Making an Impact

I want to make a difference, says just about everybody at least once.

This is especially the case lately in these Un-United States.

Though ALL OF OF US, every last one, do still live in a country that now rips children from the arms of their parents crossing the border and cages them in holding facilities where they see an hour of sunlight a day.

This, by the way, while our attorney general smiles creepily about it as he gleefully quotes a Bible passage used previously by the Third Reich (Note: aka The Nazis) to defend it.

Yes, we have to own our current failures and keep repeating these facts whenever we can even if SINGELHANDLEDLY we can’t change them.

If only because historically it takes A LOT for Americans to make political change but as a people we DO CHANGE – though usually only when our backs are against the wall and there is no other alternative.

Or, as one oft quoted line goes:

Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing – after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Over the years this has been attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Israeli politician Abba Eban, to an unnamed “Irishman” to, well, any amalgamation of sources.  Which makes it no less true.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that everybody thinks they are making a difference because they themselves are different. Every Instagram photo, each Facebook post, all the Twitter rants undisputedly reach people and can be a catalyst to GREAT CHANGE.

… and that’s why there are 96 colors in the box

Or simply deflation when one realizes it didn’t matter as much to everyone else as it did to us. And that even though one or more people than you thought noticed or followed or commented you will NEVER in ten lifetimes match Katy Perry’s 110 MILLION Twitter followers or even Trump’s 52 million.

If only Katy were twice as powerful.

disney princess today… President tomorrow? #itcouldhappen #noreallyitcould

Still, it is essential to remember that each of us has A LOT more power than we think. In fact, every day we hold in our hands the possibility of affecting pivotal decisions, sometimes even life and death ones, among others that cross our paths.

And if you think this isn’t so you have never been a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a lover, a parent or even enemy to anyone.

This, of course, is impossible. In those areas we are ALL double-hyphenates – at the very least.

It is not an exaggeration to say that you never know the full effect you are having on someone you forge any sort of relationship with. Sure, you know what YOU get from them but you don’t truly know how your thoughts, deeds, actions or lack of them served as a catalyst to another person’s change – which then precipitates others, who in turn go on to inspire many others, and then go on to create ______________.

You flatter me so #imblushing

Well, you get the picture. Though perhaps you don’t.

I myself have to be reminded of this every so often, usually when my psyche is at an all time low after seeing kids, usually non-white and poor, taken away from their parents for no other crime than fleeing to the one country where they were told there was an opportunity for freedom – an equal playing field where anyone, even them, could make something of their lives.

Even if this were never true for all (and most especially them in 2018) is beside the point. The United States was always more an idea than a reality. It is no different than the honest advice you might give to a beloved friend or the warm feelings you can’t help but share with a mysterious potential lover who never dreamed anyone would dare think of them the way that you do.

Paging your inner Eliza Dolittle #Icouldhavedancedallnight

Sometimes all any of us have to do is say what we feel (or believe) to someone else, give them something to think about, and change can begin to happen for them, and us, right before our eyes. Other times the timing is wrong but it doesn’t mean there won’t be a great result when we’re not around. In still other cases, we might reach no one but the mere fact that we attempted to finally connect might immeasurably help ourselves, giving us just a little more courage to speak up in different circumstances where the connection we’re trying to make could be much more significant. Or perhaps in the end it’s just another baby step towards, well, something else.

This week I attended an event in honor of the 125th anniversary of Ithaca College held at Walt Disney Studios. It was a big blowout hosted by I.C. alum Robert Iger, Disney’s chairman and chief executive officer – a guy who is arguably one of the top 10 most powerful people in the entertainment industry.

After me… of course #wink

Aside from the fact that he looks great while somehow being even OLDER than I am (Note: And let’s face it, that’s all that we in L.A. really care about, right?), it was fascinating to see the face of this guy brighten when he talked about the meaningful human connections HIS COLLEGE LIFE gave him and taught him – so much so that forty plus years later he agreed to show up and host the gala festivities on his own studio’s back lot the very day he lost his much publicized attempt to acquire 20th Century Fox, to one of his rivals, Comcast.

I’ve held an endowed CHAIR (ahem) position, taught writing and mentored countless students and graduates at the school’s L.A. campus for more than 15 years and in that evening found myself face to face with more grown up versions of people that I will always remember fondly as the not quite adults Mr. Iger once was than you can count.

Feeling very proud #channelingmyinnerMaggie

Forget that some of them now have kids who are teenagers and know a lot more about so many things relevant to today’s world than I do.

