Game of Kings, King of Games
The world of political reporting groans with a desperate need for graduates of the Shelby Lyman School of Journalism.
This is a problem because there is no Shelby Lyman School of Journalism, and most people don’t remember its namesake. Lyman did exist (1936–2019), but he never practiced journalism per se.
He did write a popular chess column that appeared in dozens of newspapers for years. And, most famously, he was the TV anchorman, you might say, covering what The New York Times has called “one of the most ballyhooed competitive events of the 1970s, a Cold War confrontation in Reykjavik, Iceland, between the two most brilliant chess players in the world.”
Lyman volunteered during the summer of 1972 to host a pioneering endeavor—live coverage for PBS stations of the World Chess Championship match between Brooklyn native Bobby Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky.
Some of the combatants’ 21 games consumed copious time, but Lyman did not tire. Fans called for more, so coverage of the rounds (which were riddled with controversy) was even allowed to pre-empt Sesame Street.
An informal New York Post survey of bars in the city revealed that most of them had their single TV tuned to PBS’s slow-paced sport, according to a blog at chess.com. The coverage drew the highest ratings of any show that had appeared on the young public network. At some points, an estimated 2 million viewers were said to be tuned in.
Lyman broadcast the series of programs from a bare-bones studio near his upstate New York home. A 35-year-old Harvard grad with no media experience, he invested TV time in the regimen which chess experts like him typically adopted at other high-level matches—namely, back-and-forth banter about how the game was going and what the moves meant.
He sparked detailed, esoteric, but oddly appealing dialogues with a few chess-club champions seated around him. He shifted cardboard chess pieces on a demonstration board whenever a bell rang to announce that Fischer or Spassky had made the latest move. This news was phoned in from spectators in Iceland.
While he carefully updated one board to show the current state of play, Lyman could walk over to a separate “analysis” board, where he and his panel of commentators could critique moves and visualize options or opportunities. They discussed the likely gambits the players were forging in light of all 64 squares as a connected whole.
Participants’ differing insights, looking backward and forward, sounded like this: Fischer was “setting up a couple of threats,” or “he was justified in moving that pawn.” Spassky’s queen was “being harassed” by major and minor pieces, or he initiated the “Schliemann defense.” You can pick up the lingo by watching these videos of “Chess Chat” and a follow-up Lyman broadcast in 1984.
I was a rising high school sophomore in 1972, with no training in journalism yet and little exposure to the art of play-by-play sports coverage, except for some Mets games. But I found the “color commentary”—and the “suspense” of waiting ten minutes or more for the next move—downright addictive.
The experience nurtured my zeal for a kind of “Washington bureau” vocation that seems old-fashioned to many. I never mastered the model, but I admired its focus on rigorous curiosity and enlightened dialogue, alongside the necessary dedication to solid research, deadline reliability, and well-crafted writing.
Extra qualities of this ethos include: patient but proactive waiting for a federal government that was designed for a deliberative pace; responding to “breaks in the action” by asking questions of knowledgeable sources; sharing varied visions of the possibilities ahead; and trying to read the minds of newsmakers without grasping for instant headlines or jumping to narrative-based judgments.
I do not question other forms of journalism, practiced by professionals with different approaches. But I like to think uncomplicated, inquisitive engagement at the intersection of knowable facts and human nature constitutes the ethos—or the curriculum—of the Shelby Lyman School.
Today’s coverage of national policy-making would benefit from a larger cadre of political reporters who are allowed and able to take time, to piece together a spectrum of details, and help their audiences see a big picture containing clues for fresh, constructive ideas.
Don’t assume that such journalists would be bland geeks, lacking strong opinions or the ability to build and inspire an audience. Back when I finally did study journalism, at Fordham, I recall discovering I.F. Stone (1907-1989) as an admirable variation of the Lyman paradigm.
His newsletter about Washington, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, became influential through its simple perspicacity—his willingness to delve into transcripts and government documents that revealed what people in power actually said and thought.
