I never know why what happens happens

That title applies to a lot of things. Once again, it applies to my bewilderment about old posts that are suddenly found by more readers long after the fact than read them when they were written.

Lately, two reviews, ‘Paris in the Present Tense’ by Mark Helprin and Briefly Noted: ‘The Hart Brand’ by Johnny D. Boggs have suddenly gotten a lot of hits.

I used to spend time trying to figure out what suddenly drew so many readers to old posts. I’d search Google to see if the subject was in the news or if there were a fresh scandal afoot. I seldom found anything. Nonetheless, I appreciate the readers who spend their time here whether it’s to read something from months ago or something I wrote today.

I never know why what happens happens is probably the story of my life. I don’t believe in coincidences, luck, or fate. So, most of the time when I can’t explain something, I just shrug and move on. Wondering about things I can’t explain usually doesn’t get me anywhere.

When I worked as a journalist and a journalism teacher, I taught the so-called 5Ws and the H, the who, what, when, where, why, and how that reporters need to cover in the early paragraphs of their news stories. To know something, when it comes to news, these things are what readers ask about. So, part of my training as a journalist and college journalism instructor still nags at me now–out of habit, I ask why?

Age and/or laziness have shown me that I’m not always going to know why about a lot of things. I realize that why? is an important question in a lot of professions: why did the bridge fall down, why did the sinkhole swallow a Florida town, why did the wreck happen, why did the plane crash, why did the fire start, &c. Why, in such instances, helps us fix what’s broken and makes it less likely that bad things won’t happen again.

But applying why to non-technical questions, such as why are so many people reading an old Mark Helprin review or why do bad things happen to good people (and vice versa) often seems like a fool’s errand. That doesn’t mean we don’t care. It seems to mean we don’t know and haven’t figured how to know.

I suspect that if we truly discovered the why behind mysterious and/or transcendent occurrences, we wouldn’t believe it because it would conflict greatly with our view of the world. My views about why conflict with most people’s views about why don’t make sense to most people, so I don’t mention them. I find comfort in my idiosyncratic views about why and, smart or stupid, they keep me reasonably sane.

I often wonder if a lot of people are like this when confronted with unanswered or unanswerable question. They have a theory about such things, perhaps, but otherwise, don’t worry about it. That seems to be better than going flat nuts.

On the other hand, being human, we’re still curious, but we are smart enough to keep our curiosity under control.




Should I be writing about political issues?

Arts, publishing and books websites are showing us a large number of links about writers and politics these days. Some writers are speaking out (from one side of the aisle or the other) at rallies, via letters to Senators and Representatives, and posts on Facebook profiles. Others are writing poems, entire poetry chapbooks, essays, book reviews, short stories and novels that reflect their concerns about a wide variety of political, economic and social issues that became part of the very polarized national debate during the Presidential campaign.

Somebody–I forget who–once said that all fiction and poetry is at one level or another political. Perhaps so. My contemporary fantasies can’t help but show sadness over a world that relies more on technology than spirituality. My two Florida conjure novels shine a light on the racism of the 1950s. Nonetheless, my primary intent with these novels was telling stories I was passionate about rather than creating “message novels.”

When I think about the folk songs of the 1960s–and a lot of the poetry and fiction as well–I remember them as being intensely political, about “the military industrial establishment,” segregation, poverty, and the Vietnam War. We seem to have come full circle back to writings of protest and resistance against conservative policies as well as writings suggesting that that previous liberal policies created a mess that needs to be cleaned up.

Of course I have opinions about the issues. One opinion of longstanding favors a better approach to the environment, conservation, protection of wild areas and natural resources, and more care about not polluting the environment. Since these views go all the way back to the days when I was in the Boy Scouts and first began to participate in conservation organizations such as the Wilderness Society and the National Parks and Conservation Association, I will keep writing about this–and referring to it in my stories.

While I respect writers and others who feel a need to speak out for or against the issues that now threaten to further divide this country into camps that refuse to work toward consensus, I’m not going to do it. For one thing, I have no credentials that give me any special insight into whether we should be doing ABC or XYZ.  For another thing, much of the debate in both the news media and the social media is being driven by biased or skewed news, sensationalism and other misleading information, and voters on both sides of the issue who approach discussion with a “my candidate right or wrong.” All of this divides us further and makes the truth harder to find.

So my “voice” is going to stay focused on environmental issues and in writing fiction even if the two things get stirred up together a little bit. None of the rants–even those I basically agree with–on Facebook and elsewhere are changing people’s minds. Why not? Because they’re skewed toward the far right or the far left rather than a more centrist approach where people can really discuss the issues sanely rather than throwing gasoline on the fire with dueling wisecracks and graphics.

I welcome those journalists and other writers who do their best to look past the hysteria and tell us the facts and/or to carefully analyze the practicality, ethics, and legality of the issues in their news stories, features, essays, poems, and fiction. Anything else is pretty much spitting into the wind.



Throwback Thursday – a few memorable headlines

My father was a journalist. So was I (briefly). That means I’m conscious of headlines, the good, the absurd and the comical.

