The Press, the Public, and Closed Circles
October 18, 2004
(Published 12/17/04 in a slightly revised form in the Montpelier Bridge)
Between May 7th and October 9th, 2004, I wrote to Maria Archangelo, the editor of my local newspaper, the Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus, twenty-five times. In response I have received not a letter, not a phone call, not a line of e-mail, not a peep. I should explain that none of my letters were hostile, angry, or abusive. They were all phrased in fairly courteous, respectful language.
I'll admit that I was attempting to persuade her to use some of my writing in her paper. To that end, I sent quite a few samples of items I produced specifically with newspapers in mind. I also sent some suggestions, based on considerable experience as a newspaper reader, about how the Times-Argus might spark more lively and well-informed discussion on public issues. But I said nothing that could be taken as an angry criticism of the paper and I often made compliments about features I had found attractive.
I'm now speculating about the reason for her perfect non-response.
Some really crazy thoughts have flitted through my brain. For example, more than twenty years ago, I wrote an article for the Times-Argus which they published and for which they agreed to pay me twenty-five dollars (as I recall it had something to do with the visit of Wilbur Mills to Barre). They never paid. To tell the truth I didn't expect them to. Might it be, I asked myself, that Times-Argus accountants have discovered this nonpayment and have warned that if the paper ever acknowledges my existence, the accrued interest would bankrupt the operation? It's fantastic hypothesis, I know. But I warned you that I've had demented thoughts.
There have been other suppositions in that vein, but I won't bother you with them. Here's what I think is the more likely explanation. Ms. Archangelo inhabits a world in which people routinely think of themselves as being very busy. They make no time for anything other than what they have placed within a small circle they label as "professional concerns" or "career issues." Dialogue with anyone outside the circle is not a thing a serious person would contemplate. It would be frivolous. It might even be --an awful thought -- amateur. It's a protective mindset and one gratifying to the ego. Inside the circle all things are earnest and weighty. Outside are lesser things and also, frankly, lesser beings.
One doesn't have to sleep under the bridge or get his dinner from garbage pails to earn thorough dismissal from a circle of this kind. He might, in his own little world, be a person of minor respectability. But, he is not in the circle. When I use myself as an example, I certainly can't argue that I'm in any way eminent or famous. But, then, I was the chief officer of the local college. I have offered commentary on a local radio station for twenty years. One year, I was even awarded the status of having the best commentary in the state. I have been asked to speak at at quite a few institutions, and I have delivered lectures on books and public issues at dozens of libraries all over Vermont. My writing has appeared in quite a few newspapers and periodicals, including some even more well-known and with larger circulations than the Times-Argus. It's a small record, I admit, and I wouldn't mention it were I not trying to make the point that even a person with standing as modest as mine probably would have, in the past, after twenty-five letters, received at least a cursory note of response.
Yet, that world of the past is disappearing, and its passing is the subject of this little piece. I'm not, by the way, interested in slamming Ms. Archangelo. She's probably a typical editor of a typical small newspaper. I've had no reason to expect her to be anything other than that.
My attention, instead, is directed at these limited circles -- closed-off, self-rewarding, hermetic -- and their effect on modern public life. I don't mean to imply that they occur only in journalism or the media. Truth is, they pervade all areas of organized life nowadays and they're working hard to sell themselves as the only arenas for "success." They tend to dictate their own notions of education and even seem to want to have logic peculiar to themselves. They work to exalt everything inside and, despite not always being aware of it, to denigrate everything outside their bounds.
The dominance of closed circles is so widespread now it needs a name (if something doesn't have a name, people won't believe it exists). The closest I've found is quangocracy, meaning rule by quasi-autonomous non-governmental agencies. But you can't use a name like that because nobody would know what you were talking about. Yet, the effect of this no-named thing is quite powerful. The effect, itself, can be called public alienation in that we find ourselves in a situation where one can speak meaningfully only within his own circle. No one can speak simply as a human being to other human beings. You have to be inside a circle to speak at all, and once you're inside, no one outside will pay much attention. I exaggerate, of course, but I do think we're moving in that direction. As we do, cynicism takes over and more and more people throw up their hands and ask, what's the use?
When I began writing my letters to Ms. Archangelo, I was still, to some degree, under the illusion that a local newspaper was an exception to the general rule. I thought it might give me a chance to enter into dialogue with my fellow citizens or, if that were not possible, to engage in some discourse about why not. I thought there might be an opportunity, admittedly small, but, still, an opportunity, to make my case, But when nothing at all comes out of the circle, the opportunity doesn't exist. There is no contempt more perfect than refusal to acknowledge another's existence. I recognize, of course, that one can write "letters to the editor" and have them printed now and then. But, they provide only for single opinions on single issues and not for anything sustained.
The Times-Argus is, like most small papers, mainly a cut-and-paste job. A majority of the news it contains comes from the Associated Press. A smaller portion is copied from the pages of larger newspapers. And there are, also, a few articles on local conditions, produced by the paper's staff, which almost always skim the surface of issues. That it seldom digs into the news is to some extent caused by financial pressure. But in almost every organization some wiggle room can be found if there's determination to use it. The irony of the unnamed condition I've spoken of is that it discourages distinction. Though an isolated unit is free to be different, it's also free not to care. The consequence is that, aside from editorial position, most newspapers come to resemble one another all across the nation. In the case of the Times-Argus, the paper actually is assembled hunks of the others. One should note, though, that it does have more intelligent and better written editorials than are common.
Naturally, if a paper is seen strictly as a business -- as an advertising circular -- none of this matters. In that case, journalistic quality is clearly so secondary it has small effect in shaping the paper's policies. I don't know whether that's true of the Times-Argus or not. I do know that though it meets the standards expected of small newspapers, those expectations are low. I know, also, that the Times-Argus serves a community that would respond positively to sharper, more provocative discussion of public events than it delivers to them. In short, though it's not a bad paper, it's coasting.
No man ought to judge his own case, so I won't argue here about whether my submissions might invigorate thought in our region. The point I'm making is that if my experience with the Times-Argus is typical, there is no genuine back and forth between individuals in our community and the paper that supposedly serves them. With respect to the Times-Argus you have two choices. You can read it or not read it. You can buy it or not buy it. But you can't have a conversation with it.
The most common complaint of our era is, "I can't get an answer." You call up. You write letters. You leave messages. And what happens? Nothing. A few places have automated e-mail responses which tell you the lie that though they can't answer, they will read your message carefully and take it into account. The explanation for all this non-answering is that people are busy. But what they're busy at you don't know because you can't get inside the circle to find out. In the few circles I've inhabited, no one has been as busy as he claimed, unless it was the busyness of taking an hour to do something that could just as well have been done in five minutes.
The non-response of closed circles -- what is it, actually? I'm not perfectly sure but my best guess is a wave of monumental egotism which seeks to teach everyone that his or her thoughts and concerns are so pressing and so vital that nobody else's interests deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. The final outcome of this pedagogy will be that each of us will become a circle of one. I know what I'm speaking of because I've felt the temptation myself. But, in my better moments, I try to break out. Perhaps Ms. Archangelo does too. I don't know because I can't get in touch with her.
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