During the recent wall-to-wall coverage of the death and burial of Michael Jackson, I was busy saying goodbye to someone closer to home. While he wasn't famous on the level of a superstar, quietly, over the course of the past several decades, he made a significant contribution to the world of news and information and the even larger world of ideas.
I'll pay tribute to him in just a moment, but first allow me to offer some observations related to why his passing matters beyond the loss to his loved ones.
Too often we in the blogosphere and elsewhere mention talk show hosts only when we are complaining or condemning the antics of the most reckless or just plain silly among us. One of the usual suspects says something stupid or offensive and here we go again with the latest round of self-indulgent stupidity elevated to the level of national "news." More insults. More shooting from the hip and lip. More mind numbing nonsense. More noise.
From Crossfire in the past to Hardball in the present, it too often seems as if partisan bickering is the only format mainstream media offers for discussions of politics and public policy. Lots of heat is the main course, with an all too rare side dish of light. But if you scratch below the bombastic mainstream surface, there's another world of media that will actually add value to your life. One of the leading practitioners of that type of intelligent journalism recently passed from this earth, and I think it's appropriate that we take a time out from all of the empty angry shouting to mark the moment.
George Liston Seay was known as "the voice" of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Last week, a group consisting of family, friends, and colleagues gathered to pay tribute to the man and his legacy. As host and executive producer of the center's radio and television series dialogue, he brought maturity, insight, intellect, and civility to mediums too often lacking in all of the above. Time spent with George Seay and dialogue was time well spent. You were always guaranteed to learn something, to gain knowledge. His interviews were thoughtful and thorough. His preparation was second to none. I can't imagine that another human being ever read more books cover to cover than did he.
George was a practitioner of the increasingly lost art of conversation. He found his fellow humans, of all political persuasions and nationalities, endlessly fascinating and used his program to learn about them while taking us along for the ride. Speaking about his craft, he observed that, "Conversation is an art that we have largely neglected in modern society... it's one of the best aspects of life." A modest man, his focus was always completely on his interview subjects and the issues and events being discussed. If he had a single self-promotional bone in his body, he hid it well. The stark contrast between his approach and what passes as "interviewing" in the world of cable news couldn't be more distinct.
On trips to New York City, George loved to spend hours listening to interviews preserved in the archives of The Paley Center (formerly the Museum of Radio and Television). If you are inclined to do the same, be sure to include some vintage episodes of dialogue among your selections since the program is part of the Paley Center's collection. The Wilson Center's website also contains an archive of the program and some episodes are available free of charge on iTunes.
George was planning to retire next year after recording his 1000th program. It was not to be. He leaves the host's chair about 40 episodes short of that mark. But the dialogue program and its host, George Liston Seay, never fell short of the mark when it came to respecting the intelligence of its audience. George never came up short in the areas of accuracy, fairness, and dignity.
Which brings me back to Michael Jackson. As I listened to the eulogies offered to mark George's passing, I thought of my favorite Jackson tune, Man in the Mirror.
The song's chorus says:
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself then make a change
We constantly complain about the quality of the media we consume while ignoring healthier alternatives. If we want better media, we need to look in the mirror, grab the remote, and make a change. So the next time you're tempted to commit some of your valuable life force to the endless bickering and posturing that poses as news in the 24/7 spin cycle, you may want to consider the alternatives. And if you do, pause for a moment and think of George Liston Seay. We need more like him, although there will never be another quite like him.
In the interest of full disclosure I must mention that, beginning in the fall, I will assume the hosting duties for the dialogue program. At the conclusion of George's memorial service, having listened to the many moving testimonials about the man and his work, my wife whispered in my ear, "I don't know if you should be honored or scared." I'd be a fool if my reaction didn't include a lot of one (honored) and a little of the other (scared). I look forward to honoring George's legacy by maintaining the high standards he set. I have my work cut out for me.
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