Picks of the Week: The World Still Needs the United Nations
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This week, the world could have marked with great fanfare the 70th birthday of the United Nations—the world body created by the victors of the Second World War to provide an institution committed to resolving international disputes peacefully. The creators of the UN believed deeply that if there was ever a third world war, the advent of nuclear weapons meant there would certainly not be a fourth.
The fact that the world made little note of the 70th anniversary of the UN probably shouldn’t surprise us. Criticizing the UN is easy and praising it can prove politically perilous. But the lack of celebrations worthy of the milestone should disappoint us because the motives of the founders have never been more relevant. Globalization has exposed the hyper-connectivity of the world and the fact that the big challenges faced by humanity will never be addressed by any one nation. They can only be solved by the community of nations acting in concert. The UN will be vital to these efforts, whether they are focused on poverty, hunger, extremism, or climate change.
But it’s not just global issues that call out for the UN. In the past week, great power politics, with a distinctive twentieth century flare, reemerged. Russian submarines were detected operating near the undersea cables connecting high-speed Internet between North America and Europe. The Obama administration, finally yielding to calls for a more assertive response to Chinese island building in the South China Sea, dispatched a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Lassen, to assert freedom of navigation. China warned that it would respond at a time and place of its own choosing.
The United Nations is not without its problems: corruption, abuses by its peacekeepers, a Security Council that more closely reflects the power-dynamics of 1945 than 2015. Ultimately, the UN only works when there is great power consensus on an issue. And in the last decade, the divergence of superpower interests has been increasingly profound.
The UN might not work as originally intended, but we need it to work to meet the global challenges of the new century—and the lingering behavior of the last. – Executive Director Jim Ludes
Story Day is the annual conference for Story in the Public Square, a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal that studies and celebrates public storytelling.
Story Day 2014 examined moving images: animation, feature documentary and television, as well as short documentary and video. Through an engaging and interactive series of discussions with accomplished storytellers, the audience took part in a fun and informative day that also featured interactive storytelling, winners of the student contest, and presentation of the 2014 Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square to Emmy-winning screenwriter, producer and actor Danny Strong, who delivered the keynote address.
Strong’s “Game Change,” the 2012 HBO production about the 2008 presidential election, won a Golden Globe, a primetime Emmy, a Writers Guild of America Award and a Producers Guild of America Award. His 2008 HBO film “Recount,” about the 2000 presidential election, won a primetime Emmy. Strong also wrote Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” and “Mockingjay,” the two-part “Hunger Games” finale.
Strong is also an accomplished Hollywood actor, having played roles in the TV series “Mad Men,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Seinfeld,” “Gilmore Girls” and, early in his career, the character Jonathan Levinson in the hit show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He also acted as a producer on many of his projects, including “The Butler,” “Game Change” and “Recount.”
‘Story’ on TV
NEWPORT, R.I.—The Pell Center at Salve Regina University has announced its latest undertaking—a talk show that interviews today’s best storytellers about their creative process and how their stories impact public understanding and policy.
The show, “Story in the Public Square,” taped its first two episodes on June 5 and June 8, with Lisa Genova, best-selling author of Still Alice, and New York Times journalist Dan Barry, appearing as guests.
“Story in the Public Square” is named after the Center’s initiative to study, tell and celebrate stories that matter. Initially presented as a conference, Pell Center Executive Director Jim Ludes and G. Wayne Miller, Director of Story in the Public Square and Providence Journal staff writer, saw an opportunity to expand the program’s reach.
“Our conferences in the past were incredibly well-received by attendees, but we wanted to find a way to share the program’s insights with a broader audience,” says Ludes. “We are grateful to have the support from The Providence Journal, the University and our newest partner, Rhode Island PBS, to make this effort possible.”
Ludes and Miller, who describe the concept as “Inside the Actor’s Studio” meets CNN, also serve as co-hosts for the talk show. Each brings a unique perspective and professional experience to the project. Miller—an accomplished storyteller in his own right—has published 14 books, as well as a number of series for The Providence Journal, including “Into the Heart: A Medical Odyssey,” a nine-part series on the invention of open-heart surgery and“The War on Terror: Coming Home,” an eight-part series about returning veterans of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also produced a documentary, “Coming Home,” which was nominated for Outstanding Documentary at the New England Emmy Awards.
