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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Nick Kristof: Red Wine or Vinegar?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Twitter Conversation with Nicholas KristofCheck out the friendly repartee we had with Nicholas Kristof this morning. When I first read his tweet, I’ll admit my heart sank a little bit. Krista’s journal reflecting on this week’s show "Journalism and Compassion" begins:

"I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.”

Sure, we’re journalists, but we always want to extend hospitality to guests of On Being. So, I reached out to him in the only way I knew how, with a bit of good humor. And, of course, the hardened journalist took this all in good stride, even acknowledging the bittersweet edge of his reporting.

But do listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with him about his journalism as a form of “humanitarian art.” It’ll give you lots to think about whether you’re a reader or a journalist.

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There’s a common explanation that profound sadness leads to someone’s becoming a comedian, but I’m not sure that’s a proven equation in my case. I’m not bitter about what happened to me as a child, and my mother was instrumental in keeping me from being so. She taught me to be grateful for my life regardless of what that entailed, and that’s directly related to the image of Christ on the cross and the example of sacrifice that he gave us. What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.
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Stephen Colbert in studioStephen Colbert, referring to the death of his father and two brothers in a plane crash in 1974, when the comedian was ten years old.

If you are a fan of the enigmatic Colbert or at all curious about the genius of comedy or the depth of his Catholic faith, Charles McGrath’s profile, “How Many Stephen Colbert’s Are There?,” in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is one not to be missed.

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Which Catholic Values and Social Teachings Get Noticed?

by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings

Maureen Dowd wrote an almost innocuous column in The New York Times in which she noted, or argued, that “American bishops have been inconsistent in preaching their values.” Any reader who is up on the teachings of the company of bishops should not be surprised that they are inconsistent or that Ms. Dowd caught them in action. Such a reader who is up on the parties in play can also expect that the columnist is zeroing in on a zone of teachings about sex, which are of a different nature than are the rest of the social teachings. Someone had to notice her generalization.

Someone did. An authoritative if informal response came in the Letters to the Editor column from Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany who wrote on “The Values of the Bishops.” He argued that Ms. Dowd and so many like her were not paying attention, so he cited all kinds and degrees of interest they had shown in focusing on the social teachings. Since we don’t often hear about almost all of them, it pays to note his list.

Bishop Hubbard pointed out that the bishops consistently raised grave moral concerns regarding the decision to invade Iraq back when that stance was unpopular, before the war became unpopular in the mind of the larger public. Who noticed? The bishops have been consistent supporters of efforts to repeal the death penalty, and have held this position for decades. They challenge the capital punishment culture and routinely request clemency for death-row inmates, in low- and high-profile cases alike. Who noticed?

Cover to "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholics Bishops of the United States"The full body of bishops in 2007, Bishop Hubbard argued, overwhelmingly adopted "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," a document which showed them “preaching their values.” Who noticed it? Bishop Hubbard listed some of the specific “values” positions, e.g., against torture, racism, and the targeting of non-combatants in acts of terror or war. These were “intrinsically evil.” Facing up to the need to deal with the suffering “from hunger or a lack of health care, or an unjust immigrations policy” also escaped public notice among many. “Today, we bishops are exercising our leadership in advocating for the protection of poor people at home and abroad in the continuing budget debates.” Notice, anyone?

Included in the values list were condemnations of “abortion, euthanasia,” and he could have added, “homosexual” activity. Now, check these three as “noticed,” “noticed,” and “noticed” by much of the Catholic public which likes to ignore all the other “values” here, and by non-Catholic publics who never heard of other parts of the “seamless” or consistent ethic about which we heard some years ago. Now we are left to ponder: which zones of values get noticed by Catholics (including “by which Catholics?”) and which not? Who praises the bishops for what they put on the extensive values lists which are as old as 1893 or 1917 or other times of the formulation of social ethics? And is “consistency” among them to be valued? Also, which consistent instances help the Catholic “values” cause, and which are counter-productive? An election year is a good time to ponder some answers to the questions. One hopes that the whole range of issues will get noticed.

A last question: how do these values differ from those of most humanist, mainline Protestant, and Jewish choices? Believers and unbelievers are in much of this together. Do the old lines and definitions still serve? It’s time to notice.


Martin MartyMartin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, includingPilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Positive Religion News That Is Still Newsworthy

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Personal MinistryPersonal ministry by bicycle. (photo: waferboard/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Respected theologian Martin Marty has a winning article highlighting a mainstream news story that has finally gotten religion reporting right. The New York Times' recent profile of a Baptist couple who spend their retirement doing disaster relief work stood out as a “too-rare” kind of reporting on religious people and topics as Martin Marty writes:

"We have to wear virtual sunglasses when we do our too-rare Sightings of positive religion news in public media, so bright are these exceptions to the down and depressing accounts. Since most religious people and those who benefit from their doings see and experience more bright sides than down sides, we ask: is there something wrong with those who report and publish or broadcast the depressing and scandalous stories?"

