Fault Lines: Blindsided

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For many years I've been looking at the world through the lens of Fault Lines -- exploring how they work, injecting them into almost every topic of conversation. For five years I've been preaching the benefits of the Fault Lines concept for journalism. And yet, as I learned several years ago at a conference sponsored by the American Journalism Review, Fault Lines continue to blindside me.

The Fault Lines concept was conceived by my late father, Robert C. Maynard. It is based on the notion that we as a nation are split along the five Fault Lines of race, class, gender, geography and generation. My father believed that in order to bridge these Fault Lines, journalists must not only admit they exist but also learn to talk, report and write across them. Acknowledging Fault Lines compels us as journalists to seek out those who present a range of views on an issue.

Watching the coverage of the presidential sex scandal was like witnessing a textbook lesson on Fault Lines. I was in a colleague's San Francisco office when the story broke. She was mystified. "Who cares?" she asked, revealing her geographic fault line. I, on the other hand, grew up in Washington, D.C., and I was certain those inside the Beltway cared deeply about what was going on in the White House.

I spent the next weekend holed up in my loft and glued to the television. It became clear that, by and large, the story was being told by middle-aged white men from the Northeast corridor. One by one they expressed outrage at Clinton's behavior and predicted that this was the end of his presidency.

I felt like I was in that "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which Eddie Murphy dresses up in whiteface in order to see what white people do when they are alone.

Where were the women, the people of color, the young and those who live outside the Beltway, I wondered? Acutely aware of the role of Fault Lines in shaping our perceptions, it seemed clear to me that inclusion would have filled out the picture.

When these viewpoints were added during the next several months of coverage, the picture did in fact change. People of color continued to support the president. Women were split along the fault line of generation, with younger women having more sympathy for Monica Lewinsky. People outside of the Beltway tended to be more in tune with my indifferent colleague from California. Oddly, we have yet to see a story explaining why many middle-aged, middle-class white men from the East Coast responded so strongly to the scandal.

Seen through the lens of Fault Lines, the November 1998 election results, following on the heels of the sex scandal, might not have come as such a surprise to so many pundits and journalists. But they were shocked precisely because they failed to really understand the serious Fault Lines that divide us as a nation.

I planned to discuss my observations with the 20 participants who gathered at the University of Maryland on Nov. 5, 1998, to attend an AJR conference entitled, "Journalism and the Public Trust, Listening to the People." What a perfect time, I thought, to share my father's insights about Fault Lines, to spark an honest dialogue about media credibility.

But instead I just sat there, silent. I felt like I was in that "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which Eddie Murphy dresses up in whiteface in order to see what white people do when they are alone. In his case, they drank champagne on the bus and received briefcases of money at the bank. In my case, I discovered what they don't do: discuss diversity.

Of course, I could have brought it up. But I had that incredibly uncomfortable out-of-body, out-of-mind feeling of being in a place where I did not belong. Here I was in a group that included University of Maryland professor Gene Roberts, USA TODAY publisher Tom Curley, television correspondent Marvin Kalb and actor Tom Selleck - all well known for their communication skills - and I didn't have a clue what they were talking about.

I went into the meeting convinced that the election was proof that we needed diversity in our coverage if we were ever going to regain our credibility with the public. What everyone discussed instead was the need for better writing, improved state coverage and taking more time to get the reader involved in the complex story. In the final hours of the conference someone else did bring up diversity and was told that was a subject for a different conversation.

By that time, I had the growing realization that instead of talking about Fault Lines, I was living Fault Lines. This realization caught me off guard. After five years of thinking about how Fault Lines shape our perspectives, I could still walk into a room of mostly upper-class white people from the East Coast and be surprised that they didn't see what I see; that they didn't value what I value.

Maybe next time I'll break through those invisible barriers that divide - and often conquer - us. Next time I'll be ready, with my eyes wide open.

Dori J. Maynard is the president of the Maynard Institute. She also oversees the Fault Lines project and the organization of her late father's papers. She is the co-author of "Letters to My Children," a compilation of nationally syndicated columns by Robert C. Maynard, with introductory essays by Dori Maynard.