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Atonement in Meridian
January 19, 2009

The Meridian Star, daily newspaper of Meridian Mississippi, issued an editorial on January 18th, in which it apologized for a long and now distant history of “gross neglect…largely ignoring the unfairness of segregated schools, buses, restaurants, washrooms, theaters and other public places.”

Their apology includes these stark atonements: “We did it through omission…That was wrong. We should have loudly protested…while we can't go back and undo some past wrongs, we can…promise never again to neglect our responsibility…”

The editorial is profound in two separate regards. The first is its admission of wrong and responsibility with respect to bigotry. The second is the same class of admission with respect to journalistic responsibility. Each of these calls on me—and all Americans, I think—to engage in serious reflection.

I believe that bigotry can only be defeated when each of us searches to find and acknowledge the bigotry within us. I have engaged in such a personal inventory for four decades. Today I see two notable phenomena as a result—first, that I have become a more loving, compassionate human being. I have largely healed and recovered from the bigotry that pervaded my spirit as a young man. I am deeply grateful for that. But the second thing I see is that I am still not entirely free of that corrosive moral and cultural poison. Some bigotry still resides in me. Perhaps some always will, but if I am able to acknowledge the truth of it, as The Meridian Star has exemplified for me, then I can surely be more free of that poison tomorrow than I am today.

Related to, but separate from The Meridian Star's moral atonement is its confession of journalistic failures. Here, they speak of omission. I think that is the great failure of modern journalism, from small town newspapers to the mammoth media organizations that feed us most of the information on which we rely as citizens. The errors in what is reported in the media are nothing compared to the failures in what we do not hear, see and read.

An example of the problem can be found within this story itself. I saw it reported in Editor & Publisher, the journal of the newspaper industry, via a link on the media page of The Huffington Post. When I did a search in Google News, I found exactly one link, not even directly to the Star's editorial, but to the Editor & Publisher piece.

One link. More than twenty-four hours after the editorial's appearance, apparently no major newspaper, broadcaster or Internet news source had published anything about it. (Two days later, Democracy Now had also covered it.) By comparison, I found fifty-one links to coverage of a study finding that wealthy men give women more orgasms than do less wealthy males, and more than 16,000 articles about the airliner that landed in the Hudson River.

In the fifties and sixties, citizens of Meridian, Mississippi were deprived of information that might have led them to an earlier and deeper examination of conscience. In 2003, as the nation ran headlong into war in Iraq, we were all deprived of information that could have led us to more appropriately question our President and our Congress.

In neither case, can we say the information was unavailable. Certainly a well-read 1950s Mississippian would have found stories in national if not local media about racial abuses in the South. And many Americans in 2002 and 2003 did scour Internet news sources to learn that there likely were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the fifties and now, the full spectrum of news is typically reported somewhere. But when your daily newspaper and mine, your local news channel and mine, and the mass merchants of media mediocrity such as CNN don't dig for and report the truth, you and I as citizens are deprived of the oxygen we need, in order to breathe the freedom of democracy.

Let's all applaud The Meridian Star for its frankness, honesty and responsibility. And Let's all take action to call the rest of our media to task. We can write, call and fax our local newspapers and broadcast media, as well as the national outlets, with the message that we expect and demand more from them.

But we can do more than that. We can pull the plug. I can live without CNN, and I do, to a large extent. I still use cable news sources in rare moments of genuine urgency. But I rely on other sources for real news content. Internet news aggregators are a powerful tool. My morning romp through Google News and—yeah, I confess—The Huffington Post, along with the website of my local newspaper leave me better informed than I have ever been. And when I want to be more passive, I let the voices of Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers and Tavis Smiley wash over me, rather than those of Wolf Blitzer or—spiritual power forbid—Greta Van Susteren.

And I will continue to examine my heart and conscience for dark residues such as bigotry that make me less human than I might be.


copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson