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How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing | The Nation

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How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing

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This sounds like whining. It is whining. A primary characteristic of any news organization are subcultures of the crybaby and the gripe. (As if we ever had it harder than a schoolteacher, a factory worker, a farmer or a cop; as if we'd ever been threatened with redundancy, much less a firing squad; as if our slippery slide weren't down into a wad of cotton candy.) And so I could go on about what happened to Richard Eder as the drama critic, and to Ray Bonner at El Mozote, and the class-action suit by the women of the Times, for which I was deposed, and Roger Wilkins, who quit the paper to write his own book (which I so incautiously reviewed), and Jerzy Kosinski, and Neil Sheehan, and Attica, and AIDS. I could even tell you about having to write my review of the first volume of Henry Kissinger's memoirs two days early, so that it could go all the way to the top to be vetted, after which I was permitted to suggest that some of us, on hearing from Henry that his only sleepless night in public service had been on the eve of his first mixer with the Red Chinese debutantes--well, some us thought maybe he should have tossed and turned more often. And I still don't know who cut the last two paragraphs of a review I wrote in 1970 about a couple of JFK assassination books. Those two paragraphs, asking perplexed questions about the sloppiness of the Warren Commission Report, simply vanished between the first edition and the last--an incriminating fact on microfilm periodically rediscovered by assistant professors of conspiracy theory, who write me paranoid letters that I dutifully forward to Abe.

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
Journalism
(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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No wonder that when Ed Diamond, while researching his book on the Times, mentioned my name to John Rothman, Keeper of the Archives, Rothman sniffed: "Some people just aren't good Timesmen." And then just as promptly edited himself: "Some people aren't good organizational men." I could live happily with that, had I quit on any one of a dozen fraught occasions. But I allowed myself to be promoted instead, and stuck around for sixteen years. And when I did finally leave, it wasn't about a matter of principle. Those of us who go over the wall--who leave the Catholic Church or the Communist Party or the New York Times--usually decide at last to jump because of something small. You have swallowed a whole history of whoppers, but there is a fatigue about your faith. Without any warning, the elastic snaps, and you are hurled out of the closed system into empty space, and your renunciation, arrived at by so many increments, looks almost capricious. In my case, I decided to believe that the brand-new Vanity Fair would be a serious magazine, as did many of my friends. And so we entered the halls of Condé Nast like the children who followed Stephen of Vendôme south to Marseille in 1212, expecting the Club Med to part like a Red Sea, allowing us to pass over to the Promised Land. We were sold instead into slavery in Egypt. Well, it wasn't that bad. Actually, I was in Jerusalem writing a story on Peace Now when they called the King David to tell me to come home, that they'd fired the editor who had hired me and it wasn't going to be a Peace Now kind of magazine anymore. But when we leap over the wall, we always imagine that they, whoever they are, will love us more in the outside world. They will love us just as much, or as little, as we serve their interest.

* * *

But to finish with the Times: When I told them I was quitting, first they said I had promised I never would. Well, never say never. Then they explained, "The Times is a centrist institution, and you are not a centrist." Fair enough, although the center sure had moved since they hired me directly out of the antiwar movement. Finally, they screamed at me: "We made you! You'd be nothing without the Times!" This surprised. It had never before occurred to me that they'd published what I wrote, two or three times a week, out of the kindness of their hearts--that we hadn't been somehow even every day. For years after, I thought of this departing as Freudian-dysfunctional. Maybe they wanted to be our fathers. Maybe we wanted them to be our fathers. Oedipus! Peter Pan! Then I began to wonder whether there wasn't about our servitude elements of an abusive marriage--tantrums, fists and fear; excuses, apologies and denials; dependency and self-loathing--battered wives and battered writers. Now, contemplating all the ghosts in this denial machine, I'm inclined to remember the theater tickets, and the stock options, and all the cocktail parties I got invited to as if I were important.

Paul Krassner, the Yippie editor of The Realist, once explained to a conference on "Media and the Environment" how to tell the difference between "news" and "dreaming." When you see something you don't believe, you should flap your arms like wings. If you seem then to be flying, it's a dream. In this dreamtime, I am overdue at CBS, where I've spent the last twelve years.

Before I was hired at Sunday Morning, I asked for a free hand in choosing which television programs I reviewed, regardless of network. My own credibility was at stake. I was assured of a hands-off policy. That was three presidents of CBS News ago.

In fact, for the first seven or so years, I was, if not ignored, then rather negligently embraced as a sort of punctuation mark, a change of rhythm or a passionate parenthesis, in one of the vanishingly few network news programs to embody and cherish old-fashioned journalistic standards. When Sunday Morning wasn't thinking about culture, its splendid idea of news was to notice that, hey, here's a social problem; here are some people trying to do something about it; why don't we spend eight whole minutes seeing if what they're doing actually works? Those of you who only recall Charles Kuralt as a kind of Johnny Appleseed of avuncular anecdotes and homespun decencies need reminding that he'd been a fine reporter in Southeast Asia and Latin America; that he went to China at the time of Tiananmen, where his take was very different from Dr. Kissinger's; that he expressed his doubts, over the air, about the Gulf War. It's not just that he listened better than most people talk; he was an exacerbated conscience of his profession. He even refused to appear on the Murphy Brown sitcom: "I don't know where the line is," he told me, "but that's crossing it." With his passing, we were diminished in heart and jumping beans.

* * *

The world of television journalism has been changing, not since O.J. or Monica or the Internet, but ever since they discovered that news can be a "profit center." I should have got an inkling my first year on air, when I reviewed a public-TV documentary on Edward R. Murrow, whose valor and grace made him our very own tragic hero. Emerging on CBS television from the radio and the war, he grasped the new medium's power to modify the way a nation thought about itself, then watched helplessly as the medium pawned that power to the ad agencies, and smoked himself to death. He even looked like Camus, the Shadow Man of the French Resistance--Bogart with a microphone. We were reminded in the documentary that he'd been stunned when they opened the gates of Buchenwald. That he cared so much about words, he often forgot to look at the camera. That he made up See It Now as he went along, forever over budget. That after his famous demolition job on Joe McCarthy, Alcoa dropped its sponsorship of See It Now and William Paley, the Big Eye in the Black Rock Sky, turned against his best-known reporter, bumping the program from the prime-time schedule. That in his last years at CBS before he resigned in 1961 there were many more Person to Person chats with the likes of Marilyn Monroe than there had ever been exposés like Harvest of Shame, on the plight of the migrant farmworkers. What I should have noticed at the time was the allegorical nature of the Murrow story. In every institution of our society, but especially in the media, there have always been brilliant young men (and men almost all of them have always been) who find surrogate fathers as Murrow found Paley. For a while in this relationship of privilege, patronage and protection, these young men imagine they can go on being brilliant, on their own terms, forever, immune to the bottom-line logic of a corporate culture that, for its own reasons, has surrounded and preserved them in aspic. But we are not fathers and sons at all; we are landlords and tenants; owners and pets. It shouldn't surprise the brilliant young men, and yet it always surprises the brilliant young men, when the party's over and the pets are put to sleep.

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