Remembering my mother, Marguerite Brendlinger Robinson

It was snowing when my mother died. It had snowed all day Friday, Jan. 22, and into Saturday. Roads in Raleigh, where she was, and Greensboro, where I was, were impassable. I stayed at home, talking with my two sisters and my brother, making arrangements, calling her friends and her sisters, and doing the things that you do when your mother dies. What else was I going to do?

It’s funny what you remember about your mother when she dies. I don’t remember much about her as her when I was growing up. She was Mom, doing what I figured mothers did. I was focused on ME.

I also didn’t think much about her last month alive. She came down with bronchitis before Christmas and was unable to come to our house for our extended family’s holiday celebration. It occurs to me only now that that was the first Christmas in MY LIFE that I didn’t spend with her.  She went into the hospital with bronchitis and, while she was released after a week, well, she may as well not have been.

She had told us for years that she was ready to join my father, who died the day that President Obama was elected in 2008. (We like to say that he lived long enough to live in an America that would have the decency to elect an African American to the highest office in the land.) A few years later, she began to tell us she was ready to die. She wasn’t, of course; she had grandchildren to dote over. But in her way, she was preparing us for the time in which death would come. She was providing us comfort in advance.

What I think about now — remember, really — is what we talked about in her final years. She told me about her time growing up in Norristown, Pa., with four sisters, all daughters of an upper-middle-class small business owner. About her feeling the moral obligation to join the WAVES because her father was the chairman of the Selective Service Board in Norristown. He was sending men to serve in World War II, and he had no sons. She decided she needed to step up. (That’s the kind of woman she was her entire life.) She was proud of her service in Washington, D.C., helping to keep records. She talked about being called before a Congressional committee asking about communications involving the attack on Pearl Harbor.

MB Robinson WAVE

She loved to tell the story of her father who wanted to expand into pesticides. About how he took a suitcase packed full of cockroaches on a train to a demonstration, opened the suitcase…and it was empty. No more pesticide business.

As we grew up, Dad usually traveled Monday through Thursday. Mom was our rock. They both gave us freedom to be kids, to make mistakes and to learn from them, to find our own way. We were normal kids, I suppose, coming of age in the 60s and 70s. Except that mom was a psychologist who worked for Wake County’s Division of Social Services, and she routinely brought home harrowing stories of abused and neglected children. I remember learning that life was unfair, that we had an abundance of blessings, and that we needed to give back in multiples of kindness. I think that was her point.

My sister Louise sent me a copy of a newsletter that announced a volunteer award she won in 1989. I shake my head now at all she did so much for the poor and needy that I wasn’t aware of. It reminded me of a constant at our house as I grew up. Every Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, as we gathered in celebration around our dinner table, we were always joined by one or two or four extra people, people my mother had invited because they needed to be part of a family.

In that announcement was a photo of my mother with Ferrel Guillory, with whom I worked at the News & Observer in the 1980’s and now work with at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. Ferrel wrote:

“I can’t overstate how much I admired her, and welcomed the opportunity to work with her during the years I spent on the board of Pan Lutheran Ministries. Just as she became a Protestant on the Catholic Social Ministries board,  I became the Catholic on the Lutheran board, which is how I got to know your Mom and Dad. Remind me to tell you how we ‘conspired’’ to put the issue of homelessness on the Raleigh city agenda during the mid- to late-80s.

“The Pan Lutheran board ended its meetings by singing the Doxology: ‘Praise God from whom as blessings flow…’ I sing it to myself to reflect from time to time. I’m singing it to myself now in memory of Margy, a real blessing to our community. ”

That note, noting on Mom’s service, her religious commitment and her importance to what is important, touched me deeply. Mom was disappointed that none of her children shared her devotion to the church. But I think she knew that what we learned from her was what the church taught: kindness and virtue and goodness.

Every time I spoke to Mom, she told me she was proud of me. I realize now that I’ve spent all of my life trying to live up to that.

