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Goy of our Dreams/ Media's Search for Meaning

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By Michael Miner

Goy of Our Dreams

One of the more unusual commentaries on Princess Diana--I've read dozens--was written by Joseph Aaron, editor of the Chicago Jewish News. Aaron got to thinking about "how sorely lacking Jewish life is in role models, in leaders, in figures like Diana, Princess of Wales." He couldn't think of a single Jewish figure "whom Judaism would mourn, whom Judaism would miss in the way the world mourns, misses Diana. It makes me sad to what an extent Jewish life has become bureaucratized, politicized and obsessivized. Our organizations...are run by people who understand budgets and the latest management techniques, know marketing and computers" but lack the "Diana touch."

Aaron went on, "Our rabbis, too, have been lacking. How many rabbis today can you say are beloved, how many talk about things that really touch our hearts, relate to our lives. All too often the sermons are about the peace process or Farrakhan or anti-Semitism or the Jews of Belarus. All fine and good and nourishing for the head.

"But what we need most of all is nourishing of the spirit. Not yet more information about why one kind of glatt kosher meat is better than another kind of glatt kosher meat, why one denomination wants a mikvah so it doesn't have to use the mikvah of another denomination."

A Jewish Princess Diana, Aaron seemed to think, wouldn't have spent much time worrying about mikvahs. "Diana was heimish," he explained, meaning homespun, unpretentious. "She was a mensch."

Media's Searching for Meaning

As someone not generally "into celebrities," Joseph Aaron surprised himself by watching TV for hours and weeping when Diana was killed. Obviously he wasn't alone. Perfunctory journalism gives itself away; the rivers of ink that flowed last week washed from writers compelled to write. They wrote even though, in the fashion of the blind men groping an elephant, they had little idea what they were writing about. To be human was to feel a need to say something when Diana died. If you called yourself a columnist you needed to say it in print.

The moment was for the ages. The irresistible if all-but-unmeetable challenge was to compose something about it that wouldn't be forgotten in ten minutes.

At its core the story wasn't about the paparazzi, the cult of celebrity, or the British royal family, though these were the subjects around which pundits clustered. It was about death. Once again death had proved its power to shock and astonish. But what is there new to say about that? For centuries magnificent words have been thrown at death with the impact of those flowers mourners flung at the passing hearse. So last week, journalism's finest set out to place the death of the princess in some other, presumably larger, context. As if.

By my careless survey, the following writers took up the challenge in the Sun-Times and Tribune alone: Richard Roeper, Dennis Byrne, Sue Ontiveros, Stephen Glover, Cindy Richards, W.F. Deedes, Hillary Rodham Clinton, George Will, Barbara Amiel, Leslie Baldacci, Neil Steinberg, Eric Zorn, Clarence Page, Stephen Chapman, John Kass, Charles Madigan, Ray Moseley, Linda Chavez, Bonnie Miller Rubin, Steve Kloehn, Bob Greene, Simon Jenkins, Hanke Gratteau, Joan Frank, Steve Johnson, and Charles Krauthammer. The New York Times offered Anthony Lewis, Maureen Dowd, A.N. Wilson, William Safire, Walter Goodman, Russell Baker, A.M. Rosenthal, Martin London, Adam Phillips, Alessandra Stanley, and Janna Malumud Smith. Some regulars, others guest contributors, these were the opiners--to be distinguished from all the other journalists contributing more-or-less straight reportage and from the anonymous authors of the editorials.

Many wrote wonderfully, with the passion of sojourners who might have seen everything but nothing exactly like this. Charles Madigan dug into the meaning of it all three separate times, providing the Tribune with a page-one "essay on celebrity" the Monday after Diana died, a meditation Thursday on "the dramatic change in the way we measure significance," and another "essay" last Sunday contrasting the lives of Diana and Mother Teresa. "Which life was more glamorous?" he asked. "Which life was more difficult? Which woman carries some sense of purpose to the grave?"

If only we could carry more with us to the grave than the clothes we wear. But never mind. Madigan didn't mention him by name, but he was asking the questions that would have been asked by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. The death of the princess blunted the deaths of Mother Teresa and Georg Solti; it totally obscured Frankl's death in Vienna at the age of 92.

Frankl had based his practice on the observation that the primal human hunger is not for sex or power, but for purpose. "If a person has found the meaning sought for, he is prepared to suffer, to offer sacrifices, even, if need be, to give his life for the sake of it," Frankl wrote in one of his later books, The Unheard Cry for Meaning. "Contrariwise, if there is no meaning he is inclined to take his life, and he is prepared to do so even if all his needs, to all appearances, have been satisfied."

Frankl suggested that the so-called midlife crisis might more precisely be understood as a "crisis of meaning." Nevertheless, the crisis is especially acute among today's young, who've escaped the "struggle for survival" but can't answer the question, "survival for what?" Frankl wrote, "Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for."

No one dramatized herself more vividly as a person of certain means and uncertain meaning than the once-suicidal Princess of Wales, and no family seemed more certain of its meaning than the one she married into. That was the nub of the drama, and last week we were inundated with millions of words of exegesis.

