December 21, 2002

Purity & Redemption

I have a friend who has a brother-in-law who is a successful movie producer (this is how it is in California). One day this friend and I were tossing about an idea we wanted to pitch to his brother-in-law. Conditioned by years of reducing stories to one-sentence budget lines for news meetings, I had condensed the plot to a sentence I thought was a real grabber. I read it aloud.

"That will never work," said my friend, who had more Hollywood experience than I, which was zero. "Just tell him it's about purity and redemption."

There is a lesson here for newspapers. The greatest of movies are about values and ideas and the story exists only as a vehicle to convey those values to the viewer.

Perceptive movie critics understand this. For example, A.O. Scott of the New York Times suggests that certain core values shape director Martin Scorcese's new film, "Gangs of New York." He writes:

" Mr. Scorsese has functioned as a kind of romantic visual anthropologist, fascinated by tribal lore and language, by half-acknowledged codes of honor and retribution and by the boundaries between loyalty and vengeance, between courtesy and violence, that underlie a given social order."

Unfortunately, most newspaper editors and reporters, driven by the demands of deadlines or shackled by the chains of "good-enough" expectations, don't share Scott's acuity when it comes to interpreting their communities. The forest of larger ideas hides beneath the hastily felled timber of the daily paper.

Chris Hedges of the New York Times offers an excellent illustration of how a newspaper writer can weave the big idea into a compelling story, in this case a series of emotional, human stories centered on the Ten Commandments.

Hedges' series, Thou Shalt Not, "tell the stories of ordinary people who struggle with the directions of ancient laws in the modern world, reject them or simply cope with them."

Today's story, the seventh in the series, focuses on a young man born from an adulterous affair then abandoned by his father to grow up in a series of abusive foster homes. Entitled "For Child of an Affair, the Bitterness Lingers," the story contains this graph:

"While for some adultery no longer carries the collective moral weight it once did, Mr. Vargas wears the broken commandment like a heavy chain around his neck. He says it has done nothing short of devastating his life."

Innocence lost. Revenge. Redemption.

Yes, the New York Times does have 1,200 newsroom employees. Certainly it has an advantage over other newspapers. But only one person reported and wrote Thou Shalt Not.

Chris Hedges is not a religion writer, but the Religion Newswriters Association has 240 members, many of whom presumably have the talent and will to do such a project. Do they work in newsroom cultures that encourage ideas such as exploring the role of the Ten Commandments in modern life? How many editors would hear out such a pitch or encourage the writer to develop it instead of replying, What do you have for Sunday?

Audacity is undervalued in newsrooms, but it is the audacious thought that leads to the bigger idea.

A former colleague of mine once received the following message from a reporter angling for a trip to the South Pacific:

"We have to talk about Baba Free John, kidnapped playmates, anal sex, cigarette burns on luscious backsides, drug orgies for God, and the young gay millionaires who are being recruited to join his cult. Sounds like a good Easter story."

It wasn't the Ten Commandments, but it was close enough.

 Thou Shalt Not Times series on the Ten Commandments
 For Child of an Affair, the Bitterness Lingers latest in the series
 Online interview with Chris Hedges
 Religion Newswriters Association
 The Ten Commandments

Posted by Tim Porter at December 21, 2002 01:20 PM