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Sunday sampler

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Lots of Carolina Panthers stories on the front pages today. Here’s a sampling from Wilmington about a couple going to the game; Winston-Salem about WFU research that was used by a Super Bowl advertiser; Greensboro with a column on how the Panthers got here; Raleigh with a story on Bobby Bell who used to play football; Fayetteville with a profile on Jerry Richardson; and, of course, Charlotte, which is all Panthers all the time.

But, as I often say, there are other good stories on N.C. newspaper front pages.

Charlotte: The Observer has a good piece on how Charlotteans like to open their wallets for visiting presidential candidates. “For Democrats and Republicans running for president, the Queen City has become an ATM. Instead of speaking at rallies and appearing in TV ads, like they are in South Carolina, the candidates coming to Charlotte headline fundraisers that are closed to the public and the press.”

Gaston: The Gazette performs a real public service by showing how much money Rep. Patrick McHenry has raised and, more important, where it’s come from. Fortunately, there are a lot of facts. Unfortunately, there is no commentary to put the facts into any context.

Raleigh: The News & Observer provides a fascinating look at how lawyers and the State Bar operates — or at least, operated — in one case. It’s too complicated for me to describe well here. Go read it.

Online social conversations moving; always have, always will

Last September, I wrote a post titled “Where is the social media conversation going” because I noticed that some of my college students weren’t using Facebook and Twitter much. At the time, I wondered if those social media giants were becoming places to broadcast, but not to interact. The pressure to engage with humor or intelligence or snark was simply too high, students said. They seemed to be moving to Snapchat and YikYak.

This week I read a post by Felicity Duncan, an assistant professor of Digital Communication and Social Media at Cabrini College, that observed similar behavior among her undergrad students. She refined the point. Her post is titled: “So long social media: the kids are opting out of the online public square.”

“Today, however, the newest data increasingly support the idea that young people are actually transitioning out of using what we might term broadcast social media – like Facebook and Twitter – and switching instead to using narrowcast tools – like Messenger or Snapchat. Instead of posting generic and sanitized updates for all to see, they are sharing their transient goofy selfies and blow-by-blow descriptions of class with only their closest friends.”

But there’s more.

Yesterday, Pew Research released survey results that showed that 35 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said that social media is the most helpful place to get information about the presidential election. Probably not Snapchat.

PJ_2016.02.04_election-news_0-02And today, Edelman Digital posted an opinion piece that gives five reasons you should pay attention to Snapchat, and this is the most important point and it isn’t even among the five: “People are using Snapchat in 2016 like they were using Facebook in 2005.”

Duncan lists several reasons that this trend to more private social behavior is troubling. They don’t disturb me. I regret that young people may miss out on the opportunity to use the public social networks — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — to build personal and professional networks. Networks help in finding jobs, gathering information and refining ideas. I have innumerable examples where connections of people I know only through Twitter and Facebook have helped me.

Where does all this leave us?

Change is constant. Audiences are moving, always moving. People have choices and they are using them, many of them.

The field is wide open to create the next new Snapchat or Twitter or YikYak or Facebook. I think “the kids,” as Duncan calls them, who are leaving FB and Twitter — and there are plenty still there — will find another public forum soon enough. As Ed Cone taught me at least 10 years ago: a head start on the Internet lasts about five minutes.

Sunday sampler

Panthers, Panthers, everywhere. Really, though, if you want good Panthers coverage, go to the Charlotte Observer, because you won’t find it here. But you will find:

Fayetteville: Imagine your brother or son or father killed by law enforcement officers in November. And beyond the original comment that he was killed as part of an investigation, you’ve heard nothing from law enforcement. No details on what happened. No comment positive or negative. Nothing in 11 weeks. A painful, frustrating, heart-breaking wait. The Observer tells just such a story. By the way, the man killed was white.