Years ago, the New York Times ran a weekly piece for its staff called “Winners and Sinners” in which it commented on the stories and headlines that hit gold and those that hit fool’s gold. It was enjoyable reading for me and a learning experience.

stixnixMy favorite headline of the past comes from Variety. It’s been copied and referred to so many times, that a fair number of places of the web explain what it means. This one appeared in July 1935 over an article claiming rural audiences didn’t care for movies about rural life.

A lot of people think this headline was STIX NIX HIX PIX. That would have been funnier, but in four words, the editors still said it all.

deweyOn November 3, 1948, the one-star edition (which means that it was an early one of many for that day) called the Presidential election a bit early based on its polling. The fact that the paper and the candidate both had low opinions of each other might have played into  the error.

The photograph of Truman holding up the paper has probably become more famous than the headline itself.

titannicsafeIn April of 1912, the New York Times reported that the Titanic sank, much to the dismay of other papers who were relying on wishful thinking and White Star Line assurances. The fact that one paper reported everyone was safe seems to have occurred when Marconigrams were intercepted and mixed up by amateurs.

One of the wires that apparently helped create the confusion was the one that asked ARE TITANIC PASSENGERS SAFE? Somebody read the question as a fact.

This gaffe, however, remained one of the largest until the Dewey Defeats Truman headline.

dianadeadThe stark, sobering headlines about Princess Diana’s death in August 1997 contrasted so greatly with the love many felt for her, they immediately captured the grim event.

The fact that she died in a car crash seemed to so many such a mundane and tragic fluke, leading to conspiracy theories, that her last moments stayed in the news seemingly forever.

dianaaliveHere’s a headline that definitely would have found its way into the New York Times list of sinners. Headlines are often written quickly, leading to inadvertent meanings the editors don’t intend. Headlines like this frequently made their way into comedy bits on the Letterman and Leno shows.

Today, Facebook, YouTube and other social media are quick to capitalize on similar mistakes for places that didn’t really want to become famous due to a humorous typo.

mississippiheadlineIn grade school, various little rhymes helped us remember how to spell the names of the states. Mississippi was a problem state, spelling-wise, though it also was very easy to spell once you learn the little spelling ditty.

Whoever wrote this headline was obviously out sick on the day of that lesson. These days, a quick Google search will turn up hundred of examples of church signs, advertisements, posters in store windows and road signs with hideous examples of misspelled words of words with double meanings.

Yes, unfortunately some of these get into the newspapers.

onionholyshitOn the flip side, sometimes a satirical publication specializing in fake news stories helps capture the country’s mood about a major tragedy in a way that mainstream newspapers can’t so for sake of propriety. Here is, perhaps, the best such headline that came after 9/11.

firstfootstepEditors are said to like gaining readers now only with sensational headlines (correctly written or skewed), but with puppies, babies, aw shucks moments and the minimalistic few words that say things just right as this paper did April 5th, 1968.

In the “old days” headlines were more difficult to write because editors weren’t looking at them on the screen like they do today to make the they really fit in the space provided by the layouts. Each typeface had different spacing and checking to see what headline fit and what didn’t involved knowing which letters were thick, thin and normal. If you’ve been around for a long time in the business, then you’ll remember “flitj,” the list of thin letters, and you’ll also remember the “W” was a wide letter and took up more space. Now, the screen tells us what fits and what doesn’t. Yet, the year’s news still provides us with plenty of sinners to go along with the winners.

I see winners and sinners every week. So do a lot of people. For better or worse, some of those seem to last forever, even ending up in memory lane posts like this one.


Journalism Association Asks Members to Help Endow Research Award

Campbell - Quill & Scroll photo
My father, Laurence R. Campbell (1903-1987), was a long-time journalism educator and author who focused on student publications and the training of publications advisers. In 1984, the Scholastic Journalism Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) honored him by establishing the Laurence R. Campbell Research Award.

The annual award recognizes scholarship in the field of journalism research. Now, the AEJMC hopes to further support the award by increasing the level of its funding to the point where it can be endowed. This would ensure the award’s long-term continuation.

Writing in the March issue of Scholastic Source, division director Vanessa Shelton appealed to AEJMC members to add the research award to their list of charitable donations for the year.

“Mr. High School Journalism, as Campbell was called, left an amazing legacy of information generated through his prolific writing and research agenda,” said Shelton. This included 32 articles for Quill & Scroll Magazine, 50 research projects, 200 articles for student journalists, and over eleven journalism textbooks and pamphlets.

As Shelton noted, Campbell “also judged thousands of newspapers and yearbooks for scholastic press associations influencing (as author Bruce Konkle said) ‘the quality of student publications for more than 25 years.'”

I hope the AEJMC members and others who support high school journalism courses and student publications will help raise the award’s funding to the endowment level.

Donations earmarked for the Laurence R. Campbell Research Award can be sent to Vanessa Shelton, Quill and Scroll, University of Iowa, E346 Adler Building, Iowa City, IA 52242. Checks should be made payable to the AEJMC with a notation for the Campbell Award fund.