It may be a short-lived renewal. After all, it'92ll soon be time to fill out brackets and look for home grown tomatoes on Finley Avenue, and there were always a lot of aspects of civics not even Schoolhouse Rock could make interesting. The price of liberty may be eternal vigilance, but in springtime, I tend to put it on a tab.
Meanwhile, the news offers many opportunities to enhance one'92s understanding of government. For example, our own mayor told a doubtless rapt audience in a Monday night forum sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists that the public is manipulated by professional journalists. In The Birmingham News, Joseph Bryant quoted Larry Lankford as saying, in a sentence that begs for diagramming, '93The media has become a vehicle to sensationalizing things that didn'92t need to be sensationalized.'94
Lankford accused same of exploiting racial matters for higher ratings and sales, though as a former Action News team member, he surely remembers that spectacular car wrecks, multiple homicides and picturesque house fires always trump anything racial.
Then there'92s a perceived problem with balance in reporting, which the mayor has addressed by putting out his own newsletters and DVDs, all of which no doubt present both sides of every issue the way the media won'92t. Plus, to take care of too much sensationalism, he'92s arranged to broadcast City Council meetings online, programming so anti-sensational it'92ll put your computer into sleep mode automatically.
That pesky media tried to derail another faithful public servant over the weekend. Patrick McCreless, a sensation-seeking newshound for The Cullman Times, inexplicably wound up with U.S. Senator Richard Shelby as his subject. Within the fast-paced political vortex of the All Steak restaurant in Cullman, where the senior senator was holding a community meeting, a local served up a softball by asking if there was any truth to the rumor that Barack Obama was not a natural-born citizen of the United States. Shelby smacked it deep into the ear of the reporter, who heard him say, '93Well, his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven'92t seen any birth certificate.'94 The constitutional scholar also reminded the assemblage, '93You have to be born in America to be president.'94
McCreless, that troublemaking scribe, had the effrontery to quote the senator verbatim, apparently lacking the courtesy that causes most reporters to ignore anything Shelby says. Other sensation-seekers at media outlets across the country picked up the story and trotted with it, though even the Supreme Court had determined there was no truth to the allegations made during the campaign by right-wing interest groups. Shelby'92s press flack was obliged to issue a statement clarifying the comments.
The clarification? The Times'92 reporting '93contains an incomplete account and therefore a distortion'94 of the Richard'92s remarks. You'92d think that'92d shut up the sensationalizers, but no. '93The Times stands by its reporting as complete and accurate,'94 was the intemperate response by the newspaper.
Actually, press coverage of the clarification seems to be incomplete as well, for nowhere did I read the rest of the words I would have expected the statement to contain: '93Senator Shelby is a tool, but a tool uninterested in retiring anytime soon, so he'92d appreciate it if none of you raised the embarrassing point that a ranking member of the Select Committee on Intelligence with even the slightest concern that a foreign agent was assuming the presidency certainly would have not assented to confirm the Electoral College vote after the popular election. Vote Quimby '97 er, Shelby.'94
Then there'92s the case of another Senator, Jim Bunning, by name, notorious for shooting off his mouth the way Dick Cheney shoots faces. Back in '9204, he compared his opponent'92s appearance to that of Saddam Hussein'92s sons, and on another occasion complained that he'92d been roughed up by '93little green doctors pounding on my back.'94
What these rants had in common is that nosy reporters heard the words and sensationalized them by publishing them in mass-circulation newspapers. It happened again last week at a Lincoln Day rally, when Bunning foretold the death of ailing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg: '93She'92s got... bad cancer. The kind you don'92t get better from.'94 Using a vast trove of medical knowledge gained from years as a major league baseball pitcher, he noted, '93Usually nine months is the longest that anyone would live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.'94
Turns out the scrappy Supreme had had a fairly successful surgery for the ailment and a decent prognosis. Bunning was obliged to issue a non-apology apology that even misspelled the judge'92s name. Since now members of his own party have started seeking out candidates for his seat in next year'92s elections, Ruth Ginsburg might well last longer in Washington than Jim Bunning.
When they make the movie of his life perhaps it'92ll be entitled Scumdog Millionaire.
Lest you think that all senators have taken leave of their senses, consider one whose comments went almost unreported last week. Richard Lugar dropped a minority draft report from the Foreign Relations Committee and with it the bombshell conclusion that '93we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our present policy'94 toward Cuba.
That'92s right, a ranking Republican admitted that the decades-long embargo of Cuba hasn'92t brought democracy to the island nation. What'92s more, Lugar said, '93It is clear that the recent leadership changes have created an opportunity for the United States to reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion, and open hostility.'94
Imagine, after 50 years, that diplomatic relations with a Castro-led Cuba could be on the verge of normalization. News like that probably deserves sensationalization.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org