Raleigh: Given the anti-government fervor seemingly sweeping the country, there is great cause to worry about the future of the $2 billion referendum on the ballot in March. Even as it is promoted by Gov. McCrory, some state GOP legislators oppose it. The News & Observer explains what the money would go for and examines the politics around it.

Wilmington: As we look at refugees from other continents with fear, it’s worth looking at it from their viewpoints. The Star News does. “While she speaks some English, Tuyishime, like most recently arrived refugees, has to learn everything from how to count money, pay rent, and shop for groceries to how to use a washing machine, navigate bus schedules and prepare for a job interview. Everything — even brooms and mops — is new. For Tuyishime, all she has known is life in a refugee camp. When she was nearly 2 years old, her family left the DRC for a camp in Rwanda.”

 

A “new” form of journalism: Connecting the dots transparently

As I read through Jay Rosen’s piece on the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it occurred to me that I was reading a new kind of investigative journalism. No, that’s not right. It isn’t new so much as it isn’t employed often, certainly not by mainstream news organizations. I wish it were.

Take a few moments to read Jay’s article. Look at the structure. He identifies gaping holes in a story of public interest in Nevada and possibly beyond. He summarizes what is public knowledge and lists 11 questions that are hanging out there like the chads in Florida. (He provides links to every piece of information, of course.) Then he writes:

“In this portion of my post, I am deliberately engaging in speculation (based on what’s already been published) and offering you my opinion about what went down— again, based on what has already been reported. Just to be crystal clear about it: I am not saying I know what transpired. Rather, in the absence of any decent explanation from GateHouse executives or Michael Schroeder I believe we are entitled to hypothesize and fill in the gaps with explanations that are at least plausible.

“Working with limited knowledge — because the people who know won’t talk — I may well guess wrong on some points. My remedy for this: whenever possible link to what has been reported in the press or publicly stated by key players and let readers devise explanations alternative to the ones I have offered. Don’t buy my hypotheses? Come up with your own! That’s what comment sections are for.”

It’s a beautifully transparent explanation to readers what he is doing and what he’s asking. He doesn’t know, and the people who do know won’t say. But smart people can and do hypothesize. That’s what he’s about to do. And he’s clear about one thing: “I may well be wrong on some points.”

In effect, he’s given us his mind map. He is showing his work. How many times have you seen news reporters do that?

Then he states his hypotheses and provides the explanations for each. It’s clear, understandable and, to me, sensible. Then the news ecosystem starts to work: people read his post, they comment, he gets more information and he updates what is known. Rinse, repeat. Things get clearer. For instance, compare the updates to his post and the story in the New York Times this morning. You decide which has more insight into the appointment of the Review-Journal’s new publisher.

Now, imagine if the reporters for your favorite news organization used this technique when appropriate. There are plenty of news stories in every community that public figures want to obscure or manipulate. It’s the nature the beast. Good reporters usually know more than they publish or broadcast. Some information they can’t prove. Sometimes they have pieces of information but choose to wait to have the entire puzzle assembled. Sometimes they are constrained by only having “one side” often because people won’t talk to them.

But good reporters who’ve been on a beat for a while become authorities on their subject area. They can often “connect the dots,” as Jay calls it. But I’ve rarely seen such a transparent explanation to news readers and viewers of what is known, what is not known and how it all could — repeat, could — fit together.

Journalists who want to serve readers and viewers will follow Jay’s lead more often. You can cut through the haze of public double-talk and zigzagging. You can differentiate your work from everything else out there. There will be justifiable criticism that this puts opinion on the news pages. (In truth, opinion is already there in the way of columnists, sportswriters and, often, political writers.) (I don’t know what the broadcast equivalent is.) In any case, my thought is to get over it. The news model is changing. Lead the change.

Ask yourself, would this method give citizens “information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments”?

My answer is yes.

