Nation Topics - Journalists and Journalism
News and Features
William Kristol's April 7 editorial in The Weekly Standard denouncing
critics of the war on Iraq as "anti-American" is startlingly reminiscent
of the menacing directives issued for decad
On March 19, shortly after Saddam Hussein defied President Bush's
deadline to go into exile, Tom Brokaw of NBC broke into Law & Order,
airing on the East Coast, to announce the start
On June 4, 1961, John F. Kennedy held his last meeting with Soviet
leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna.
The day before MSNBC announced that it was pulling the plug on Phil Donahue's nightly show, the man who pretty much invented talk TV was interviewing actress and author Rosie O'Donnell.
As truth-tellers, journalists remain the undocumented aliens of the
knowledge industry, operating in an off-the-books epistemological
economy apart from philosophers and scientists on one side
American labor still pays lip service to the idea that it seeks "bread
and roses too"--a higher standard of living, plus the chance for workers
to enjoy some of the finer things in life. In reality, the famous
rallying cry of the 1912 textile workers' strike in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, is no more than a faint echo in today's unions. Few offer
what anyone would call a rich cultural experience for their members.
Most of the labor movement is no longer rooted in immigrant communities
or working-class fraternal associations of the sort that once supported
folk music, dance, theater and even literature in foreign-language
newspapers like the Forward, the Yiddish daily. Postwar
assimilation and suburbanization, the decline of indigenous
working-class radicalism and the rise of "mass culture" and
entertainment have left American workers with little claim to a culture
of their own. Beset with many current problems (including threats to
their very survival), unions are not inclined to embrace the additional
challenge of making drama, poetry or music--in new or old forms--part of
their internal life again.
The one AFL-CIO affiliate that has attempted this, on a large scale, is
the union of New York City hospital and healthcare workers, best known
by its number--1199. Now part of the Service Employees International
Union, Local 1199 launched a cultural program called Bread and Roses in
1979, with labor and foundation funding. Since then, B&R has
sponsored an impressive stream of union musicals and documentary films;
exhibits of paintings, poster art, murals and photography dealing with
workplace themes; poetry and writing classes for workers, oral histories
of their struggles--all of which help foster membership solidarity and
connection to the union.
Not for Bread Alone is the story of that effort and a brief
history of the union behind it, as told by 1199's longtime publicist,
campaign strategist and cultural impresario, Moe Foner. The book also
traces Foner's own career as a labor PR man par excellence and contains
much useful advice for today's "union communicators." The author was a
scrappy, streetwise hustler of the press who couldn't type but had on
his desk one of the most formidable Rolodexes in the labor movement. A
product of left-wing politics and CIO unionism in its Big Apple heyday,
Foner was far more effective than the AFL-CIO's current crop of
blow-dried, inside-the-Beltway "media consultants" (whose idea of"party
work" is introducing labor clients to the Democratic candidates served by
their firms, so that union treasuries and political action funds can be
milked simultaneously). Foner displayed a different kind of political
savvy, in countless picket-line battles and major lobbying efforts. As
journalist Jack Newfield says, he "could publicize like P.T. Barnum,
organize like Joe Hill and network like Bill Clinton."
For example, Foner's pioneering work on 1199 campaigns among private,
non-profit hospital workers--who didn't have the right to bargain with
management forty years ago--provides a good model for any union trying
to make organizing rights a higher-profile issue today. Not for Bread
Alone also reminds us about the important role played by the Labor
Leadership Assembly for Peace--the anti-Vietnam War coalition launched
by Foner, 1199 and their union allies in the late 1960s.
The author completed this memoir, with the assistance of former 1199
news editor Dan North, shortly before his death in January at age 86. As
the book recounts, Foner was born into a Jewish working-class family in
Brooklyn that produced not one, but four radical activists. A member of
the Communist Party from the mid-1930s "until the Khrushchev revelations
in 1956 about what went on under Stalin," Moe--along with his twin
brothers, Jack and Phil--was victimized by an early purge of leftists
from higher education. All three were forced out ofteaching or
administrative jobs at City College of New York (CCNY) in 1941. (The
resulting controversy led the highly musical Foners to change the name
of their dance band--already popular on the Catskills small-hotel
circuit--to "Suspended Swing.")
Despite their dismissal, Phil and Jack went on to have distinguished
careers as academic historians. Henry Foner--youngest of the four and
then a student at CCNY--joined the Furriers Union and later became its
president. And the author, for much of his forty-year union career,
became the living embodiment of the cultural politics that developed
during the period of the Popular Front, when American liberals and
radicals united to oppose fascism abroad and support Roosevelt's New
Deal at home. Some of the best material in Foner's book is, thus, like a
collection of old photos in a family album, faded but fascinating
because of what it reveals about the social and political milieu of a
now largely deceased generation of labor activists who managed to
survive both McCarthyism and the self-inflicted wounds of the Communist
In the 1930s and '40s, Foner observes, the left created "a vigorous
cultural life that became part of its mass appeal."
