Monday, June 15, 2009

Long Time Listener

Most people turn to their television or radio for one of two reasons: they want to be informed or they want to be entertained. In the first case they are looking for news or the weather, what the stock market is doing or what movies are opening that weekend. In the second, they don't feel like reading a book or doing their taxes, or are hoping for something to distract them while they're driving to work. (Yes, they could also be obsessed with "American idol" but that qualifies more as a sickness than anything else.)

Occasionally these two are deliberately intertwined, especially on outlets like the Travel Channel or Discovery. There you can watch shows such as "Iron Chef America" and marvel at the dance in Kitchen Stadium while learning a few new recipes in "Battle Skirt Steak." On "Ice Road Truckers" you can be impressed with the derring-do of Hugh "Polar Bear" Rowland, while learning how to prevent a four-wheel skid. And you can watch "Mythbusters" and be entertained while also learning if it's true that a sky diver whose parachute fails to open who hits a playground seesaw would actually send a small girl flying seven stories high.

Still, when it comes to each side, they are generally true to form. That means if you're looking for entertainment, you'll find it in everything from scripted dramas to sitcoms to an ever increasing number of reality shows. If your idea of escape is something which enables you to turn off your mind, no worries: a random flip to any channel brings up numerous candidates, supplemented by a nearly continuous screening of "Law and Order" in one of its various flavors.

Conversely, when you turn on an information program, you can generally expect a reasonably authoritative delivery of whatever goings-on you're interested in, coupled with interpretation by knowledgeable professionals. On ESPN you can catch innumerable sportscasters paired with ex-jocks and coaches who help make sense of what's happening on the ice, the field or the court. Meanwhile, CNBC offers up simultaneous postage stamp feeds of business reporters, traders, portfolio managers and economists, all giving their spin on the markets, creating the most crowded screen on the airwaves.

True, the opinions offered are shaded based on the biases of the presenters. You see this especially on MSNBC and Fox News, which seem more and more intent on being mouthpieces for extreme positions on the left and right. Still, in each case you generally know what you're getting. That's not to say that you can't learn something from pure entertainment, or be amused by something in the news. But while there are a disturbing number of people who get the majority of both their current events and their yuks from Jon Stewart, most are able to separate the two, and know where to turn for each.

There is, however, a troubling development on the information side. CNN bills itself as the network of record treading an ideological middle ground. In fact, "No Bias, No Bull" was the name of one of their prime time shows for a time.  Instead, or perhaps because of their poor showing in the ratings, it seems that the network has regressed to middle school. Based on their recent actions, they could adapt another well know news slogan. Rather than Fox's, "We report. You decide," they might consider adopting "We report. So... whatdaya think?"

How else to explain their seeming fixation on all things email with the audience? Not a story goes by that their anchors don't implore you to offer your reaction by friending them on Facebook or tweeting them on Twitter. Not content to wait for the ratings to come out, they seem desperate to connect with viewers, somehow equating the number of hits they get as a true measure of their veracity as a news organization. Thankfully Edward R. Murrow never thought that way.

By itself, that much pleading for recognition is just insecurity. But unfortunately they take it a step farther. I'm quite willing to listen to Wolf Blitzer solicit comments from a professor from Princeton on economic issues, or thoughts from an Undersecretary of Labor on unemployment benefits. I confess, however, I care less about the views on either subject from foxymom or rt2thecore. Still, Wolf and his brethren spend lots of time reading back their posts. Yes, they're entitled to their views, but I didn't tune in to hear them.

On call-in shows on the radio, people often begin by saying "long time listener, first time caller." But that's what those programs are all about... the give and take of opinions with the host. When I turn on the news, I want the news, not my take or my neighbor's. Put another way, be a long time listener... and stay that way.


Marc Wollin of Bedford flips between all the news channels most evenings. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Dear Matthew

Dear Matt;

I've been staring at this blank screen for the past two hours, trying to figure out what to write. After all, it's not everyday that your oldest graduates from college and starts to make his way in the world. And that means that this may be the last time I will get your full attention for the rest of your life. For your graduation is many things: an accomplishment, the turning of a page, the beginning of a new journey, to name but a few. But most assuredly, it is the start of your journey.

For after this rite of passage, you are truly on your own. Oh, I don't mean we won't see you, or visit with you, or spend time talking with you. But with each passing day and experience, you have grown more sure of yourself and less in need of our support. Of course, that's how it should be; we would want nothing less. Still, you could argue that at this juncture, our work... the work that is you... is finished.

That point was crystallized for me when you were in the city last week. We spoke via phone, and agreed to meet at the station to catch the train home. As I came down the escalator, I scanned the hall looking for you. My gaze swept over you several times, not realizing it was you. Yes, you had your back towards me, but it was something else. I was looking for my child: a little kid I had played soccer with, had read stories to, had made pancakes for. He wasn't there. When I changed my focus to look for a confident young man, one who was comfortable with who he was and ready to take on the challenges before him, I recognized you in an instant.

So on this momentous occasion, what to tell you that I haven't already? It seems that there are a thousand cautions and exhortations I could convey about life and how to live it. In truth, though, they are no different than those I have been flinging at you non-stop since the day you were born. They represent the things I have done right, those I have done wrong, those I wished I had done and those I wish I hadn't. No doubt you will agree with some and dismiss others. But the bottom line is that if those messages haven't gotten through by now, it is unlikely that these meager words will do so.

Still, I wish I had some magic phrase or exhortation that I could give you to guide you through your life. But you've likely heard them all in one form or another over time, from your mom and me and many others. Many may be trite and simplistic, but that doesn't make them any less valid. However, they can all be reduced to this: answer to your heart, and nothing else. As I have told your brother and you from the very beginning, there is only one standard you have to live up to: yours. Mind you, that's not always an easy bar to clear. But if you can honestly say that you've done the best that you can for yourself and those you care about with what you are given, you can ask no more.

Selfishly, I wish you weren't where you are in the world. I'd much rather think of you as ours forever. But it's at this time that we formally hand over the deed that we had on you. Mom has a little sign on her desk with a quote from Elizabeth Stone that sums it up neatly: "Making the decision to have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body." I have never felt it so true as I do on this occasion.

You face turbulent times, but times which you and your peers are better equipped to deal with than any generation that preceded you. When great trials engulfed the country, Lincoln said, "It is not 'can any of us imagine better?' but, 'can we all do better?' The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion." And so it is with you. I must say I feel better knowing you are there for us all.

But enough grand statements. As I read what I've written, I fear it may come across as cold or distant. Nothing could be further from the truth. As you take this next giant step, we watch with joy, with sadness, with excitement and with wonder. We are thrilled for you and proud of you. Yes, it is trite, but it is true: parents should give their children roots and wings. Remember the first, make sure to use the second. And most importantly, know that wherever you fly, we love you.


Matthew Wollin graduates this weekend from Williams College. You can send him greetings at His dad's column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.