The three most worthless words in journalism

words

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New words come along all the time.

Merriam-Webster added hundreds to its dictionary in 2019. “Buzzy” is anything everyone can’t stop talking about. You might be “swole” if you have bulging muscles. A “detectorist” is someone who searches for hidden treasure with a metal detector.

Language is something that’s on the move, and it’s fun trying to keep up with it.

But while a lot of great words get added to the dictionary, some should be removed. At least in the world of journalism. Especially with 24/7 cable news, they’ve become huge time wasters.

The word “anonymous” doesn’t belong anywhere in a news story.

The Society of Professional Journalists advocates questioning sources’ motives before promising anonymity. That presumes, though, that the one doing the questioning is unbiased. When some news reporters openly cried while the 2016 presidential election results were coming in, it’s safe to say they’re biased and not capable of questioning motives of anonymous sources. Even when the motive is extremely blatant, like the 2018 New York Times anonymous hit piece, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”

Sometimes reporters get information off the record. It can help them gain a better understanding of complicated issues. But the information should stay out of print and off the airways until the anonymous source gets braver.

Just say no to anonymous pieces.

“Credible” is another nothing word.

What exactly does it mean to be credible? Apparently, it is something that could be true or might be true or seems to be true.

Which is nothing.

There are some really good liars in this world. So good that they’re credible.

Still doesn’t make their words true or factual.

All it took were “credible” accusers to turn the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh into an unjust mission to destroy his good name and reputation. In the end, no facts corroborated these supposedly credible storytellers and some have recanted their accusations.

Bury the word, “credible.” It just doesn’t mean much anymore.

“Hypocrisy” is a greatly overused word and like all greatly overused words, it gradually becomes ineffective. It gets volleyed back and forth equally well by both Democrats and Republicans.

It’s come up a lot lately, comparing the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton to the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Many Republicans feel the Democrats are hypocrites for not following the same fair process as the Clinton impeachment. Many Democrats feel the Republicans are hypocrites for denouncing the Trump impeachment when they were all too happy to impeach Clinton.

And the talking heads on cable news gladly repeat these hypocrisy rants.

This word, though, is a time burner.

For starters, imperfect human beings will always be susceptible to being hypocritical. Even mostly fair-minded people can trip up and judge others more harshly than they judge themselves. It’s a universal illness.

Then add a layer of politics to the malady. Politics has devolved into a power game, and the constant struggle for power guarantees that the word, “hypocrisy,” will be used far too often.

Let’s just agree that we’re all, in some way, hypocrites. Then, it no longer becomes a unique or helpful identifier.

We can’t control which words are used by the media. As consumers of the news, though, we have the power to tune out and move on when we hear the words, “anonymous,” “credible,” and “hypocrisy.” They’re trigger words for media time that is about to be wasted.

Don’t waste time.

Words are beautiful. Ingest them wisely.

Loss of a Vatican II priest

Father Mike Tauke

The Rev. Mike Tauke died.

A memorial service was held at the church he helped to build, St. Mary’s in Waverly, Iowa. It’s a big, new, beautiful church. And it was full.

People from all over Northeast Iowa came to mourn this beloved, 71-year-old priest. But some were mourning more than his passing. It seemed that, with his death, another small piece of the promise of the Second Vatican Council died with him.

Tauke was a “Vatican II priest.” He attended seminary about the time that many profound changes from the council were being implemented.

It was Pope Saint John XXIII who opened the council in 1962. He wanted to “open the windows and let in the fresh air”, to engage the Roman Catholic Church with the modern world.

Before Vatican II, the Church was much more shuttered. It had advanced ideas like the “forbidden book index,” where Roman Catholics were forbidden from reading certain books. The index was not abolished until 1966. It produced the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870. It meant that on matters of faith and morals, it was impossible for the pope to be wrong. And the Church was prone to clericalism—the idea that the priestly class is set apart and set above the laity.

Among other important developments, Vatican II delivered the bombshell that we are all—priests and laity—equally called to holiness. To encourage greater and more prayerful participation in the Mass, the Latin Mass was changed to the vernacular—the language of the people of the church. The priest no longer turned his back to the laity during Mass, but rather faced the people of God during prayer in order to be inclusive. And the laity were encouraged to participate in the ministries of the Mass.

Passive participation by the laity changed to active participation.

Tauke embraced the thinking of Vatican II. In some ways, longstanding rules of the Church were being broken and maybe it suited him. Maybe he was a natural renegade at heart. At his memorial service, phrases like “risk taker,” “sometimes questioned the institutional Church,” and “exclaimer of Wow! during the Mass,” were used to describe him. Clearly, the people loved this priest who was always genuine and sometimes unorthodox.

It seems hard, now, to imagine what the Church was like 100 years ago. We’ve come a long way, thanks to Vatican II and priests like Tauke, but there’s still work to be done.