What I will always remember from that evening are the numerous instances someone came up to me and recalled some pivotal time where I managed to somehow say something that made them not give up, imparted some little piece of craft (Note: That, no doubt, someone had taught me) that fixed a problem with their work which felt insurmountable or imparted some tiny piece of life advice or social statement (Note: Likely perched on the soapbox I carry around with me, along with my manifesto of liberal talking points) that gave them the confidence to engage in the battle of the world to get what THEY really wanted.

OK.. maybe channeling my inner Ron Burgundy

I mean, who KNEW? At this point, it’s not as if I can remember 85% of the things I’ve said in the past – or even in the very recent present. Though I will confidently proclaim that in every case, whether I remembered it or not, I had NO IDEA what I was saying was even being listened to, much less important to anyone I was saying it to.

It was merely spontaneous engagement on a topic with a group of people sitting in a room and sort of willing (Note: Yeah, sometimes it is tough) to engage.

That’s not the stuff of great teaching. It’s more the talent we all have – of being a thoughtful, decent, listening and reactive human being. At the end of the day it’s only the give and take and exchange of ideas with others that ultimately makes any real difference at all. Or has the chance to.

Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

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Woodward and Chair-stein

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 2.42.05 PM

The following is a piece in defense of thoughtful journalism and the people who practice it. You know who you are even though we may not. This is in spite of the fact that, given today’s technology, we have all rightfully or wrongfully been baptized de facto citizen journalists or amateur reporters.

It makes no difference to me which moniker you choose because each can be either somewhat effective or dangerously ineffective depending on the circumstances. But mostly I am writing this in honor of my unapologetic love for Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom – a show that is about to end its run but still dares to romanticize the high-reaching values of a somewhat liberal cable news station akin to (but not exactly like) MSNBC in much the same way The West Wing was a wonderfully polemic love letter to the executive branch of government.

Sometimes I forget he wasn't the President

Sometimes I forget he wasn’t the President

It is quite popular to lump the talking heads of cable news – or any sort of contemporary journalism for that matter – all together and to dismiss its veracity or even relevance to anything real in the world. But in truth Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly are as different as…well…Rachel Maddow and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Watch and measure how each covered the nationwide protests we’ve seen this week due to the recent refusal of law enforcement and the grand jury system to in any way prosecute the various police officers responsible for shooting and killing three very different Black males – two of whom were under 18 years of age – under similarly controversial circumstances in three very different cities in Missouri, Ohio and New York, and judge for yourself.

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

Yes, somehow these two exist in the same universe

The latter is the job of every citizen choosing to vote or complain about the state of the world to friends, neighbors or enemies – to weigh the information and then make a determination. That is why who gives you the facts, how they give you the facts, and if indeed they are giving you facts at all matters. Correction: really matters.

After watching Jake Gyllenhaal coyote his way through his current breakout role as a brilliantly immoral freelance television news photographer prowling the dark, accident-ridden streets of contemporary Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, I couldn’t help but recall my own quaint, early days as an aspiring journalist. Bear with me and forget this was several decades before Rachel Maddow was even born. I know I have, that is if I ever previously admitted it at all until just now.

How far is too far?

How far is too far?

No, unlike Jake or his character, I certainly didn’t lose 30 pounds, slick back my then full head of hair or scour the Internet for leads and information in order to educate and advance myself in my field. For one thing, there was NO INTERNET and I had already lost 30 pounds in high school because I was too cowardly, vain and hypochondriacal to face a life where I was for one more second what anyone else would consider to be fat, chunky or even slightly overweight. Certainly I am not particularly proud of this fact but fact it is nevertheless.

As for my education, here’s another fact. It actually began in a corny old cocoon called SCHOOL. That started with writing for the high school newspaper, segued into becoming arts editor of my college radio station and then continued on to graduate school — Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, to be exact.

Those hallowed grounds

Those hallowed grounds

This was the post-Watergate age of the late seventies when journalism was seen as the noblest of professions and most everyone else aside from Mother Teresa and a few doctors who worked gratis in clinics was viewed as morally, and woefully, lagging behind. Not only that, Medill was then, and still is now, one of the best j schools in the country. Again, no bragging but fact – though one that I am particularly proud of. And full disclosure: I still feel fortunate to have even gotten in.

Self five!

Self five!

