January 16th, 2010 21:06 EST
One Man's Vision and Tenacity Tackles a Gaping Press Failing
We fret these days about whether America has run short of ideas and intellectual rigor. We probably ought to worry about whether our financial oligarchy is interested in any ideas other than those that promise short-term profit. A great civilization can`t be built upon such a constraint.
John Tinker of Fayette, Missouri, a college town, has worked on a shrimp boat, driven a city bus and been an engineer for a radio station and a big telecommunications company. He doesn`t make the news, but he is all about the news, because he is developing a living, growing encyclopedia of current events.
This isn`t news aggregation. It isn`t anything like Wikipedia. It`s much more ingenious and sophisticated than either of them or, say, Facebook. It`s a way to stay on top of developments in many fields, relying not merely on the usual outlets but on blogs, websites and other sources.
This is how I became aware of www.schema-root.org, John`s brainchild. I noticed that that schema.root was indexing my blog posts and was curious about it. I liked the accessibility. About the same time I became aware of schema.root I installed the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus in the dock of my Apple laptop and was musing about how wonderful it would have been as a college student if I`d had such a ready reference instead of taking notes and then researching them in a library.
It occurred to me that the web is an immense, almost cosmic, knowledge machine. Like any university, it imposes its own rules and conventions on the student. But what are the differences between web knowledge and knowledge acquired at a university? Few web sites are vetted the way we rely on The New York Times, say, to vet its report. Or The Encyclopedia Britannica. So the seeker on the web must be wary of misinformation, disinformation and pure baloney. We would not expect that squalid trio at a university. So there, I thought, is an insurmountable difference.
But then I remembered that the purpose of a good education is not so much to educate us as to teach us how to educate ourselves, because a good education never ends-something our politicians and punditocracy have overlooked. I remembered that Grayson Kirk, then president of Columbia University, told my freshman class that he hoped that four years later we would have some small idea of how much we don`t know. Nobody else ever said anything half so valuable to me.
Once I had pondered all this I admired schema-root all the more. It is an invaluable part of the curriculum of that great knowledge machine we call the web.
I think I can lay claim to some authority when I commend schema-root. I `ve been a reporter and editor all my adult life, and now I`m kind of a self-appointed and often cranky media critic on this blog, trying frequently to underscore the foibles and hypocrisies of a Fourth Estate upon which the republic depends-a Fourth Estate which, in my opinion, isn`t doing the job because it was hobbled by monied interests as Congress.
One of the sins of the press is to let the big picture fall off the table and break into pieces on the floor. In its scurry to find the next anxiety-heightening thing to report, the press habitually loses sight of the big picture, which tends to polarize the electorate, bending like a reed in the wind by the next alarmist tidbit or the next screed. The press, like society at large, treats everything as a horse race. It is always asking who wins, who loses. This is an aspect of hyper-commercialism that creates a hyper-vigilant and hyper-ventilating population suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Accordingly, a project like schema-root, which helps seekers put issues into perspective and hold the big picture together, is invaluable. It does exactly what the press is unwilling to do. The media`s sop to the need for holding the big picture together is the op-ed page or occasional news analyses, think pieces and essays. But as commercial censorship tightens its grip on the newsroom and as media owners lose their will to pay for adequate coverage of events, the big picture crumbles.
Who today even remembers why we`re in Iraq? What news organization has followed up on the Pentagon`s flabbergasting admission that it can`t account for taxpayer money it has spent in Iraq? But there are facets of these questions and their answers scattered across the worldwide web-and schema-root helps the inquirer find them and put them together.
Here is what John Tinker himself says about his brainchild:
"My site began as an attempt to provide web presence for what I considered to be underrepresented topics. Then I started filling in the `schema.` One thing led to another. The visible part is the `tip of the iceberg.` I am working to provide public access to the 30+ million headlines/snippets that have collected (thousands each day) in the database over the past several years. I will be trying to facilitate a sense of continuity and wholeness to current events."
Probably a prescient news organization would approach Tinker about buying schema-root and enhancing its abilities. Such a news organization could at least claim to be interested in the big picture.
Tinker lives with his wife and their five-year-old son in an old public-school building. His idealism is a family tradition. While he was growing up in Des Moines his family was active in the civil rights and peace movements. He himself was a plaintiff in the 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker vs. Des Moines, which became the key precedent for student First Amendment rights.
He has been working on this encyclopedia of current events for more than eight years. It now contains more 14,000 topics, collecting headline news. When I asked him to tell me more about his undertaking, he replied that a term I had used in an essay caught his attention. It was "predator class." Here is what he wrote:
"When I was much younger I lived for a while in the woods, in a truck, and thought about life and the state of the world a lot. This was in the mid-1970s. I kept coming back to the point of view that there was much predation within our species. At the time I looked up the word `predation` in the O.E.D. [Oxford English Dictionary] and found an early quote, which spoke directly to my own thought. In the original spelling: `On erthe ther is no thing so vnsemyng As a kynge to be in predacion, Or by compulsion to be taking.` - c. 1460, G. Ashby
"So when I saw your use of `predator class,` I knew we had at least one point of view in common. I made a page [http://schema-root.org/people/social_classes/predators/] (putting `predator class` and `social predators` in the same bucket-close enough, although I do recognize a distinction)."
This kind of painstaking thoughtfulness is lacking in the Fourth Estate`s obsession with creating foofaraw and hullabaloo. Hullabaloo is not conducive to knowledge. Without knowledge the republic falls. That is why when CNN and Fox beat the drums and jazz up the report it is anti-informative, excitatory and divisive. Information should speak for itself. We know why they beat the drums: to enhance themselves in the ratings war (there`s that pesky horse-race culture again) and to cover up the fact that they`re not spending the money necessary to give us a thoughtful report.
In the tension between anything-goes avarice and the moral responsibility of the press to the republic, the republic is losing. And nobody is even raising the question of what that moral responsibility is, just as the press failed to raise the question of what Wall Street`s moral responsibility is to the country that protects its interests with its sweat and blood.
In the country of the blind Mammon is king.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.