accurately and well. That has stayed with me ever since.
Based on this experience, like Marshall McLuhan, I have serious reservations about the ability of media to accurately describe an event. And that has almost nothing to do with the “viewpoint” (such as “left” or “right”) that the reporting is coming from. Trying to pinpoint “left-wing” and “right-wing” or “progressive” or “conservative” reporting is itself a distraction from the real issue, which is that the constraints of the media make truth-telling in reporting almost impossible. It’s “fake news.”
That’s the context behind my New Year’s resolution for 2019. It seems to me that we do live in dark and dangerous times. Polarization and even “tribalism” in public discourse is on the increase. We are all inundated by media reports highlighting that, especially in the United States, but also in in Europe, Canada and Brazil. We hear a lot about President Trump, and we catch sight of the daggers being sent between commentators on Fox News and CNN, for example. It is easy to get fixated on such news reports. And many, many people, from various perspectives, despair over them.
My New Year’s resolution, coming out of the experience with my dad near his death, is to remember that the news does not contain what is truly important or meaningful. It deals only with surfaces, not depth or meaning.
What is important and meaningful are acts of love, service, self-sacrifice, helping a neighbour in need, struggling out of a suicidal depression, repairing a marriage that has been broken, reconciling with an estranged son or daughter or parent, self-giving, caring sacrificially for a child with special needs, or bearing witness when someone dies. Those are moments where the presence of the Spirit of God is palpable. Those are the moments that truly matter and will carry the day. They are happening and they give hope. They are the ones I will look for in 2019. And I do not expect to find them on the six o’clock news.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network, and the co-author of Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises (Baker, 2007), Foreword by Desmond Tutu.