Clericalism continues to plague the Church and was a contributing factor in the sexual abuse crisis. A reigning feeling of superiority emboldened bishops to knowingly move pedophile priests from one parish to another. After investigative reporting, the laity’s demand for justice, and billions of dollars paid out in lawsuits, the institutional Church now understands it must engage with the modern world in at least one way—it must keep children safe.

Even Pope Francis in a 2018 letter asserted that, “to say no to abuse is to say an emphatic no to all forms of clericalism.”

That’s a strong and recent statement against clericalism by its spiritual leader. It shows the prevalent and relentless nature of what can only be called a disease. Vatican II was never fully implemented well enough to eradicate it.

Most priests do an incredible amount of good in the world and resist the lure of clericalism.

But some cannot.

A sense of kinship was palpable at Tauke’s memorial service. Tauke did not consider himself to be set apart or set above the faithful. He simply joined his brothers and sisters in Christ on a shared pursuit of holiness. He certainly did his part to open the windows and let some fresh air into the institutional Church.

He’ll be missed.

Freedom and the purpose of art

freedom rock pix

Freedom and great art have something in common. Neither one is free, but both are very worthy of acquiring.

Ten years ago, Gene Blazek didn’t have freedom or art on his mind when he unearthed a massive boulder on his property. He was building a waterway, and the rock was in his way. Took him 45 minutes with the power of a dozer, but he got the nearly 45,000 pound rock pushed out of the waterway and into his yard.

It was about 12’ high and 9’ wide, with an impressive flat face to one side of it. A slight fascination with unusual rocks is a thing here in Northeast Iowa. Midwesterners are pretty good at repurposing items, too. What was no good to anyone in a field might be good for something some day.

Blazek owns a construction business. Certainly, design plays a part in his work. But art isn’t his business.

He started thinking about art, though, when fellow Sons of American Legion member, Joe Langreck, began talking about an artist who paints patriotic images on rocks. Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II was committing to painting one Freedom Rock for each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

History books, documentaries and museums all factually inform us of the lessons of history.

Could an artistic rock be worth the time, money and effort?

Art is one medium that can succeed in searing a message into the heart that was only before intellectually grasped.

A visit to a famous World War II battle site helped me to better appreciate how art and history powerfully intersect. Wading knee-deep into the waters off of what was known as Omaha Beach, I turned my eyes toward the beach and to the rising hill behind it. Decades before, American soldiers faced the violence of German gunfire as they stormed these waters.

Standing in the water, I tried to imagine the fury of D-Day. It was difficult to do. Omaha Beach has returned to the peaceful life it knew before the war. Intellectually, I understood the enormity of what happened here but my heart was trying to know more.

Our French tour guide moved us on to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial and its sacred rows—so many rows—of identical white marble headstones.

Then we arrived at the sculpture.

“The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” is a 22’ bronze statue of an American soldier. A strong outstretched arm reaches toward the sky. Legs and feet are slightly curved together as if propelling through water. The American soldier came “rising out of the sea” to help liberate France.

The image of “rising out of the sea”—the strength, the bravery, the sacrifice has stayed with me. The sculpture helped my heart to better understand.

History books educate, but art can resonate. One is learned. The other is felt.

Sorensen was eventually commissioned for the Chickasaw County Freedom Rock. The Lawler Legion got busy with a fundraiser to help pay for it, and Blazek knew just where to get the perfect rock. His someday had arrived.

The painting of the rock was recently completed. One side shows the images of seven Chickasaw County individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Four are namesakes of American Legion/VFW posts: Fae Stine, Paul Johann, Ralph Nicholson and Harold Redman. Also honored are Ralph Thompson, Donald Fisher and Lawrence Fisher.

The rock is located along Highway 24 in Lawler and now part of the Lawler Area Veterans Memorial.

Come see the rock, and let their gaze soak through you. Real people who had futures. And hopes and dreams of realizing their potential. Just like any of us.

We owe them. So much.

Then hang on to the feeling of freedom. That’s the worthwhile purpose of art.

Keep us safe. Cooperate.

cooperate

Image by Shutterstock.

Extreme partisanship makes us less safe.

The bickering was once reserved for relatively harmless, domestic budget battles. Now, partisan politics has infected national security issues.

The recent killing of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by the United States military was a win for the increased safety of Americans. It was also a win for President Donald Trump. As commander in chief, he authorized the mission.

But good news from the executive branch, occupied by a Republican, is seen as a threat to the legislative branch of the House of Representatives, held by Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi derided the president when she tweeted, “The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top Congressional Leadership were notified of in advance…”

The Russians had to be informed to ensure the safe air travel of our armed forces. It wasn’t essential to the success of the mission to inform the speaker. Secret military missions are best kept secretive. And the beltway has been leaking like a sieve.