He argues that there is double standard for religion reporting, in that such stories get boxed into one category or another:

"(I) have come up with a formula: if religion is covered as news, the bad stuff will predominate; if it appears as features, the good side gets a chance to show."

It would be a delicate balancing act to blend news reporting with the best aspects of features reporting:

"News waits for someone to embezzle or kill or seduce another in the name of God. Features allows for creative reporters to get up close to believing and behaving people who use their imagination, faith, energy, and communal spirit to serve others."

He is praising an unusual gift for readers, the opportunity to learn the language and practices of other faith traditions in a tight news cycle. After many years of working in a daily newsroom, I know that beast of news production has an endless appetite. And with dwindling resources, those thoughtful features are getting harder and harder to cultivate in that environment.

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Transforming Journalism by Moving and Mobilizing Readers

by Krista Tippett, host

Nicholas Kristof on Journalism and CompassionI wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.

Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six, continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us in the audio above, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.

He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on Being across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.

And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.

Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.

In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.

He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.

We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.

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War, want and concentration camps, exile from home and homeland, these have made me hate strife among men, but they have not made me lose faith in the future of mankind. … If man has been able to create the arts, the sciences and the material civilization we know in America, why should he be judged powerless to create justice, fraternity and peace?
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—Ladis D. Kristof, as quoted in his son’s column titled "My Father’s Gift to Me."

You should read this plainspoken homage from yesterday’s New York Times. It’ll do you good.

Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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My Favorite “Moments in Time” Shubha Bala, associate producer
Readers of The New York Times submitted more than 10,000 photographs to its "Moment  in Time" project, depicting views of the world as seen at 15:00 U.T.C. (Coordinated Universal Time) on this past Sunday, May 2nd. Awaiting the results, I was touched by the editors’ remarks when the images first started pouring in:

"…that portrait seems to be one of surprising tranquillity. No one has to tell readers of The Times, or just about anyone else, how upended and violent the world seems to be at the moment. But our respondents tended to show moments of repose, rather than anxiety; of warmth, rather than heat."

One of the photo categories shows the diversity through which people were engaged in religion at that moment in time — from becoming a rabbi to preparing for a snake festival. I captured some of my favorites in the following slideshow and would like to see ones you preferred that I might have missed.




In the photo above, children attend Mass at the Parish of San Pedro Claver in Caquetá, Columbia. (The New York Times).

My Favorite “Moments in Time”
Shubha Bala, associate producer

Readers of The New York Times submitted more than 10,000 photographs to its "Moment in Time" project, depicting views of the world as seen at 15:00 U.T.C. (Coordinated Universal Time) on this past Sunday, May 2nd. Awaiting the results, I was touched by the editors’ remarks when the images first started pouring in:

"…that portrait seems to be one of surprising tranquillity. No one has to tell readers of The Times, or just about anyone else, how upended and violent the world seems to be at the moment. But our respondents tended to show moments of repose, rather than anxiety; of warmth, rather than heat."

One of the photo categories shows the diversity through which people were engaged in religion at that moment in time — from becoming a rabbi to preparing for a snake festival. I captured some of my favorites in the following slideshow and would like to see ones you preferred that I might have missed.

In the photo above, children attend Mass at the Parish of San Pedro Claver in Caquetá, Columbia. (The New York Times).

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The Plight of the “Distant Stranger”

Trent Gilliss, online editor

Many of us have read Nick Kristof’s columns over the years. And, perhaps, like me, you’ve been moved by his words, shaken by his stories, struck dumb with melancholy and grief. But, inevitably, the “plight of the ‘distant stranger’” assumes its role in feeling the events happening over there.

The HBO documentary, Reporter, will challenge you to come closer, to care, to take action as he pursues uncovering the truths behind human rights violations and personal suffering. With Kristof leading the way, the viewer bears witness alongside his two traveling companions, a med student and a teacher, to the tricky trail the journalist walks when reporting in war-torn Congo.

The film portrays some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of being a reporter in a conflict zone. When Kristof encounters a 41-year-old woman of 60 pounds lying at the edge of a village about to die, he acts. When a warlord responsible for the raping and pillaging of thousands gives thanks to the Lord, he bows his head; when that same man, General Nkunda asks him to eat with him, he dines. Few of these decisions are made without some type of deliberation — a grimace, a pause, a controlled look. But, in the end, he always writes.