Sunday sampler

Snow, snow, snow. But still…

Charlotte: Pretty much everyone, liberals and conservatives, thinks that mental illness should be a block for someone wanting to buy a gun. Then there’s the NRA…and many N.C. House members. “Those kinds of concerns led the N.C. House last year to consider whether to repeal the law providing for sheriffs to conduct a background check on pistol purchase applicants, rather than leaving it to gun dealers to check the FBI’s nationwide databases. The House left the law largely intact, but limited sheriffs to looking at records over the past five years.” Thank you, Charlotte Observer and News & Observer for putting the spotlight on obstacles to gun control.

Durham: You can pretty much count on chaos and bad policy when politicians start messing around with education. It’s happening again with the UNC system. The Herald Sun examines comments by a powerful state House member talking about what college institutions high school students should attend. “Students in the ‘last quartile’ the system’s 16 universities admit each year have ‘a terrible graduation rate’ and would be better off financially if they’re forced to complete an associate’s degree before being allowed into a four-year institution, said state Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union.”

Greensboro: What a creepy case. Mom sells her underage daughters for sex, and four creeps are charged with 51 sex crimes involving the girls. The News & Record takes a shot at explaining how one of the men could flee and, when caught, come up with $1 million in cash to post bond. Interestingly, the paper can’t seem to find anyone in Rockingham County who claims to know this guy who has certainly been around the block. It’s fascinating reading.

Winston-Salem: The N.C. voting rights trial is on! The Journal brings us back up to speed on the trial that starts on Monday.

Sunday sampler

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Charlotte: It’s political season in the Carolinas, and the presidential candidates will start visiting. I look upon that with a sense of horror because of the sentiments reflected in stories like this one in the Observer. “We need to get rid of everybody, wipe the slate clean and start over,” said Wendy McDaniel, a 48-year-old medical technician. “Our country’s becoming a joke.” My experience is that many people who say this kind of thing can’t elaborate beyond the Donald Trump sort of talking points. I hope reporters will start pressing them to explain themselves.

The Observer also has a fine story about Cam Newton, a man who finds joy in success. Best of all, he both spreads the joy and isn’t put off because you don’t like his dance or some killjoy like Julius Peppers doesn’t like whatever.

Winston-Salem: Before I get too far away from politics, the Journal lets us know that some N.C. candidates in the U.S. Senate race don’t think that Sen. Richard Burr is conservative enough. Given that Burr nearly always votes the way the GOP leadership wants him to,  this accusation should cause voters to smile. Unfortunately, it won’t because, as the Observer story points out, voters are angry and acting illogically.

Fayetteville: For a couple of years now, newspapers have written about a rising heroin problem. The Observer continues its coverage of drug addiction among those in the military. “Studies show that soldiers and veterans use opioid painkillers – essentially the chemical equivalent of heroin – far more frequently than civilians because their military training and combat lead to far more injuries.” Sad and, unfortunately, often overlooked.

Greensboro: Say you owned a plot of land, but you had no access to it. That is, it’s surrounded by other people’s properties. “Because of that, Jeffries hasn’t seen the land in decades. ‘It’s like a mist out there somewhere,’ he said. To Guilford County tax collectors, however, the land is very real, and every year they send Jeffries a bill for about $500.” The News & Record has a compelling story about a man who has fought for years to get access to his own land and not gotten much in return.

 

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: When I was a reporter in Raleigh, I interviewed the Rev. Billy Graham two or three times and each time was impressed with his intelligence, reasonableness and sensitivity. I haven’t met his son, Franklin Graham, but based on his public pronouncements, he’s not his father. The Observer’s Tim Funk takes an insightful look at Graham’s 50-state tour of “prayer rallies on the steps of each state capitol and calling on conservative evangelicals – ‘born-again’ Christians who tend to care most about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – to go to the polls and vote for ‘godly leaders.’”

Fayetteville: A good man without a gun stopped a bad man with a gun. The Fayetteville Observer reports on a man with a semi-automatic assault rifle entering a church service on New Year’s Eve and being talked down by the minister. Scary. Good story, though.