The image of paparazzi baying at the heels of the famous is a distressing one to proper journalists because the difference is more of degree than kind. We all use and are used, and we know it; we all take part in the hunt. Most pundits accused the paparazzi of practicing a lower form of journalism, but to their credit none said they weren't journalists. Of course they are.

But journalists will be as noble as they can, and whenever meaning is the order of the day the press is Johnny-on-the-spot. Pundits rushing pell-mell into print with their views on the unthinkable weren't merely imposing meaning on calamity. It was the meaning of their own lives they were asserting.

Knight-Ridder's Bid for Redemption

Knight-Ridder has decided to do the right thing. Whatever the likelihood that the giant chain will sell its Gary newspaper to the paper's employees, or even seriously consider their bid, it will at least let them submit one.

I mentioned last week in Hot Type that when Knight-Ridder announced in June that it was putting the Post-Tribune up for auction, the employees immediately began discussing an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) bid for the paper. They'd offered $40 million in 1989, the last time the paper was on the market (Knight-Ridder eventually took it off), so they knew the road they'd be traveling. And at first the company was encouraging.

But Knight-Ridder quickly changed its tune. Without giving a reason, the chain's broker refused to turn over the Post-Tribune bid prospectus, the financial numbers any buyer would have to study to prepare an intelligent offer. When the staff appealed, Knight-Ridder pretended that it was barely a party to the auction, that the broker was calling the shots. Employees hoping to bid for a Knight-Ridder paper in Long Beach, California, had been blown off the same way.

The Gary employees responded by asking the governor of Indiana, the mayor of Gary, and other local public officials to intercede. They also contacted major stockholders. The governor's office not only sent a letter to Knight-Ridder's CEO but passed along a copy to the CEO of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly, who sits on Knight-Ridder's board.

"The crack opened up on Wednesday," says Joe Conn, the reporter who organized the Gary employees. A corporate official called David Shapiro, the employees' ESOP adviser in New York, and dropped the pretense that the brokers had been acting on their own in Gary and Long Beach. "We have strategic buyers in both markets, and we didn't think you could put together a credible bid," Conn says Shapiro was told.

Shapiro protested that it made no sense not to let the staff even try. The next day Shapiro found himself talking to Knight-Ridder's chief financial officer; if the employees agreed to meet the September 17 deadline that other prospects had already been working against for weeks, Shapiro could have the prospectus.

"That means we must do in 10 days what the other, multi-million dollar corporations have been given 50 days to do," Conn told the staff in a "Tribune Employee Buyout Bulletin." But he rejoiced at the opportunity. "Thanks be to a great and powerful God for making the seemingly impossible possible."

This week I asked Polk Laffoon, Knight-Ridder's vice president for corporate relations, what caused his company's change of heart. "What caused the change was simply a review of the situation and a feeling on the part of management here that these were good people and there was really no reason not to show them the books, and some confidence that their confidentiality will be protected. Whoever's handling the books, [Shapiro] is somebody we feel we can trust."

Why, I wondered, did you ever feel that the Post-Tribune staff, all of them Knight-Ridder employees, weren't good people?

"Please don't twist what I said," Laffoon said. "I didn't give you an answer where I thought the inverse would be held against me."

News Bites

The death of Princess Diana was announced shortly before midnight Chicago time on Saturday night of the Labor Day weekend--certainly a bad hour for either Chicago paper to marshal its resources. The Tribune delivered to my door the next morning carried a page-one story that jumped to page 15. The Sun-Times package took up the first four pages of the paper.

"I don't know," said Howard Tyner, the Tribune's editor. "Maybe they have an easier time remaking than we do."

"This is the argument that stalkerazzi always make--that they're just giving the people what they want. Maybe so, but that logic is specious and amoral. The crack dealer, the supplier of automatic weapons on the black market, the vendor of child pornography--they make the same argument. But maybe it's unfair for me to lump the paparazzi in with the above-mentioned people. My apologies to the crack dealers."--Richard Roeper, Sun-Times, September 1.

"The journalistic excuse for peddling second-hand smut is that it's 'what people want.' Of course, that's also the argument for the sale of cigarettes and crack cocaine. (I apologize in advance for the insult to sellers of crack cocaine.)"--Aaron Freeman, Chicago Tribune's Digital City Chicago, September 3.

Earl Charles Spencer's compelling eulogy to his sister might not have sounded so persuasive if the two young princes whose futures concerned him so deeply were princesses. Could he have dared to suggest that his family knew better how to raise daughters than the royals did? His family turned Diana over to Prince Charles at age 20 undereducated, unsure of herself, and unprepared to play any role but that of an older man's trophy wife.

Diana was introduced to the world as a sweet, shallow thing, and never entirely overcame that assumption. Death ratified her as an adult by focusing attention on her accomplishments, and no moment could have counted more in her favor than Earl Spencer's tribute. He was bold, angry, eloquent, and razor sharp. He'd been raised as a man, of course, and sent to Eton and Oxford. She hadn't. Still, she was his sister.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): collage by Rasa Sutkus.

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