Nick Kristof in CongoHe perseveres and tries to understand the underlying aspects of the people involved. And, he asks the difficult questions that have gotten other journalists killed. I’m not trying to saint him, but I now better appreciate his work as he attempts to discover a fuller aspect of all the human beings involved. He continues to tell the difficult stories of a region that gets covered during catastrophic events, and then forgotten within a blink’s time of a celebrity foible or the next breaking news event.

I hope we can interview him for the show some day in the future and hear how he wrestles with these difficult choices — and how he continues on.

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Someone in Eight Million Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
The New York Times recently concluded its "One in Eight Million" series. It’s a lyrical compendium of 54 audio-visual stories that shine a light on ordinary (and not so ordinary) New Yorkers — from an urban taxidermist to a "Type-A" teenager. These sound-rich features are all told in the first person and provide a window into the intimacies of people’s lived experiences across the five boroughs of New York City’s eight-million-thick metropolis.

The series’ concluding segment featuring a 57-year-old grandfather of four named Joseph Cotton took my breath away. He cares for his “grandbabies” with such love, attention, devotion, and patience in a way that’s tender but not possessive. He knows the time will come when he’ll need to let them go. He says:

"Eventually I’m gonna lose them. Eventually they’re going to get to be 15, 16 years old. They’re going to be: ‘I ain’t hanging with pop-pop. Because they’re going to have other interests, they’re going to be doing other things. I’m looking for greatness from them. So they can’t hang around me and find greatness."


I recently attended an improv workshop with a professional actor who commented that he’s known artists who are masterful at their craft but aren’t so masterful at being loving partners or caregivers. People who love well don’t necessarily get noticed or celebrated for their particular artistry; I immediately thought of Mr. Cotton when I heard this. I’m grateful to the series for noticing him.
(photos: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Someone in Eight Million
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

The New York Times recently concluded its "One in Eight Million" series. It’s a lyrical compendium of 54 audio-visual stories that shine a light on ordinary (and not so ordinary) New Yorkers — from an urban taxidermist to a "Type-A" teenager. These sound-rich features are all told in the first person and provide a window into the intimacies of people’s lived experiences across the five boroughs of New York City’s eight-million-thick metropolis.

Joseph Cotton: One in Eight Million

The series’ concluding segment featuring a 57-year-old grandfather of four named Joseph Cotton took my breath away. He cares for his “grandbabies” with such love, attention, devotion, and patience in a way that’s tender but not possessive. He knows the time will come when he’ll need to let them go. He says:

"Eventually I’m gonna lose them. Eventually they’re going to get to be 15, 16 years old. They’re going to be: ‘I ain’t hanging with pop-pop. Because they’re going to have other interests, they’re going to be doing other things. I’m looking for greatness from them. So they can’t hang around me and find greatness."

Joseph Cotton: One in Eight Million

I recently attended an improv workshop with a professional actor who commented that he’s known artists who are masterful at their craft but aren’t so masterful at being loving partners or caregivers. People who love well don’t necessarily get noticed or celebrated for their particular artistry; I immediately thought of Mr. Cotton when I heard this. I’m grateful to the series for noticing him.

(photos: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

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Reconciling “Intrusive Paternalism” and “Soft Power”

Andy Dayton, associate web producer

"This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story."

Last Friday, Krista sent around David Brooks’ recent editorial on the disaster in Haiti. As the quote above suggests, he discusses the connection between the scale of damage in Haiti and the nation’s “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.”

One of the many questions the situation in Haiti raises is how those in wealthier nations can help prevent this sort of catastrophe in the future. Brooks provides his own diagnosis on effective foreign aid, based on a few domestic examples:

In [the U.S.], we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but hear Binyavanga Wainaina’s voice in the back of my mind, whom Krista spoke to in our program "The Ethics of Aid: One Kenyan’s Perspective." Wainaina is a Kenyan writer who has often been a vocal critic of foreign aid:

A lot of people arrive in Africa to assume that it’s a blank empty space and their goodwill and desire and guilt will fix it. And that to me is not any different from the first people who arrived and colonized us. This power, this power to help, is just about as dangerous as hard power, because very often it arrives with a kind of zeal that is assuming ‘I will do it. I will solve it for you. I will fix it for you,’ and it rides roughshod over your own best efforts.

I find Brooks’ call for “intrusive paternalism” hard to reconcile with Wainaina’s warnings about the “soft power” of foreign aid. But, the question still remains — what can we do to help prevent another Haiti?

One possible answer to that question comes from next week’s guest, Jacqueline Novogratz, who speaks of an approach to foreign aid that uses “a hard head and a soft heart.” She’s the CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, which aims to combine the economic accountability of venture capital with the human-centric concerns of traditional philanthropy — an approach that is innovative, but also comes with its own questions.

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