Communicating the fruits of his phronesis, his virtuous pursuit of wisdom in service to the common good, he became a progressive thought-leader who helped to advance such causes as civil rights.
Whatever causes and values formed the whole of Lyman’s good life, one of his goals was to promote a game he saw as a source of meaning and happiness. He is quoted as saying:
“Chess is a dramatic event. You could hear the swords clang on the shields with every move. They went at each other. The average person is turned onto chess when it’s presented right. Trying to figure out the next move is a fascinating adventure—an adventure people can get into.”
I have one more reason for promoting a “school” that exists only in my imaginative metaverse: You might say that all participants in the political arena and the public square need to be fans of chess, or at least of its thought patterns.
In these days when serious societal concerns are viewed through lenses of entertainment, persuasion, and gamesmanship, you might say we often must choose between two models of play—the good order of chess or the demeaning chaos of Rollerball.
There are plenty of smart, powerful leaders playing their “long game” of strategy regarding particular issues—or broad goals on a global scale. They hold a full complement of castles, knights, and bishops, and they naturally aim to control the “whole board.” While they are preoccupied with their high-stakes chess matches, they benefit when we are distracted by the bursts of sound and fury, the dopamine hits of bread and circuses, the rules of manipulation and confusion, which were portrayed in Rollerball, a classic 1975 film.
The latter arena generates play-by-play announcements from the loudest voices and biggest egos, armed with the most compelling statistics (or clickbait), grabbing and wasting the sporadic attention of hyped-up crowds.
The former arena is the quieter, more personal, more nuanced setting where an informed public enjoys taking a serious thing seriously. We are waiting and watching for each successive move, encouraged to think and converse about individuals’ gambits and incremental steps toward victory. Who is doing what, to what end, in what context, with what implications?
Our announcer for this “Game of Kings” coverage, applicable to politics, should be some future Shelby Lyman. Not weighty in the world’s eyes, but still the show’s anchor, he or she will help us all to become better analysts—and, eventually, better players in contests where the world needs champions.
The “Big Picture” is Bipartisan
“In this paper, I have laid out a diagnosis of our current predicament and sketched out some ways forward. Building the movement of our dreams can at times feel like a utopian fantasy,” writes Maurice Mitchell in “Building Resilient Organizations,” a probing and insightful example of phronesis from the left side of the political spectrum. His message of wisdom and hope for leaders of liberal non-profits and activist groups has gained much attention within that circle during the past month.
“I believe our people deserve mass movements that exude joy, build power, and secure critical victories for the masses of working people,” he tells his colleagues. “Such movements would be irresistible. People associated with these change projects would themselves exhibit liberatory values, including the practice of radical compassion and humility.”
Mitchell continues: “They would work from a grounded understanding of power. Leaders would invite accountability, act with rigor, and speak with clarity. Problems and contradictions would be addressed with seriousness and an eye toward reparation, remediation, and healing. And we would build power with relish and let our successes and failures breed innovation. We are closer than we think to such a reality.”
This document, well worth reading, sparked Michelle Goldberg’s latest commentary, “The Left’s Fever is Breaking,” which appeared online in The New York Times on December 16. She saw the insights of Mitchell, who directs the Working Families Party, as signs of a turning point for American liberals. They recently have bemoaned the growth of dysfunction, internal strife, and cynicism in some of their key organizations, which suffer from many of the same problems that disrupt our society at large, Goldberg reported.
Mitchell’s paper wisely spotlighted a perfect storm affecting both the micro- and macro-levels of civic life. “Overlapping crises”—including the pandemic, rising authoritarianism, climate concerns, political violence, economic inequality, and “general precarity”—increase interpersonal tensions, he wrote. Meanwhile, the populace faces “a general climate of anxiety, despair, and anger without the necessary support to process such massive emotions, individually or in community.”
With a big-picture mindframe that is uncommon among leaders of any political stripe, he was able to draw attention and lift imaginations by combining downbeat details with a call for humility and learning that can lead to joyful realism. May his efforts be just the beginning of phronesis that builds bridges for us all.