A few weeks earlier, Trump pulled out the last 50 troops from northern Syria. Many disagreed with the decision, fearing an increased risk of terrorism.

Just how much military presence should be maintained in the Middle East and for how long is a valid debate. We’ll never forget that nearly 3,000 citizens died on September 11, 2001. Neither should we forget that nearly 7,000 U.S. servicemen and women have died during the ensuing war on terrorism.

But if the disagreement was sincere—if there was real concern of an increased risk of terrorism—Democrats would be doing everything within their power in the legislative branch to secure our borders and pass immigration reform. According to the Pew Research Center, we have 10 million illegal immigrants living in this country. While most are likely hard-working people trying to find a better life, it’s not hard to imagine that more than a few unknowns are coming in with the intent to destroy our country.

Another thing the House could be doing to keep us safe is to support and lead the way with legislation that benefits our military.

Lastly, a strong economy is vital to national security. The United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement was signed a year ago and would greatly benefit us. But again, a victory for Trump is viewed as a threat to congressional Democrats. And so, the House makes no movement on the USMCA.

Securing the border, passing immigration reform, supporting our military, moving on trade agreements—these are all things within the power of congressional Democrats to help keep our country safe.

Air traffic controllers are one of the few professions where doing things 99 percent correctly just isn’t good enough. Even a one percent rate of error would be unacceptable, with too many disasters.

There are several responsibilities in air traffic control, and the positions are distinct. Yet, each one—ground taxi travel, take-off and landing, the approach, the en-route phase—is important in ensuring safe air travel.  These people competently perform their own job and by doing so, they together create the outcome of safe travel.

We’re missing that kind of acceptance of distinct duty, enabling cooperation between the legislative and executive branch.

It’ll be a sad day if there’s another major act of terrorism on American soil. The day following would be a sad one, as well, because citizens would undoubtedly have to watch an ugly display of finger pointing and blame gaming from our elected officials.

Partisan politics will have reached its destined tipping point. A place that’s not very safe for the rest of us.

School board not off the hook for budget shortfall

questioning mind

Image by Shutterstock.

The Bondurant-Farrar School District has a $900,000 error in its budget due to an inaccurate property tax amount, and some want legislation enacted to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Legislation, though, isn’t needed.

The school wasn’t technically at fault. County officials provided wrong tax data. But a little old-fashioned curiosity and accountability from school board members could have prevented this problem.

It wasn’t a surprise that Facebook was building a complex in the Altoona area, with one building landing in the Bondurant-Farrar school district—a complex that was heavily reported to receive a 20-year property tax exemption.

News that’s heavily reported, though, doesn’t always get read.

Newspaper readership, both print and digital, is on a continued decline. According to the Pew Research Center, weekday and Sunday circulation numbers for 2018 were down 8 – 9 percent from the previous year. Another indicator of falling readership is that the number of newsroom employees has dropped about 25 percent during the last decade. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that our general population has increased about six percent in the last eight years.

The population is going up while newspaper readership is going down. We have an increasingly uninformed populace.

The Bondurant-Farrar school board members should have known there was a large commercial building going up in their school district, one that would be tax-exempt for 20 years. Wouldn’t a board member, just out of curiosity, want to know what tax revenue was given up over this deal? If the question would have been asked, the answer would have been found and the error uncovered.

It seems that nobody had that curiosity.

Following the money, in general, is a good practice for any entity—whether in the private or public sector. Every small business can name their top customers and run a report listing sales by account, sorted by highest annual sales.

An intimate knowledge of where its money is coming from would benefit public schools, as well. Not a lump property tax sum, but an itemization showing revenue from individual property tax payers.

Property tax is public information. Anyone can go to iowatreasurers.org and discover who pays what for property taxes. A large percentage of it goes toward public schools. Administrators could provide board members with reports itemizing revenue, sorted by highest revenue.

It would accomplish two things.

First, Facebook would have likely popped up near the top of the list and set off alarm bells for board members who were fully aware that Facebook is tax-exempt. The error could have been fixed before budget decisions were made.

This practice would make school board members more active and accountable. Unfortunately in some districts, board members are too passive and become agenda rubber-stampers.

A secondary benefit is that it could be a humbling experience for board members. When names of property owners are attached to individual tax numbers, showing financial sacrifice, board members may reflect more on the responsibility being entrusted to them.

It takes time and energy to manage a school district. There are bound to be moments when it seems like a thankless job. And sometimes, mistakes just happen.

At the same time, board members pursue these important positions through elections. There’s real work to be done that requires a questioning mind and a sense of accountability.

We expect our children to arrive at school curious, ready to learn, and to be independent thinkers.

No less should be expected of our school board members.

Life is fair, free college isn’t

teen unemployment

Fewer high schoolers are working to set aside money for college, and more Democratic presidential candidates are working to give these teens free college tuition.