I bring this up because my intensive one year at Medill – which had me not only in the classroom but working as a reporter in both suburban and urban Chicago as well as on the streets of Washington, DC and the surrounding areas of Virginia – taught me a lot about truth, morality, honesty and integrity. You might think you know the truth and what you’re dealing with, as John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross tells Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled yet somewhat naive Jake Gittes in Chinatown, but as a reporter you also have an obligation to consider you might really not have the truth and not know what you’re dealing with, as Noah Cross so ominously, and rightfully warned. Yet unlike Jake in Chinatown, it didn’t have to cost me (Spoiler Alert!) the life of a lover. I was allowed to make those kinds of mistakes as a younger student since under no circumstances would I ever be trusted to cover life or death stories alone.

Plus I could never pull off this look

Plus I could never pull off this look

I realize that in itself sounds almost quaint these days, especially since I was always much more interested in the entertainment industry while it was my j school friends and colleagues who wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein. Still, as it turned out this background came in quite handy and in ways I could have never imagined. My first journalism job was for Variety and Daily Variety and in a matter of just a few years I became one of their lead reporters. Serious hard news reporting on the film, TV and music industries was just on the verge of becoming popular beyond the entertainment pages and I found myself quickly thrown into a world where I had to have clandestine early morning breakfast meetings at the homes of seven-to-eight figure salaried board chairmen, CEOs and presidents of major American entertainment corporations in pursuit of the news. Lying came as easy for them as weight reduction was for me in high school and telling the truth as difficult as I found gym class. Perhaps they were afraid of the same things I was back then – not being accepted, keeping up appearances, not fitting in with the cool kids – but I didn’t know it. And had I not been trained to cross check my facts, no matter how powerful or reliable the source, or not fool myself into ever thinking I was even a smidgen as important as the very wealthy and powerful people I was covering, I would have been eaten alive right there and then by each and every one of them.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

.. but what I told myself in my head was a different story.

I certainly would never, ever have been able to start the country’s first weekly column on the national film box-office grosses of just released films. You know – the ones you now read online almost everyday and hear each Monday on practically every entertainment “news” show across the country? Well, it wasn’t Watergate but it was still about getting to the honest truth, which on this subject was quite rare. We’d get these press releases with inflated figures on the opening money levels of movies that would be published almost verbatim without anyone knowing what the hell they meant in comparison to anything else. I told my resistant editor at the time:

“I don’t know what the heck (not hell, I wouldn’t dare) these figures mean and neither does anyone else. We have to at least try to report this accurately so studios can stop lying so easily about how good or badly theirs and everyone else’s films are doing.”

Finally, he saw the light and we began something that, admittedly, has gotten out of control. But it’s helped get beyond the hype in a more realistic dollars and cents way that was previously non-existent – not only for the general public but for everyone else other than the most inside movie studio executives to see.

Unless you're reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

Unless you’re reporting on the gross of the Hunger Games

That is what training in controlled circumstances will do prior to you going into the field. It’s not the only way to be trained – there is something to be said for being thrown straight into the fire – but the latter often comes with the ultimate journalistic cost of printing untruths, half-truths and out and out lies that hurt people and society. Or, to put it another way, in many other professions you’d be guilty of malpractice.

Certainly, training and the right experience don’t guarantee 100% accuracy but they will also likely prevent any number of our current journalistic fatalities (Note: see lies and untruths above – of your choice). If you consider that to be a bunch of bull, then think of it like this. It is certainly possible that a person who is merely an aficionado of teeth could perform a successful emergency extraction of your infected molar – or a medical neophyte might be able amputate your gangrened arm with merely a broken spear in the Amazonian jungle – but would you choose either in the long run if a more trained and/or experienced option were available?

Meaning yes – everyone can write and observe. But not everyone can report.

At the risk of sounding older than Woodward and Bernstein (Note: And those under 25, please, please don’t continue to say Who? OR Who cares?) – times and standards have changed but truth remains pretty much the same.

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

You know.. those guys played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman… with the haircuts you all want.

It’s great that we all can raise up our smart phones and record reality, or type our truths on social media, or on such ridiculous forums as….dare I say it…a blog.   But these are all only recording and commenting on partial truths or shaded truths or the lies or partial lies we might be unwittingly interpreting as truth. The best journalists in the world (who are not necessarily the most popular) understand the difference. The average person – and viewer – does not. It is the job of the journalists to put things in a way that the most people can understand. To unfurl the facts and truisms and falsehoods as objectively as possible – then offer the information in a context or at least order that will allow the public to comprehend the whole story and ultimately judge what, if anything, to do about it.

It is an essential and difficult and, in the end, honorable profession when done right – which that doesn’t happen often enough.

And that IS a fact.