This past year in America will be remembered for its many inglorious lows. The rich became obscenely richer, with the 500 wealthiest folks in the U.S. gaining $1 trillion.
The boldest and most powerful liars forced us all to swallow their “alternative facts,” and the “leader of the free world” devolved geopolitical discourse into back-and-forth name calling as a perverse sort of nuclear-deterrence strategy.
In short, the biggest and ugliest bullies have taken over our nation’s intellectual playground. In a country founded on the freedom-of-speech ideal, these dark forces now are telling people what to say and how to say it. Disagree and receive an atomic wedgie (or worse). This is not a concerted effort to promote a marketplace of ideas but instead a hostile takeover, intent on aggressively cornering a market.
So what are you going to do about it? Instead of making unrealistic goals, like the folly of most ambitious New Year’s resolutions, I suggest instead to focus on something proximate, meaningful and tangibly achievable.
In this Reader Rep column, for example, I plan to write more about openness and transparency throughout society in Hawaii, especially in local media companies and in local media coverage.
Why? During the roughly two years I’ve been writing this column for Civil Beat, I can trace much of the societal dysfunction that I perceive here to the general opaqueness within which business — government and otherwise — gets done. Often, that involves one quid pro quo leading to another, creating a network of cronyism.
Where does that all stop? With you, I hope. Now.
I think if people really knew what was happening (or easily could know) — throughout our state, and at all levels of government and industry — they would demand changes, and those would be significant. Those changes would be for the better of us all, including fostering more affordable housing, stronger public schools and higher efficiency as well as effectiveness in government agencies, leading to better businesses and nonprofit organizations, too.
Right now, the people who know what’s really happening in Hawaii are the people in power, and the system has been built around sustaining that power for those people (and hiding information from the rest of us). So I look to local leaders eager to open up and distribute their power, rather than hoard it, as a sign of their competence and goodwill.
That’s my opinion on the matter, not Civil Beat’s, and during the past few months a couple of anonymous commenters have questioned my position as the “reader rep,” since I don’t appear to share Civil Beat’s opinions on all matters. Civil Beat, in turn, has added a disclaimer to the end of this column, saying as much.
I think if people really knew what was happening (or easily could know) — throughout our state, and at all levels of government and industry — they would demand changes.
To refresh, Reader Rep began as a way to turn local news coverage onto itself and to raise community-wide standards through attention and critique of journalism, both here and afar. I was picked for this position because of my background in both the news industry and in news-literacy education, working as an associate professor, teaching journalism, at the University of Hawaii. As a newcomer to the state, I also approached the media ecology here without preconceived notions or close ties to its personalities.
Before we started, Editor Patti Epler had pitched the “Reader Rep” name to me as one of dozens of possibilities, including News Junkie, User Friendly, Fit to Print, Paper Tiger, Media Maze, Fourth Estate, Fifth Estate, and even “Exclusive!,” which became a different sort of column later about broadcast news labeling.
I liked the way Reader Rep signaled my focus on the concerns of you, the reader, and would keep me attentive to the reader perspective. I always have wanted this column to primarily serve readers, as just that, everyday readers, not to defensively protect the status quo of the journalism industry.
Civil Beat promised editorial independence, and to this point, it has been relatively hands-off on the editing. It only has killed one column that I wrote, about the overt sexism of the “weather girl” on local television news. I even tried to repurpose some of that commentary for another column, but it was clipped from there, too. I still don’t fully understand why, but otherwise, Civil Beat has allowed me to generally write what I want to write, with only minor editing.
One other debate I regularly have with Civil Beat is about whether we should name reader commenters, as they name themselves, and give them credit for starting column ideas, or making good suggestions that end up in columns, which I think is fundamental to the reader-oriented approach I take. I always put those references into my drafts, no matter how absurd the anonymized nickname might be (but those typically get excised from the end product).
The most complex part of our publishing relationship clearly is when I choose to write a column that criticizes Civil Beat and points out flaws in work done by Civil Beat staff, including editors. In these cases, an editor could be editing a column criticizing work by that person or a colleague. That’s a tough spot to be in, for everyone, and we’ve had some challenging conversations.
But again, I want to emphasize that I think Civil Beat and its editors always have been fair and open to me. I don’t always agree with the final decision, but I support the integrity of the process. I could be wrong, about weather girls and any number of other things, but I am getting the opportunity in this column to make my arguments and to see if they withstand public scrutiny.
All of that said, the frequency of Reader Rep columns will be halved this year, from every week to every other week, as Civil Beat adjusts some of its lineup. It is my opportunity and my chance to do something in support of democracy and the journalistic ideology. I plan to make the most of it, as the column matures and unfolds.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.