A Slice of the First World
The other night my sister was complaining that her “regular” on-street parking space had been been taken by another neighbor. Our niece laughed and said, “Oh, what a first world problem.” I’d never heard that phrase before and loved it.
The vast majority of our daily headaches tend to be problems that exist primarily in a relatively affluent and safe Western culture: problems with the cable company, a car that is recalled, an exasperatingly crowded parking lot at the mall during the holidays, hassles with an insurance company, poor service at a restaurant. Granted there are more serious problems that transcend cultures, but the every-day irritations for most Americans who live above the poverty line are just that — irritations that are attendant to life in an industrialized country.
When I read a recent blog by our temporary colleague, Mansoor Ali Khan, who is here from Pakistan on a journalist exchange program, I was reminded of the trivial (and somewhat pampered) nature of many of our “problems.” Compared to living in a country where a drone attack can kill one’s entire family, losing one’s iPhone or getting a red-light ticket for running an intersection seems beyond trivial.
If you watch Chicago Tonight, you may have noticed that Carol, Eddie, Elizabeth and I wear earpieces on the air. These earpieces are small, inconspicuous (we hope) and are wired to the control room. The control room is next to the studio. In the control room are the hidden puppeteers who make the show work, including the show’s director (who literally calls the shots) and the producers who can whisper in the ear of the host.
And what do they whisper? Well, the other night I had a guest on the air whose first name was “Kerry” but I kept calling her “Kelly.” The host whisperer quickly corrected me. But beyond correcting minor slip-ups, these producers also have worked with the host on the substance of the segment–what issues are most important, how to phrase questions, pitfalls to avoid, etc. Many are the times when a producer will say something like, “Remember, she said the exact opposite the last time she ran” or, “Get to the abortion question” when we’re running out of time.
These producers help keep the hosts on track, help us stay aware of the time and are the unseen journalists who help elevate the segment. You might think about them the next time you notice that little piece of plastic in my ear!
Last night, I moderated a candidate forum between Republican Congressman Bob Dold and his Democratic challenger, Brad Schneider, for the 10th district seat. We happened to have a live studio audience of WTTW trustees who had just wrapped up a long-scheduled meeting at the station.
Before the show began, I asked the audience how many had watched all the presidential and vice-presidential debates; not surprisingly, most had. And then one of the trustees asked me if I thought a debate moderator should correct a candidate who was misstating a fact. This was, apparently, a reference to the Candy Crowley brouhaha when she corrected Mitt Romney about President Obama’s use of the word “terrorism” the day after the attack on the embassy in Libya.
I’m in the Crowley camp and here’s why. A moderator’s main responsibility is to the audience — this includes facilitating a debate that is fair, content-driven and allows the candidates to reveal their positions and temperament to help voters make an informed decision. If the moderator is aware that a candidate is flat-wrong about something of significance, then I believe the moderator owes it to the public to keep the discussion honest in an even-handed way. I think Crowley’s comment — though it was heavily criticized in some quarters — may have caused both candidates to fact-check themselves (wishful thinking, maybe!) for the remainder of that encounter. If candidates know the moderator has a compass, they may be less apt to steer off course.
Let’s hear it for Jim, Martha, Candy and Bob for moderating this campaign season’s presidential and vice-presidential debates. Some moderators got higher marks than others (and some got flat-out criticism) but I can tell you this: it isn’t just an honor to moderate a debate at that level, and a professional achievement, it is a huge responsibility and a jumbo-sized stress cocktail!
Moderators have to know and research the issues almost as well as the candidates themselves, they have to listen like crazy during the exchanges, and then they have to decide how to react to something that comes up — all while 60 million people are watching on television. Being at the helm of a high-profile encounter can be the most draining on-the-job experience a journalist can have. What you’re seeing on TV is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is going on in the moderator’s head.
I know, nobody forced any of the moderators to accept the assignment (although Jim Lehrer has publicly said he feels a sense of duty to moderate, if asked,) but I think all of this year’s national moderators deserve the public’s thanks for their role in giving voters a sense of who the candidates are and what kind of leaders they would make. Bravo.
Tonight, fans of high-stakes competition have three choices of television viewing: the NFL game between the Bears and the Lions, the final game of the National League championship between Saint Louis and San Francisco, and the presidential debate between President Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney in Boca Raton. Random thoughts:
- “Saint” and “San” mean the same thing, ergo if God is a baseball fan, He (or She) is probably not picking favorites.
- Be glad the Bears are playing in Chicago; Detroit police recently told visitors to enter Detroit “at their own risk.”
- “Boca Raton” means “rat’s mouth.”
And yes, the Bears need the win to keep their momentum going, and yes, tonight’s baseball game determines who gets to play in the World Series, but make no mistake: the real blood sport will be in rat’s mouth. Nothing else comes even close.
It goes without saying that the benefits of travel can be huge: the stimulation of seeing new things, meeting new people and learning about other cultures. But it comes at a cost — not just in terms of money and time — but in terms of the attendant little stresses that come with travel such as getting up in the wee hours to catch a plane or other minor (and sometimes not so minor!) logistical anxieties.
So it’s pretty great when you can get some of the benefits of travel without ever having to leave home. That’s the case right now at Chicago Tonight with our visiting Pakistani journalist, Mansoor Ali Khan. Mansoor is an anchor with GEO News in Karachi — think of CNN — and is with us for the month of October as part of a journalism exchange program. He’s giving us some fresh insights into our own culture by contrasting it with his.
Some examples: he and his co-workers in Pakistan give each other hearty handshakes every morning when they first see each other (can you imagine doing that every morning here?) And the concept of personal space can be different, too (he felt motivated to move a chair in my office a little further away from its original spot right next to my desk when he sat in it.) We laughed about it. And the food portions here can be enormous compared to Pakistan. He says, in Pakistan his wife will order a “single” order of rice and he typically orders a “double” order. When he orders a dish with rice in it here, it’s the equivalent of a “quadruple!”
And there are more sobering differences, too: being a journalist in a country that’s dealing with instability, a threat from terrorists and religious extremists can call for personal resources that many of us in this country might simply not have. Check out Mansoor’s blog on our website for more insights from a smart, observant visitor with a keen eye for detail.