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A Longer Lens on the News

JUST back in town after the first vacation in years when I didn't literally have to keep track of the whole world even while on holiday, I am adjusting my news focus.

After a nearly 10-year-long involvement, in different roles, with the Monitor's editorial page, I am now regrouping in preparation for a news assignment in Europe.

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What are the big stories out there now? How does one present them in a way that engages the Monitor's far-flung readership, internationally minded but still overwhelmingly American?

What we might call the bull market in big news over the past several years has certainly calmed down after a remarkable run.

The big events of recent years, however great their ramifications, have been stories rather easily reduced to headlines: "Wall Falls." "Empire Cracks." "Mandela - Free at Last." Nowadays, though, the stories are more nuanced, full of more questions than answers, closer to home: How can the global economy absorb the labor of all those who want to participate? What will the telecommunications revolution mean? How will people organize their lives and communities in periods of corporate restructuring, vast trading blocs, and unprecedented personal mobility within societies and across national frontiers?

Of course politics is an enduring staple in the news diet. And beyond the specifics of any particular issue lies the larger question: How well is the political process doing the people's business? Are the right questions getting framed, and in the right way, and are they getting answered? At the least, do the people feel the right questions are being taken up?

Although a court decision is not "political" in the same way as a legislative act, two recent rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States demonstrate the importance of framing the questions right: the ruling restricting affirmative action and the one allowing the organizers of Boston's St. Patrick's Day parade to exclude, on free-speech grounds, a gay rights group. Both were unquestionably "conservative" decisions, but both were respectfully accepted by the losing side. Both helped frame public discussion.

And just as a nuanced, somewhere-in-the-middle court decision may be what best serves the public good, so too on the legislative side, here a little, there a little adds up. In a recent flattering newspaper profile, young Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island was quoted as saying, "It can take a lifetime of experience to make a difference." Contrasting the career of his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, with those of his uncles, President Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, he said, "The things they did were vivid moments in time, while the work my father has done has spanned three decades, in the course of which he has taken a lot of knocks."

The world's political fields are filled with such workhorses; Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican front-runner, is certainly one. Helmut Kohl, who is about to overtake Konrad Adenauer's record as Germany's longest-serving chancellor, is another. Jacques Chirac, the new French president, who has just had his little riff within the Group of Seven jazz band at the Halifax summit, has been around for years. His predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, has just retired after two seven-year terms; some may have thought time had passed him by before his first election. Jean Chretien, the Canadian prime minister, has such a long resume it's hard to imagine he hasn't been prime minister before this.

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If these aren't exactly "vision" politicians, that may be all right. Today's "vision" politicians are the likes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In his book "Race Matters," Cornel West mentions Reinhold Niebuhr's description of democracy as "a proximate solution to insoluble problems." This can take time. It's worth it if we can be sure the right problems are being taken up, at the right time.

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