Archive - June, 2009

The Coup in Honduras

Expressing concern for fractures in Honduran society between the poor and the powerful, a group of faith leaders in the U.S. condemned the coup that deposed President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales and called for a return to constitutional law.

The President, still in his pajamas, was forced from his home and transported to Costa Rica by military officers in a move to prevent a non-binding referendum to repeal a constitutional term limit for the presidency. Honduran presidents are allowed only one four year term.

The faith leaders’ letter says U.S. law requires a suspension of military aid in the event of a coup and they call on the Obama Administration to halt such aid until constitutional rule has been restored.

A resolution passed today by the UN General Assembly called on world leaders to recognize only Zelaya. The World Bank paused lending to the country and said it is working with the Organization of American States as it seeks to restore Honduras’ "democratic charter."

The coup was a shock to modern governance in Central America because it hearkens back to an era when military takeovers were engineered by political elites, corporate executives in the U.S. and elements of the U.S. government. The phrase "banana republic," coined by the novelist O. Henry, came to describe governments such as Honduras and Guatemala, ruled by  a military junta under the influence of a small power elite dependent on agricultural exports such as bananas.

Despite gains under modern democratic government, Honduras remains a society of extreme wealth and grave poverty. President Zelaya has gained popular support by appealing to  activists and advocates for the poor.

The faith leaders say they are concerned about "the safety of social and political activists, including trade union leaders, heads of organizations of small farmers and the rural poor, indigenous leaders, opposition politicians, and others.  Many leaders, fearing arrest, are in hiding.  Many media outlets were shuttered yesterday.  We call on Honduran security forces to respect human rights and basic freedoms for all citizens."

While pentecostalism has been growing rapidly across the southern hemisphere, so too, has a United Methodist community. The United Methodists have addressed the need for housing, education and social development in addition to traditional expressions of a faith community such as worship and pastoral care.

The New Journalism

As the street demonstrations turned ever more violent and deadly in Iran, I watched CNN in an airport lounge in Grand Junction, Colorado. I also read the news online on a laptop and kept Twitter on a cellphone.

I noticed CNN repeating Tweets shortly after they appeared on Twitter. It was startling, amazing and a real concern. As I read the Tweets I wondered if I was getting first-hand information, or fanciful concoctions. I had no way of assessing from my seat in the airport what was reliable and what was disinformation.

Nor did I have a clue about those posting, one way I assess reliability on this public forum.

Therein lies the problem with citizen journalism and it came to the fore in unmistakable fashion during the Iranian protests. Not only were those of us outside left to judge credibility for ourselves, the clamp down on journalists by the Iranian authorities meant we had decreasing ability to compare the online reports with journalists on the scene.

Left to our devices to accept or reject the Tweets, we were awash in information but I kept asking myself, is it reliable? This is the conundrum we face now with an empowered digital citizenry, the blessing and curse of instant media. First reports of major events are now as likely to come from a cellphone account as from a reporter for a news organization.

As the NY Times reports this morning, what happened in the Iranian protests revealed a new methodology for traditional journalism, a willingness by news organizations to pass along citizen information with limited verification, and in some instances with no verification.

As the article notes, it’s a new form of journalism in which we all become part of the gathering and distribution of the story. It raises several significant questions that will take time to sort out, I think. Which elements are truly significant and which are of only passing importance? How many perspectives can we absorb before we become overloaded and lose perspective altogether? What is not seen that contributes to the story but goes unreported because it’s not visible? What is the veracity of the various reports we receive and how do we sort out disinformation?

Journalism has attempted to deal with these questions among many others by developing a set of procedures and practices that strive to assure accuracy, reliability and context. Despite well-known criticism and some breaches in these procedures, journalists have reached for a level of dependability and trust that has given us quality story-telling and a sense that we could rely on the reporting. And even then we sometimes vociferously disagree with the way a given story is told.

With citizen journalism, we’ve entered a new day and my guess is that it will take us time and experience to decide upon how we will check veracity, dependability and context under these new circumstances. My experience on that day led me to multiple sources. I became engaged at a different level than my engagement with traditional print media. It required a different kind of media literacy and my unspoken but very significant cautionary suspension of belief. I took the information in but with held my belief in its accuracy until I could do more searching, watching and comparing.

That places more responsibility on me as I receive information from many sources. I need greater backgrounding in order to assess claims and make judgments, and I need to become my own fact checker as I suspend belief in all that comes to me from so many different perspectives.

The protests in Iran marked a turning point, not only for Iranian citizens who face repression and violence, but also for those on the outside trying to understand. And in both cases it’s too early to know the outcome. Internal conditions in Iran remain uncertain. The influence of citizen journalism cannot be assessed just yet.

But we do know this: the new journalism is launched.

Southern Naming Comes Back to Haunt

It’s coming back to haunt me. Being named ‘”southern,” I was given two names, both of which are abbreviations of full names. I lived with the sing-song “Larry Don” until I was old enough to eliminate one name, and move far enough away so that no one knew me by my two nicknames.

I wasn’t the best of children. I learned early on that when an adult called out my two names in a high pitch emphasizing a hard “D,” it meant I was in trouble. Likely as not whatever I’d done they’d found out. On the other hand, if they slid past the “y” and into a soft, staccato “D,” it was almost melodic. I liked that best.

Part of my lack of enthusiasm about the two names was that I wasn’t alone. There were Larry Genes, Gary Dons and Jerry Dons galore in my neck of the woods. Seemed like a lack of creativity to me.

I had a friend in West Texas whose parents showed real imagination. Herman Caesar Augustus. Now that’s a name with destiny. It carries expectation.

I thought about Lawrence. But it seemed presumptuous. To be a Lawrence you need a yacht and boat shoes. We lived in the dusty high plains of West Texas. It didn’t work.

All of this reflecting was inspired by the TSA. The Transportation Safety Administration says our boarding passes must be identical to our photo IDs.. They want to know me by my full name. Well, actually they don’t care so long as it’s consistent. But my driver’s license is Larry Don and my passport says Larry D. Hate that.

Either way, I’m caught. And it’s beyond protest.

I wonder what Herman Caesar Augustus is doing these days?


Twitter Transparency

We live in the age of Twitter transparency. Yesterday staff of United Methodist Communications and the United Methodist Publishing House met to discuss collaborating on the Rethink Church media and hospitality campaign. It was a good meeting. Lots of enthusiasm and good ideas.

When I returned to the office someone asked me about the meeting and I said it was a good discussion. Another person said, “Yes, so I heard.” As it takes only five minutes to drive from UMPH to UMCom, I asked if she had talked with someone there. “No,” she said, “someone was twittering from the meeting.”

Twitter is an instant megaphone. The moment the words are out of your mouth they can be repeated to the world. This is happening in millions of ways now. It’s disconcerting to some and liberating to others.

Twitter brings its own form of accountability. It’s a tool for transparency. When a speaker’s comments can be sent to the world instantly, accuracy and credibility are on line. Every phrase can be literally parsed and communicated to the world.

Anyone with a cellphone and a Twitter account is now a broadcaster and a content producer. Words of presenters have always been important. But now under the scrutiny of immediate communication, they can be sent around the world before the speaker can take a breath and begin a new sentence. There is power in this, and danger.

It seems to me that it places even greater responsibility on a speaker to be clear, coherent and careful. A mis-spoken ad lib can haunt me forever now. In the past, it may have taken on a life of its own within a small group of listeners. Now the world can mull it over.

And more serious implications can be drawn as well. In an age of great division and controversy, words can incite or motivate in a more immediate way, with good or harmful consequences.

The age of transparency is upon us and with transparency comes accountability.