Ludes, in contrast, is the self-described “policy guy.” In nearly 20 years in Washington, D.C., Ludes immersed himself in national security issues, served as a national security advisor to then-Senator John Kerry, now Secretary of State, built a think-tank, and shepherded President-elect Obama’s four priority nominees for leadership of the Department of Defense through successful Senate confirmations.
While the hosts come at the show from different perspectives, the conversation brings them together. Miller focuses on the guest’s storytelling craft, while Ludes explores the ways in which the guest’s work contributes to shaping public understanding of issues and, where appropriate, policy itself. Together, the two hosts hope to educate audiences not simply about any single issue a guest may talk about, but about the power of storytelling in American society today.
The first two guests, appearing before live audiences at the Pell Center in Newport, R.I., set the bar high.
Lisa Genova, who also won the 2015 Pell Center Prize, was the first guest on Story in the Public Square. In a smart and provocative conversation, she shared how her personal narrative shaped her voice as an author and the impact of her work on communities hidden by neurological disease and conditions. Having earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University, Genova is uniquely qualified to bring these stories to life. In four best-sellers, she’s profiled people living with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, traumatic brain injury, and now Huntington’s disease, in her latest book, Inside the O’Briens. She sees herself as an advocate for people who heretofore have been lost in public discussions, set aside by society that is intimidated—if not scared—by diseases and conditions they don’t understand.
The show’s second guest, Dan Barry, elaborated on how his background living in a working-class community in Rhode Island helped shape his work as journalist. Barry, who was part of a Pulitzer-winning team at The Providence Journal, was also a finalist for two other Pulitzer prizes at the New York Times. In columns and series for the Times, Barry often employs a behind-the-scenes approach to reporting—heading in the opposite direction of the reporters covering big events. In his coverage of riots in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, for example, Barry profiled the people who work for the police department in that embattled city. Unlike Genova, Barry does not see himself as an advocate, but both writers spoke eloquently about the importance of empathy in their work.
“In their own unique ways, Lisa and Dan are exactly the kind of storytellers we will profile on Story in the Public Square,” said Miller. “Their stories are full of heart, emotion, unforgettable characters, and meaning. Whether they see themselves as advocates or not is almost irrelevant. The fact is, both of these writers give voice to those who are otherwise voiceless—and in so doing enrich the public debate.”
With the pilot episodes taped, Ludes and Miller are now focused on building a successful series. “Rhode Island PBS has committed to broadcasting the episodes we’ve shot in Fall 2015,” said Ludes. “But these are stories that deserve the biggest audience.” To gain national distribution, the show will need at least 12 episodes. “It’s all about funding at this point,” continued Ludes. “We know we’ve got a great idea. Now we need to find the sponsor who will bring this to a national audience.”
Studying and celebrating public storytelling in American politics and culture.
Storytelling is an ancient and underappreciated element of public life. Think of Christ’s parables or Plato’s dialogues – both used stories to communicate, instruct, inspire and persuade. In the American experience, think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which fueled the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War, or Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which contributed to a wave of reform and regulation in American industry.
However they are communicated (film, books, word of mouth, blogs, among other means), stories have the ability to touch listeners and viewers in a way that the cold hard facts of exposition never can.
Stories, of course, are like any tool that can be used in many ways. They can be either truthful or untruthful. They can illuminate or obscure important facts. They can educate or they can propagandize.
“Story in the Public Square” is a year-round initiative to study and celebrate public storytelling. It features an annual conference, lectures, awards and student contests, as well as original scholarship about public storytelling and how those stories can affect the public debate.
PUBLIC STORYTELLING LINKS
- Providence Journal Special Reports
- Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
- Creative Nonfiction
- Jim Romenesko
- Investigative Reporters and Editors
- Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism
- The Poynter Institute
- Society of Professional Journalists
- University of Missouri School of Journalism
- URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media
- USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism