How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing | The Nation


How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing

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So much for the Big Pixel. And now for the prurient details. And, stuck as I am on my periphery of books, movies and television programs, I can't tell you for sure whether Tom Friedman, when he covered the State Department for the Times, should have played tennis with the Secretary of State. Or if Brit Hume, when he covered the White House for ABC, should have played tennis with President Bush. Or if Rita Beamish of the Associated Press should've jogged with George. Or if it was appropriate for George and Barbara to stop by and be videotaped at a media dinner party in the home of Albert Hunt, the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Judy Woodruff, then of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and now of CNN. Or if one reason Andrea Mitchell, who covered Congress for NBC, showed up so often in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center was that she just happened to be living with Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Nor can I be absolutely positive that there's something deeply compromised about George Will's still ghostwriting speeches for Jesse Helms during his trial period as a columnist for the Washington Post, and prepping Ronald Reagan for one of his debates with Jimmy Carter, and then reviewing Reagan's performance the next day, and later on writing speeches for him. Or about Morton Kondracke and Robert Novak's collecting thousands of dollars from the Republican Party for advice to a gathering of governors. Or John McLaughlin's settling one sexual-harassment suit out of court, facing the prospect of at least two more--and nevertheless permitting himself to savage Anita Hill on his McLaughlin Group. Or, perhaps most egregious, Henry Kissinger on ABC and in his syndicated newspaper column, defending Deng Xiaoping's behavior during the Tiananmen Square massacre--without telling us that Henry and his private consulting firm had a substantial financial stake in the Chinese status quo.

This article is adapted from a lecture that was part of a
series on self-censorship in the media given at New York University. The
lecture series is being published this month in The Business of
(New Press).

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

* * *

For that matter, who knows deep down in our heart of hearts whether the nuclear-power industry will ever get the critical coverage it deserves from NBC, which happens to be owned by General Electric, which happens to manufacture nuclear-reactor turbines? Or if TV Guide, while it was owned by Rupert Murdoch, was ever likely to savage a series on the Fox network, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was meanwhile busy canceling any HarperCollins books that might annoy the Chinese, with whom he dickered for a satellite-television deal? Or whether ABC, owned by Disney, will ever report anything embarrassing to Michael Eisner, the Mikado of Mousedom? It wasn't the fault of journalists at ABC's 20/20 that Cap Cities settled the Philip Morris suit before selling out to Disney. But nobody quit, did they? Nor was it the fault of journalists at 60 Minutes that CBS killed another antismoking segment, to be immortalized later in Michael Mann's movie The Insider; it was the fault instead of the CBS legal department, on behalf of a Larry Tisch who actually owned a tobacco company of his own, on the eve of the big-bucks sale of the network to Westinghouse. But nobody quit there either, did they? Not even aggrieved producer Lowell Bergman, till two years later. Nor have any of the Beltway bubbleheaded blisterpacks on the all-Monica-all-the-time cable yakshows quit in embarrassment and humiliation, renouncing lucrative lecture fees, after being totally wrong in public about almost everything important ever since the 1989 collapse of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe.

Stop me before I go on about the petroleum industry and public television's shamefully inadequate coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, not to mention Shell Oil's ravening of Nigeria. Or say something I'll regret about the $5-11 million a year that the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer gets from Archer Daniels Midland, the agribiz octopus whose fixing of prices and bribing of pols got so much attention in 1995 everywhere except on the NewsHour. How suspicious is it that so many Random House books were excerpted in The New Yorker back when Harry Evans ran the publishing house, his wife, Tina Brown, ran the magazine and all of them were wholly owned subsidiaries of Si Newhouse? Is anybody keeping tabs on what Time, People and Entertainment Weekly have to say about Warner Brothers movies? What else should we expect in a brand-named, theme-parked country where the whole visual culture is a stick in the eye, one big sell of booze, gizmos, insouciance, "lifestyles" and combustible emotions? Where the big-screen re-release of George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy is brought to you by Doritos and the associated sale of stuffed Yodas, Muppet minotaurs, trading cards, video games and a six-foot-tall Fiberglas Storm Trooper for $5,000? Where the newest James Bond is less a movie than a music-video marketing campaign for luxury cars, imported beers, mobile phones and gold credit cards? Where Coke and Pepsi duke it out in grammar schools and Burger King shows up on the sides of the yellow buses that cart our kids to those schools, in whose classrooms they will be handed curriculum kits sprinkled with the names of sneaker companies and breakfast cereals? Where there is a logo, a patent, a copyright or a trademark on everything from our pro athletes and childhood fairy tales to the human genome, and Oprah is sued for $12 million by a Texas beef lobby for "disparaging" blood on a bun during a talk-show segment on bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?

And where, I might add, all of us "delirious professionals" sign away, in perpetuity, our intellectual-property rights, our firstborn children and our double-helix to synergizing media monopolies that will downsize our asses before the pension plan kicks in. Marx made a mini-comeback on the 150th birthday of his Communist Manifesto. But years before he wrote the Manifesto he was overheard to say: "Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges everything, it is the universal confusion and transposition of all things, the inverted world, the confusion and transposition of all natural and human qualities." In other words, if money's the only way we keep score, every other human relation is corrupted.

* * *

There's a great line in one of Grace Paley's books: "Then, as often happens in stories, it was several years later." Let me now get up close and personal.

Not long after I took charge of the Times Book Review, in the early seventies, I had a surprise visitor. Lester Markel, the editor who had invented the Sunday Times with all its many sections, the eighth-floor Charlemagne who was rumored like Idi Amin to have stocked his fridge with the severed heads of his many enemies, liked to stop in and sit a while, like a bound galley or an urgent memo. This was because, after his forced retirement, he wasn't welcome in anyone else's office. Alone among the editors of the various Sunday sections, I had never worked for or been wounded by him. I was, besides, a fresh ear. It was rather like chewing the early-morning fat with El Cid himself, propped up on a horse but secretly dead.

It turned out that Markel was writing his memoirs. And he was having trouble finding a publisher. I made some suggestions and some calls. Never mind the propriety of the editor of the Times Book Review lobbying a publisher on behalf of an author with a manuscript for sale. We achieved a contract. And I didn't see Markel for months. Until, of course, galleys of his book came in. And so did he, with suggestions for reviewers. And I had to acquaint him with the etiquette of disinterested criticism. After which he fixed me with the blood-freezing basilisk's eye. And I still had the problem of finding a reviewer who would pay Markel his due as a giant of yore, while not at the same time neglecting to mention his memoir's tendency toward stupefaction--a reviewer who would not only be fair, but who would be perceived as fair by everybody else. I had already been burned by my predecessor, who left me for my very first issue a review of the memoirs of another retired Times executive, Turner Catledge, by one of his best friends at the University of Mississippi.

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