In News, the Customer’s Always Right
Heard on “Dan Abrams Live,” a noteworthy program on the NewsNation network: Media critic John Ziegler, who co-hosts a podcast called “The Death of Journalism,” summed up an important phenomenon by calling out “news as therapy.”
Many news organizations have moved to a business model of “serving” particular audiences who view the world through customized lenses. Journalists hold onto loyal subscribers by providing information that reinforces their current understanding.
The audience for “objective” news, or reporting that covers multiple points of view and assesses newsworthiness in line with traditional judgments of relevance to the common good for an informed democracy, is deemed to be too small or ephemeral.
This is one way in which the legacy print and broadcast media, at least at the national level, oddly share mutual interest with many social media outfits, who enable confirmation bias and maintain engagement through enragement.
Journalistic organizations traditionally have held rights and responsibilities that are enshrined in the Constitution and the legal system. The social media, which first were considered a form of entertainment and specialized service, as well as a dubious kind of therapy, have grown to a status that unduly dominates the public square. Is that their fault, or the public’s fault?
In any event, our country is still sorting through the rights and responsibilities that should apply to such a strange hybrid beast.
“Modern man has achieved half the requirement for salvation. He’s miserable.” – Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979)
Here are two books you might want in your phronesis library. I’m afraid they are both from an author who believes America’s social norms have been redefined to lean away from courage and hope and to encourage an addiction to fear. Dr. Mark McDonald, trained in psychiatry, has a new book, Freedom from Fear: A 12-Step Guide to Personal and National Recovery, which follows up on his 2021 release, United States of Fear: How America Fell Victim to a Mass Delusional Psychosis.
I’ll have more to say about his insights in an upcoming edition. In the meantime, I’ve created the above meme, so we can point out the problem to others while we wait to read McDonald’s prescription for a desperately needed cure.
As I prepare for a second calendar year of publishing my “Phronesis in Pieces” newsletter on Substack, I wanted to let you know that I am planning some additional steps as a communicator informed by the Catholic faith. I admit to being an amateur but avid explorer of the virtue of phronesis, which Aristotle introduced into our lexicon. as a portal into a mode for evangelizing today’s ailing, challenged culture.
My theory is that many people are seeing the need for a more robust adoption of phronesis as practical wisdom that leads to actions which can help to heal people and solve problems.
I accept my position as one small voice expressing solidarity with many intelligent people of good will from such fields as philosophy, the classics, public affairs, psychology, American Studies, communications, theology, and other branches of the humanities and liberal arts. But I would like to be of assistance to members of the growing “phronesis community,” hoping that my observations, based on experience in journalism, the Catholic Church, government policy, and education can contribute to big-picture conversations.
The next steps under consideration involve setting up a complementary “Phronesis Plus” set of resources located behind a modestly priced paywall, available to readers who can continue to enjoy the commentaries I offer to free subscribers.
I envision “premium” content—a more methodical curation of my own discoveries in this broad arena. Imagine a growing collection of secular and Christian information, creatively but soberly presented, about books, articles, and other digital publications or postings, verbal and visual. Podcast interviews are another possibility.
My curiosity, not strictly “objective” but diligently open-minded, would make me an “online tour guide” pointing you toward better knowledge of the content producers and better understanding of their insights. Perhaps we can spark, and participate in, some of the important conversations aimed to increase clear, hopeful, virtuous outreach in the public square.
More concrete ideas about my own content are coming. The twice-monthly editions I have written since April provide clues to the approach I will take. Whom should I notify about this undertaking? Please nurture my plans by sending comments and suggestions via the chat feature or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org (mentioning Phronesis in the subject line).
Thank you for your consideration and your continued support. You loyal friends are indispensable for my motivation in 2023 and beyond.
Meanwhile, I wish to all of my readers the abundant joys and blessings of Christmas, Hanukkah, and the whole holiday season.
Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs. Photo of Shelby Lyman on TV from U.S. Chess Federation. Meme by Bill Schmitt.