Seems like it’s a good time to be a teenager and a bad time to be a taxpayer.

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of jobs available for high schoolers. Unemployment is at a historic low. In fact, we’re starting to see some small businesses either close or adjust their hours in order to maintain services.

The food services industry has been hit especially hard. There have been a few recent closings of small-town, but well-established, restaurants in Northeast Iowa due to the acute labor shortage.

Historically, it wasn’t always this way—even during times of low unemployment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 60% of teens aged 16 – 19 participated in the labor force in 1979. That number has gradually declined, and it’s projected to be just 26% by 2024.

The numbers align with a slightly different age group, studied by the Pew Research Center. It found that one in five 15 – 17 year-olds worked at all in 2018. About 30% of 15 – 17 year-olds worked in 2002. Close to 50% of 15 – 17 year-olds worked in 1968.

At the same time, more and more restaurants are opening to serve an increasing population and greater demand. In Iowa, the Restaurant Association predicts that the number of restaurant and food service jobs will grow by 10% in the next 10 years.

But how many of these restaurants can survive and thrive without a sufficient labor pool?

It’s not that anyone wants or expects our youth to work long labor hours. But picking up one or two shifts a week at a local restaurant or other small business could provide teaching moments that can’t be learned in the classroom, as well as provide an income that could be set aside for college. And it could be just enough for these businesses to fill some important labor gaps.

To be fair, high schoolers aren’t idle. Students, today, are taking tougher and more advanced classes designed for college preparation and credit. Lots of those classes happen during the summer months, making employment more difficult.

Many colleges accept the successful completion of Advanced Placement classes taken during the high school years as college credit. In 1985, only about 10% of high school students enrolled in these classes. Today, that number has easily quadrupled. It’s not uncommon to hear of students beginning college years with one or even two years of college already completed—thanks to AP credits earned during high school.

That’s more than big savings. It’s basically one or two years of free college.

Which brings us back to our Democratic presidential candidates. Most of them say they want to provide some type of free college tuition.

We have the privilege of seeing many of these candidates on the campaign trail in Iowa. The next time one of them talks about using tax dollars to provide free college tuition, ask about the teenager who is choosing not to work. Ask about the teenager who is entering college with one or two years already paid for through AP classes.

College graduates are trying to do the responsible thing and pay off student loan debt, but some are struggling with high interest loans. Ask candidates why it wouldn’t be better to reward personal responsibility by reducing interest rates on loans, instead of providing another entitlement program called free college.

The reality is that today’s teens are less likely to work than any other generation before them. On top of that, free college would give them more entitlements than any other generation before them.

That’s progressive thought, but doesn’t sound much like societal progress.

 

Clear the garden

garden

It was a surprising moment of joy.

This middle-aged body just spent two hours bending over and pulling a healthy crop of weeds from an abandoned vegetable garden.

That’s not my typical happy place. But this was different.

The vegetable garden wasn’t always abandoned. In years past, it was a source of tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, peas and spinach. It’s been nice to step out of the house and grab some fresh vegetables.

But the vegetables didn’t appear magically. There was the purchasing of plants and seeds, preparing the soil and then planting, endless watering and weeding, harvesting and cleaning of the vegetables for meal preparation, and freezing surplus produce.

And none of this happens on your time. The vegetables are in control. They tell you when you’ll plant, when you’ll water, and when you’ll harvest. If you disobey, they’ll punish you with diminished returns. A vegetable gardener gets a tiny glimpse of what it takes to be a farmer.

The plan was to continue the small garden until retirement, and then double the size of it. But after falling behind to weeds last year, I called it quits. Vegetable gardening is enjoyable, but there are so many other things I enjoy more.

Including time to just sit and think. Meditation might be too strong of a word for it, but I do relish sitting outdoors and taking in the beauty of country living with silence that is broken only by the sounds of nature.

I decided I wanted a flower garden instead, with a bench to enjoy it. That was September.

Now it’s July. Between wet weather, a busy schedule, and a bit of procrastination, the garden conversion got delayed.

The weeds were pretty happy about that, and it made the first step of the transformation a challenge.

But after clearing the garden of its weeds, I felt…joyful.

Because even though I had many hours of work still ahead of me, I now knew that the flower garden was actually going to happen. There was no going back. Allowing the garden to idle again would have produced an unacceptable new batch of weeds. It was the point of no return.

And that’s the best place to be.

Like so many things in life—starting a new job, opening a new business, going back to college, embarking on a new health or fitness program, tackling a major household project, exploring a new hobby—it all begins with a committed, first step.

Make sure the new plan or idea is what you truly want. Then, start. And feel good about it. Because it turns out that happiness can simply be a new beginning. Even with the knowledge that your life may be more difficult or strenuous for a while. You’ve done what is most needed. You set your plan in motion.

And now the road to accomplishment can rise up to meet you.

Just clear the garden.