10 takeaways from the ReNEWS conversation, Journalism & History

The night before the ReNEWS conversation on Journalism & History, I was struggling to get the show’s opening script points into a story that would clarify the relevance of the topic and its vital connection to today.

True story here. I picked up a book from my coffee table — something I had received a few days earlier as the next online book club choice and therefore not something I knew much about yet — and read the first page. I wasn’t thinking it would be an inspiration; I just wanted to distract myself for a while.

The opening page featured a quote from artist Louise Bourgeois:

You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture.

Already I was intrigued. Our ReNEWS conversation was intended to look at memory — specifically, history — and at the way such memory was recorded, not recorded and, in some cases, erased.

I began to read. I learned that the word archive comes from the ancient Greek arkheion, meaning “the house of the ruler”. This etymology captured my attention. House suggests something consciously and mindfully constructed; something physical, something in which life dwells. And the word ruler added an incredibly important element: power, authority, official.

Funny how the universe conspires in these strange ways, isn’t it? That was the key that I’d been searching for and that had been eluding me for days.

The official architecture of the archive contains the history of civilization, the history of culture, the history of community, the history of peoples. Like a house of some kind, the archive is constructed layer by layer. Repairs get made; rooms get added on. Some parts of the house get torn down. Some rooms are never even considered.

And there — light bulb overhead — is the framework, the one we would explore the next day in ReNEWS’ second conversation.

Whose stories are known? And by whom are they known and recorded?

Whose stories are left out? Whose voices are silenced or are so marginalized as to never be considered?

Who rewrites/revises the archive? What’s their involvement here? Are they complicit in the story? Are they afraid of being seen to be justifying something or condoning it?

What is the role of the media in continuing to maintain a truthful archive, no matter how difficult or unflattering that truth (or that version of the truth) might be?

Are the “woke Twitter mobs” rewriting our history?

Is there such a thing as ideological capture in newsrooms? How do we know if it’s happening? What do we do if it is?

Where are the newsroom blindspots that influence and affect the archive?

I went to sleep. I was ready for the conversation.

So, first a little intro to our set-up and how the conversation is structured.

Every ReNEWS conversation features three guests (except, of course, sometimes there will be four…!) and three members of a unique ReNEWS feature called our Reflection Panel, senior editorial executives from various perspectives and different parts of the world.

Our guests are selected because they each bring a world view on a divisive socio-cultural topic that is different and, in some cases, in direct contrast to another guest’s view. We want a spectrum of views. And we always aim for what I’ll call “primary sources” — people who speak their truths, not try to imagine someone else’s truth. We won’t, for example, ask a man to speak for women.

ReNEWS isn’t a debate. We are a conversation. That distinction is vital. No one is crowned a winner after an audience vote decides that their position represents “the best idea”.

There will never be a single conclusive path forward emerging from any ReNEWS conversation. There will always be space for listening and for considering another point of view as well as a wide range of potential approaches for dealing with the issue in newsrooms and in coverage.

In our second conversation, on Journalism & History, our three guests were:

Salima Koroma, director and executive producer of the upcoming documentary “Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street”, commemorating the 100th anniversary of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, and one of the least-known;

Douglas K. Murray, British author of two bestselling books, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity & Islam and The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, and Associate Editor of The Spectator magazine in the UK;

Asanda Ngoasheng, a South African media academic and expert in the decolonization of academic curriculum, as well as a frequent speaker on the intersection of race, gender and power.

Our editorial panel comprised

Canada’s Jonathan Kay, Author and Managing Editor for Quillette;

Christoph Lanz, former editor in chief and director of TV for Deutsche Welle;

Inga Thordar, CNN’s Executive Editor for Digital International.

At the heart of the 90-minute conversation was narrative duality: the narrative of grievance (communalized trauma) versus the state of collective guilt driven by the belief in original sin (“Because I am born white I am therefore born racist”).

The conversation went on for 90 minutes. Early on, in the first 15 minutes, really, I made the call (and our production team heartily agreed) that we’d jettison most of the planned discussion and just let this one fly on its own. It was electric.

As we dug down, we got to some of the most difficult and most important questions:

Are we living in a world that is as racist today as it has ever been in the past?

Are Black and other non-white voices truly being listened to? Why or why not?

Can we move forward to address social justice crises of today if social justice crises from “the house of the ruler” (our histories) remain unaddressed and ‘whitewashed’?

It could have gone on for three hours, frankly. There was considerable disagreement on some of the statements and beliefs, and that is what elevated this conversation, in my opinion, from a tentative, genteel and academic chat about the need to do better, to a frank, candid and constructive conversation about systemic racism, malign intent, and what several guests saw as the straight-line connection from archival silence to social injustice.

Some of the key points made during the discussion included the following. You may agree or disagree, and such is the nature of conversation!

