Seeking hope in uncertain times

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust chronicler, talks to students at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., in March 2011.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust chronicler, talks to students at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., in March 2011. Los Angeles Times file

Even after an eight-year absence, it was a familiar audience. This was my sixth appearance as a speaker at the Downtown Rotary Club.

What message could I possibly share on this Election Day with a group of men and women who are or have been deeply involved in the moving parts of our city and our area?

As I thought about that question, I remembered something our granddaughter, Melitta, a freshman at Cal Poly, wrote in middle school for her English class.

The assignment was to write of a change in her life, and I was particularly struck by her opening paragraph.

“My dog Kelsey died when I was only five years old,” she wrote. “It was an event that changed me. Until she died, I didn’t really know that death existed. I lived in a world filled with flowers and gumdrops and cotton candy –nothing ever went wrong.”

At any age, change is relentless.

The business of journalism that I have been a part of for decades hasn’t always been filled with flowers and gumdrops and cotton candy. But it has never experienced the mighty winds of change it is experiencing now.

There were no aggregators who prospered by publishing the good works of others or our search for which multimedia model might be successful. Cable television and radio talk shows have flooded the market with voices of men and women who embrace division and exclusion rather than trust and inclusion.

The historic role of the gatekeeper disappeared. The gates may still stand, but there are no fences and the cows are running wild. Everyone with an electronic device can pretend to be a journalist. Too many of them spew bitter tweets anonymously.

More than ever, we need to listen to the words of a wonderful journalist, the late Walter Lippman. In 1931, Lippman, speaking about the decline of the kind of journalism practiced then by William Randolph Hearst, said, “When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic. When everything is highly spiced, nothing after a while has much flavor. When everything is new and startling, the human mind just ceases to be startled.”

The questions for the news media at large are clear: Can we seriously focus on the critical polarization in our country and what is needed to heal the wounds? Can we help put the genie of intolerance back into the bottle?

As a nation after this divisive campaign, there are institutions to build and rebuild, deep anger and fear to deal with, racial divisions to erase, and solutions to seek in areas such as health care and education, climate change and criminal justice, the expanding breach between those who have and those who don’t, and much more.

I am an optimist. Together we can spark a revolution of serving and caring and provide hope for those in need.

We all need hope.

Several years ago I heard the late Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, author, journalist, teacher, rabbi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a witness to compassion and to hope.

In a long answer to a question about what exercises he employed to create hope in himself and for others, Dr. Wiesel closed with these words:

“In general, as long as I can preserve a moment of humanity in my life, you as well, that is the beginning of hope. But hope is never something that closes me in. Hope is what opens me up.

“In other words, like the conductor when he opens himself up to the violin and then to the cello. Hope must imply the other. I can be hopeful because of you, not because of me. That is what we should learn.”

My hope is that we all will learn that lesson, especially in the uncertain days ahead. Perhaps then we can start the much-needed process of reconciliation.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news at The McClatchy Company.