Why Bad News is Good News

C. Alan Baker (1931-2012)

My grandfather, C. Alan Baker, passed away Monday morning at 81 years old. For 34 years, Al worked as news director of Brown Newspapers and editor of The Messenger, Baldwinsville’s weekly newspaper. In 1959 he started a weekly column where he discussed everything from village elections to quitting smoking to a rousing argument of why profanity shouldn’t be used in public spaces. The column earned him countless awards including Editor of the Year from the New York Press Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Syracuse Press Club, along with the admiration of nearly everyone who read and knew him.

C. Alan suffered a stroke when I was a teenager and has battled cognitive diseases for the last eight years. As such, I didn’t get a chance as an adult to know the witty editor and opinionated columnist who spent more than three decades penning his thoughts in the community paper. Fortunately, his legacy was immortalized in page after page of newspaper clippings, which I recently discovered in a box of his things.

In the process of reading my grandfather’s past columns (and getting to know the C. Alan Baker I’ve heard so much about) I came across a particular piece from April 6, 1983, that caught my attention as a journalist. It starts as follows:

The news media frequently bear the brunt of the criticism that they seem to dote on bad news…

…Someone in defense of the media has said it’s not fair to shoot the bearer of bad tidings. Another cynic said that handling only the good news would be about as exciting as reporting all the buildings that didn’t burn to the ground today.

I have a pet theory about the good news-bad news syndrome — at least an explanation that seems to be acceptable to my own peace of mind. First off, by and large we are surrounded by good news most of the time, we just fail to look for it or to make a place for it in our daily routines. It’s just there and while we don’t ignore it completely, we don’t always let it take its proper place in our perspective of life, our outlook.

He goes on to detail a number of instances of “good news,” as simple as a story of a woman comforting her neighbor after the death of a family member.

Al makes two excellent points. First, it’s important to recognize the good news in our lives every day — whether it’s green lights on the morning commute or a friendly chat with a coworker. Second, and more importantly, while bad news dominates the media, it’s good news that typically dominates our lives, whether or not we recognize it.

Bad news gets reported because it’s unusual. It’s out of the ordinary. It’s a deviation from the norm. The norm — the prevalent force in the world — is good news (or so I believe). We live in a world where kindness, goodness and brotherly compassion are not newsworthy items because they are everyday occurrences. A neighbor shoveling your sidewalk or a friend sending you a birthday card does not constitute front-page news, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

Reporting on the good things in our lives would fill the pages of any newspaper and (as Al mentions) no one would want to read that paper. Extraordinary cases of humanity sometimes make the pages of the paper, but those that don’t are no less extraordinary. And in every piece of bad news there is a silver lining. The death of a loved one, for example, is an opportunity to remember the enormous impact that person had on the lives of others.

Al viewed the world with a critical eye, which led many to consider him a cynic (he has another box of “letters to the editor.”) But after reading dozens of his columns, it’s clear he had an enduring passion for the community in which he lived and worked. If he was critical, it was only because he wished to challenge his town and his readers to be better. He was often the bearer of bad news, but his optimism and humor showed the reader his glass was always half full. As Al used to say in his later days (as his memory faded), “I’ve seen a lot of things. I can’t remember what they are anymore, but I’ve seen them.”

I say let the news be riddled with grim tidings and bad news, so long as the rest of our lives are filled with joy.

Rest in peace C. Alan Baker. May the news of your passing be both bitter and sweet.