  1. We have moved from one type of totalizing narrative (the narrative of European progress) to another type of totalizing narrative (the narrative of suffering and exploitation). These swings exacerbate polarization and deepen division.
  2. The history of the entire world sits in a virtual archive that is more huge and more comprehensive than we can imagine. Yet, it is woefully incomplete and, for many people, it reflects a historically pervasive viewpoint and voice.
  3. An archive comprises and preserves the world’s stories. But, if stories are left out (or edited out), there is archival silence. Black stories, women’s stories and stories of non-white people are excluded in far larger numbers. When what is left out is traumatic to those involved — for example, the effect on Black citizens of the Jim Crow laws in the United States, the horrors of the Holocaust and the persistent racism experienced by the world’s Jews, the suppressed and ignored story of the Windrush generation in the UK, the hideous scars from apartheid in South Africa — the failure to even acknowledge the suffering and pain increases the suffering and pain.
  4. There is a belief, pronounced among conservative-leaning audiences, that society has developed an obsession with race, gender, sex and sexuality, and that these forms of identity are becoming the only filters through which stories are seen or told. To those who believe this is indeed an obsession, this is a key driver in wokeism.
  5. Activism is believed to be replacing the role of journalism in an increasing number of traditional media outlets.
  6. In many ways, history is an art rather than a science. Yes, there are key dates and facts and figures, but history itself is in a constant state of being reviewed and revised. It is imperative that journalists focus attention on systemic injustices and the inequalities that result rather than the endless back-and-forth of the politics of left vs. right.
  7. At the same time, facts matter. Deeply. As John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers, once famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
  8. Language is vital. On all sides of the spectrum (left, center, right), there are words and phrases that are being “normalized” by media’s use, misuse and overuse.
  9. Newsrooms express commitment to diversity. Most of our guests believe the conviction is real, but wonder whether there is enough understanding of the true meaning of diversity. It is not merely an exercise in hiring Black and/or female journalists.
  10. Diversity must be defined more broadly to include people with disabilities, people who attended schools other than Oxford or Harvard, people who identify as right of center, people who identify as left of center, people with strongly held religious beliefs, people who do not believe in God and identify as atheists. And much, much more.

Our panel concluded that editors need to create opportunities for voices to be truly heard. Opinions need to be solicited and considered. Newsrooms need to consciously investigate and explore different ways of seeing the world and its stories. And be open to reflecting those differences in coverage, not as an exercise in occasionally slipping in the lone, conservative viewpoint, but as a way of reflecting the broader range that is actually the population of viewers, listeners and readers.

The reactions to the conversation were extraordinarily positive. And overwhelmingly so, as well. Most people who wrote to me or to a fellow team member on a personal basis expressed respect for being brave enough to take on the real issues. Here are some anonymous quotes:

Holy shit! That was amazing. I’m going to be processing this for a long time.”

“Exceptional conversation bravo. Really managed to get beyond the surface and the stereotypes.”

I’ve watched from the first minute to the end, and it was just amazing.”

“Very unusual to see such a genuine range of opinions, including the conservative one. And, just as important, to see that the conservative voice is given the same opportunity and respect as the liberal and progressive voices. That’s a rarity!”

BLOODY AMAZING — god that was an incredible conversation.”

At one point, I was actually uncomfortable. I think that may have been the first time I’ve heard Black people and white people really get into what is behind the whole social justice movement, and yet do so without screaming at each other or, even more common, revert to comfortable platitudes.”

Sure, it’s rewarding to hear how meaningful the conversation was to people. That’s the aim, of course. To open up conversation that is difficult and divisive can be intimidating. As the moderator, I get nervous, too, believe me.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s not about accolades or YouTube comments or tweets. It’s about belief. When my partners and I decided to launch ReNEWS, we were determined on this single point: that we will “go for it”. That we will always seek to open that archive and ask of ourselves and of our guests and audiences, What’s not here? Who’s not here? Who’s telling the story? Is there another reliable witness to corroborate or dispute?

Yesterday, in a class on the works of the late, great Black American playwright August Wilson, the young woman leading the discussion talked about what made Wilson such a brilliant playwright and cultural historian, especially for the Black experience in America.

She said, He found a way to tell Black stories and to make them not only particular but also universal. He had an uncanny gift for listening, just listening. And he would take what he heard and turn those particular, individual words and voices into a collective experience. I paraphrase, but that’s the idea.

I continue to consider archives. About what history we preserve and about how we might capture stories from across the spectrum of experience. The important political figures get in there, sure. But the truth is, everyone has a story. From the famous to the unknown, those people whose lives will never make the pages of The New York Times.

And somewhere, somehow, the dream is that all of those stories will be reflected in a larger, truer, more inclusive archive.

I think about an adaptation of an old African proverb. When a person dies, we lose a library.

Amy Selwyn is a co-founding partner and the moderator for ReNEWS. She is also a writer, a photographer, a storyteller and a dog mom.

Please be sure to join the ReNEWS community — no obligation, no cost — at https://www.joinrenews.com

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