Sunday sampler

For the first time in nearly four years of doing the Sunday Sampler, I didn’t find any N.C. front page newspaper story particularly interesting or enterprising last week. Not so today. Many newspaper front pages had year-in-review stories, which are good end of the year pieces because they can be prepared ahead of time, require little actual reporting and fill space. But there is some enterprise that interests me on N.C.’s front pages today.

Charlotte: The recession of 2009 is still being felt in household income, poverty rates, unemployment rates and home values, the Observer reports. “Nationally, the median household income fell by 6.6 percent to $53,482. In Mecklenburg County, income fell by nearly 8 percent and now stands at an estimated $56,472.”

Greensboro: The News & Record has a similar economy story, but with a different take: While the state’s city’s are doing well, rural areas are not.  “About 300,000 more people are working in North Carolina this year than at the beginning of 2007. But the state’s major cities have added far more than that number of jobs while the state’s rural counties and even the major metropolitan cities in the Triad have struggled to keep pace with their sister cities. A dramatically changing economy in the state, corporate practices that erode wages and a common type of fraud that cheats workers out of wages and the state out of tax dollars are all part of the problem.”

Fayetteville: It’s been eight years since the state of N.C. put a prisoner to death. Who knew it had been so long? In a good piece, the Observer takes a look at the current state of the death penalty and includes some surprises to me. No one was sentenced to death in 2015. In 2000, 18 people were. “The trend gives hope to death penalty opponents that North Carolina will give up on capital punishment before it resumes executing people, or that the U.S. Supreme Court will end it before another execution is carried out here. Meanwhile, death penalty supporters continue to try to cut what some call a Gordian knot of litigation that has indefinitely postponed the executions of North Carolina’s 148 condemned inmates.”

 

Cursing and the Carolina Way

Three minutes into UNC’s game with UCLA Saturday, Coach Roy Williams benched forward Brice Johnson. He did more than bench him, though, he sent Johnson to the end of the bench, down with the trainers, got into Johnson’s face and berated him for a good 10 seconds or so while the game continued.

Roy Williams, to the left of the ball, is bent over in Brice Johnson's face.

Roy Williams, to the left of the ball, is bent over in Brice Johnson’s face.

And there Johnson sat for eight minutes — eight game minutes — while UCLA seemingly toyed with the Tar Heels. This wasn’t any routine benching. Johnson is one of the team’s two big men starters. And the other, Kennedy Meeks, was out with a bum knee. The second-string forward and center were in the game as UCLA built its lead to double-digits.

What offense had Johnson committed?

He cussed.

“I kind of used some bad language and Coach was really pissed-off at me about it,” Johnson said. “Coach told me, he said, ‘Hey, you go sit at the end of the bench, [and] if you say anything else you can go to the locker room.”

Williams said after the game that he didn’t appreciate the language, and “we’re not going to be like that.”

Let’s pause for a moment to take this in. A team with its eye on the national championship, a team that had just lost its second game in the young season to Texas, and a team that was getting beat all over the court by UCLA loses one of its best players because he cussed?

How many coaches have you seen on the sidelines let out a string of profanities? Answer: More than you can count. YouTube has the videos.

Williams isn’t immune. Back in 2003 when he was the coach of Kansas and was asked about the UNC coaching vacancy, he famously said, “I don’t give a shit about North Carolina right now.” (His team had just lost to Syracuse in the title game.)

Maybe Williams was simply trying yet another way to motivate a player who sometimes loses focus. After all, Johnson responded to the benching by scoring 27 points as the Heels beat UCLA relatively easily.

But I think Williams is continuing the lesson of his mentor Dean Smith in teaching yet another facet of “the Carolina Way.” From Smith’s book: “Former player Scott Williams on Coach Smith: Winning was very important at Carolina, and there was much pressure to win, but Coach cared more about our getting a sound education and turning into good citizens than he did about winning.”

I don’t want to make too big of a deal about this. After all, it is prudish in this day and age. But I like the lesson and the example.