Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tilting at Windmills

"There's not the least thing can be said or done, but people will talk and find fault."

Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote de la Mancha

I'm not privy to the conversations that take place in the halls of power in Washington so I have no idea what motivated Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to launch his filibuster against funding Obamacare.

I've heard a lot of smug and snide comments today about Cruz's use of Dr. Seuss and Star Wars in his filibuster. And I'll admit that I don't know everything that he said in his speech. I've seen video clips, and I've read articles about it, but I didn't sit and watch the whole thing — which ended after about 21 hours.

But, as long as he was quoting things, he should have quoted Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote de la Mancha," which is, of course, about a retired nobleman who set out on a quest to revive chivalry.

Then, as now, I guess that's a lost cause, and I couldn't help thinking, as I watched him speak — for I did watch some parts of it as it was happening — that he must have known this was a lost cause, too. Even those who supported him seemed to know it. How could he not know it?

And that, in turn, made me think of something Jimmy Stewart said in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" when he was delivering his own filibuster. It was about lost causes and how they were the only causes worth fighting for, worth dying for.

When a person is motivated by principle, everything else is secondary.

Don Quixote was known for tilting at windmills — admittedly a futile gesture. In his own way, I guess Cruz was tilting against a system he didn't like — and perhaps serving notice that this fight isn't finished yet — but he acknowledged defeat in this particular battle, voting for cloture when it was clear no one in the Senate would side with him.

Predictably, the New York Times said Cruz was an "embarrassment." GQ called him a "Wacko Bird." He was greeted with scorn and derision from others in the media who, just a few months ago, were praising the filibuster of another Texan, Wendy Davis, in the state legislature.

(To the credit of the Times, I must point out that what it published was clearly labeled opinion. And GQ doesn't pretend to be a legitimate deliverer of news. But, like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, GQ and other publications that are not news deliverers are mistaken for such by the uninformed.)

The difference between the two filibusters was the fact that the media liked Davis' politics and didn't like Cruz's — and because news writing these days means opinion to too many writers and does not mean objective reporting to enough.

A free press means a free nation — but a press that panders to power is no longer free, and neither is the nation it pretends to serve.

When I was starting out as a reporter, I remember conducting an interview with a local political candidate who made some statements that sounded pretty farfetched to me. Upon returning to the newsroom, I asked the managing editor about those statements. How should I write about them? I asked.

"I think they speak for themselves," he replied. "You should be like a fly on the wall. The reader shouldn't even know you're there."

That has been my yardstick as a writer throughout my professional life.

I understand the roles that opinion and news writing play in journalism, and it distresses me that far too many journalists — and I see this in my journalism students, too — cannot or will not differentiate between the two.

When I write my blogs, they are largely my opinion. I don't pretend to be writing news stories. Mostly, I comment on the news.

But there is an obvious bias in far too much of what is labeled news these days. It is evident in the media's different responses to the two filibusters.

I don't know. Maybe, like Cruz, I am tilting at windmills when I seek change in the news culture. Maybe it is a lost cause.

Like the implementation of Obamacare. Whether one thinks it will be a great thing or a disaster, it was passed by Congress and signed into law. One may have issues with how it was passed and signed. One may have issues with whether the money charged for non–compliance is really a tax or a fine. One may or may not believe the law will deliver what was promised.

Most of those who oppose it now seem resigned to waiting and seeing what happens. But a few are not content to do that.

A few insist on fighting for the lost cause.

On tilting at windmills.

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