It is an extraordinary time and, as history demonstrates, times of unpredictability and flux are when tried and true forms for human expression are broken and expanded. Think Brahms, who ribboned his melodies across bar lines, shaking off the constraints of measured beats, helping to move out of the classical and into the romantic periods of musical expressionism. There’s the painter Agnes Martin, who carried her compulsive grid making over decades into pure illuminations of the ineffable — representations of “beauty, innocence, happiness,” blurring the line between abstract expressionism and minimalism. Or NPR’s first program director Bill Siemering, who created a new magazine form he dubbed All Things Considered in 1971, opening the way for headline news of national concern — a violent turn in a Vietnam war protest — to sit alongside uniquely defining American moments happening, for example, in a barber’s chair in Ames, Iowa.
Transcendent makers are as much defining of their time as they are idiosyncratic in their craft. They also have the power to give permission and courage to others to push further and test limits.
Journalism is expanding, its rules being broken and remade. The sacred tenants of truth, balance, and objectivity are considered by many on all points of the spectrum to be relative, subject to interpretation. We have a stimulating flux between technological ingenuity opening space for new social and digital narrative forms and, simultaneously, a push beyond limitations of physical space, with a frontier of viable new platforms opening where people are living each day. This physical, “street” platform is rich with opportunity to change craft and change the story.
We now understand the 2016 presidential election to be a catalyst. I recently asked Tom Webster of Edison Research what he learned from their polling. He described a nation that is not so much white or black, or blue or red, but comprised of homogeneous pockets: many, many pods of one-minded people; where, for example, “not a single vote was cast for Mitt Romney in the last election.” Trump’s team orchestrated with precision a plan to target and be the voice for those groups who, it seems apparent, feel sidelined, who exist outside the bounds of identity politics. This understanding is helpful for those of us now determined to reflect a more inclusive American story.
Change is in the hands of organizations to some degree, but real and enduring change begins in the making of story and in the collective work of individuals who are adapting their craft across formats, technologies, and platforms. How to best direct and support the fantastic talent diaspora underway to involve ordinary people in new ways? Here are a few guideposts:
The power of media is the power of reflecting human experience. If enlightenment is what we seek to deliver, it’s helpful to recognize the paradox of these times: that we seek to enlighten not only to those living in those discreet pods Edison points out, but to those people already familiar with our work, enlightening them to worlds just up the road. In this way, through new platforms we open in physical space, and guided by our deepest human instincts of fairness, balance, objectivity, with the courage to love, we make story that pulls from one side, to the other, bringing disparate and divided parts of our communities together into an integrated whole. To tie. To bind. Indeed to heal.