Asking The Question, “Why?”

August 29th, 2012 · 1 Comment · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

“Don’t look back,” said Satchel Paige. “Something might be gaining on you.”

Me, I try not to look back for fear of getting stuck in the past, but obituaries make that very difficult.

Neil Armstrong’s passing awakened memories of helping produce ABC-TV News coverage of Apollo 11, like recruiting Duke Ellington and author James Dickey to celebrate the event. When famed film critic Judith Crist died earlier this month at 90, I recalled that we crossed paths as theater reviewers for competing Big Apple newspapers.

Aubrey Dunn’s passing at 84, though, brought back a moment we shared with John Ehrlichman, one that forced me to rethink what I was doing in the news business. I’ll tell the story below to lead into a positive appreciation of the Albuquerque Journal – yes, positive – and a suggestion for the editors.

It must have been October 1980. As news director of KGGM-TV, Channel 13, I was determined to make an election night splash. So I recruited a panel of knowledgeable, visible commentators, including then State Senator Dunn, a conservative Democrat.

About the same time, a staff reporter suggested that I meet John Ehrlichman, who had relocated to Santa Fe after serving 18 months in prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. At lunch I found him likeable, verbal, somewhat authoritarian and knowledgeable about Republican politics.

Impressed and aware his name would attract attention to Channel 13, I invited him to join our election night panel.
Aubrey Dunn immediately pulled out in protest.

Mr. Dunn was standing on principle, but I had a different take. No matter how great my disgust with the subversives who’d targeted the Constitution, I figured Ehrlichman had paid for his crimes and it wasn’t my responsibility to extend his punishment.

So I reasoned or maybe rationalized.

In any case, John’s appearance and Sen. Dunn’s withdrawal produced national publicity and our election night program went as planned.

John expressed gratitude for the opportunity, believing, perhaps, that I’d defied some sort of informal blacklist. We lunched again and I visited him in Santa Fe.

Once I asked him what caused Watergate and he described a White House beside itself with fear of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

I was astounded. That was paranoia, I told him; after all, you had the power of the state.

I don’t remember how he responded.

But I have never forgotten John’s explanation of Watergate. First because it was an answer to the question, “Why?”

It was not THE answer, of course; while the great tragedies certainly involve fear – it’s fundamental – there’s also the complexity of human nature, its imperfections and the failure of human institutions.

John’s answer also reminded me that I’d judged Nixon’s men (and LBJ’s and John Foster Dulles) rather than try to understand them as fallible individuals – and thereby boxed myself in.

Moral judgments, I realized, feel great but get in the way of thinking and of problem solving. They’re the opposite of asking “Why.”

And until we understand why, we’re condemned to repeat our mistakes.

So I told myself to sweat the whys of the story. Easier said than done, of course – the who, what, where and when are more accessible. And the best journalists cannot hold a candle to great novelists in explaining why.

But that’s no excuse for not trying.

I was thinking of that when reading Mike Gallagher’s excellent series (August 12-15) on New Mexico’s problems with illegal drugs and prescription medicines. I particularly appreciate Mike practical conclusion, where he recommends a concerted effort:

“…that involves reducing purity and supply (like we did with ingredients for methamphetamine), public education campaigns, intervention and treatment programs, legislation, and coordinated efforts of law enforcement and the courts can change this deadly equation. Like it did with DWI.”

Well said, but there’s another question that lies outside the boundaries of Mike’s investigation.

Why do so many New Mexicans of all classes and descriptions, want to escape reality?

(Erich Fromm, in his influential “Escape from Freedom”, published in 1941, portrayed individuals opting for authoritarianism to escape the anxiety of freedom. Did he also suggest anxiety might lead them to hurt themselves? My memory doesn’t serve.)

Gallagher aced his assignment, giving us the extent and shape of the drug disaster. The why, however, is another story and perhaps somebody else, maybe a team, should pursue it.

Journal editors deserve applause for giving Gallagher the time to accomplish what he did. I’d give them an ovation were they to pick up where he left off.

Yes, poverty plays a role but it doesn’t explain middle-class addicts. Where does the law fit in? The licit drug business. Individualism? Materialism? What role does the lack of purpose play? Is there a spiritual dimension?

The questions demonstrate the difficulty of the task. But the newspaper has some very sharp reporters and writers and the rewards for exploring a horrible, seemingly intractable problem could be extraordinary.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Mark Ropel

    Mr Albert my “why” in this story comes from the lack of discussion of the effects of acetomenphen (sic) in these deaths, were they overdoses from opiates or deaths due to liver poisoning?The role of Big Oil over the writings in the Journal are well documented on your site, is the influence of Big Pharna any different? Lacking any mention of this common over the counter drug, blended in many opiate based drugs, make me wonder ‘Why” as in why wasn’t it mentioned? Based on the Journal’s track record, Big Oil, Big Business, kow towing to the ‘Chamber’ etc. I can only wonder ‘why’,as like, why was Gallagher omissive on this, very real, medically recognized cause of death? It fits the Journal’s agenda, as easy as it fits a reporters oversight, to me, either way, I wonder ‘Why” also.

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