The most famous writers...appeared in the New Masses magazine,
which was close to the Communist Party. The Daily Worker had
great cartoons by people like Robert Minor, William Gropper, and Art
Young, but artists from the New Yorker also appeared there.
This was the era of the experimental Group Theater and...Waiting for
Lefty, the Clifford Odets play about striking taxi drivers.... The
International Ladies Garment Workers Union had already put on its
immensely successful musical revue, Pins and Needles, and on a
smaller scale, the American Student Union put on a musical every year.
One of them, called Pens and Pencils, was a takeoff on the Marx
Brothers.... There was a Theater Arts Committee that had a cabaret to
support the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. And the YCL [Young
Communist League] was always putting on skits and shows.
Foner was hired in 1947 as education director for a department store
union. Many Manhattan store clerks of that era--like waiters and
waitresses today--were aspiring actors. So when Foner put out a call for
auditions for the union's first theatrical venture--a seventeen-song
musical review called Thursdays 'Til Nine--400 members showed up.
Through his dance band and party connections, Foner also "had access to
an unusually large number of creative people who were, because of their
political beliefs, more than happy to participate for little or no money
in union cultural events." For music, lyrics or other help, he tapped
show-business talents like Millard Lampell, later a successful Hollywood
screenwriter; playwrights Arthur Miller and Norman Rosten; film
producer/director Martin Ritt (who went on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae); comedians Sam Levinson and Irwin Corey; actors Jack Gilford and Zero
Mostel; and future TV writer Mel Tolkin.
Although professionally written and produced, Thursdays 'Til Nine
drew on the job experiences of store workers themselves and provided
humorous commentary on contemporary labor issues (in numbers like "The
Taft-Hartley Rumba"). Thousands of members applauded its performances,
and Foner's singular career was launched. The show cost only a few
thousand dollars, but in return it "reaped immense rewards in good
publicity, education on labor issues, and membership pride in their
These positive results became a hallmark of Foner productions for his
later union employers as well. The store workers soon merged with
District 65, another "center of left unionism in New York," whose
stewards were deployed in Peekskill in 1949 to protect Paul Robeson when
a right-wing mob attacked one of his concerts. At District 65, Foner ran
educational, social and cultural programs for 20,000 workers in retail,
wholesale and warehouse jobs. One of the first things he did was start a
nightclub on the top floor of the union's lower Manhattan office
Each week, a different group of members would be in charge of selling
400 tickets at fifty cents each. Rank-and-file committees would set up,
check coats, wait on tables, serve drinks, etc.... I'd line up a band.
And every Saturday night, I'd get a guest star to perform for free....
Harry Belafonte was just breaking in then, and he'd come down and sing
in his dark glasses. We were packing them in, the place was always full.
On Saturday mornings, District 65 also had a "kiddy program," which
featured sing-alongs with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, dance programs
conducted by Guthrie's wife, Margie, and magic shows by Doc Horowitz,
who brought along his daughter, a "terrific ventriloquist and puppeteer"
who acted as emcee. Her name? Shari Lewis, later the star of one of the
1950s' most popular children's TV shows.
In 1952 Foner moved to 1199, where he spent three decades--editing the
union newspaper, aiding strikes and organizing campaigns, advising union
founder Leon Davis and eventually creating Bread and Roses. At
midcentury, the union was quite different from what it is today; now it
has more than 200,000 members, most of whom are black, Hispanic and/or
female. When Foner was hired by Davis, a radical immigrant from Russia,
1199 had only 5,000 members and was overwhelmingly composed of Jewish
men working as pharmacists or clerks in New York City drugstores. But,
as Foner notes, 1199 had campaigned since the late 1930s for the hiring
of black pharmacists and was one of the first unions anywhere to
celebrate Negro History Week. When 1199 began organizing primarily
nonwhite hospital workers in the late 1950s--which led to its explosive
growth over the next twenty years--the union already had a strong record
of support for civil rights.
Commitment to that cause was symbolized by 1199's close relationships
with leading black artists and entertainers. Then relatively unknown as
actors, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who contributed a loving foreword to
this book) became lifelong friends and collaborators with the author.
The couple directed or performed in a series of productions at 1199's
annual "Salute to Freedom." Much later they helped Foner create Bread
and Roses' best-known musical review, Take Care, which used
humorous songs and sketches to tell the story of hospital workers' daily
lives, their frustrations on the job and hopes for the future.
In 1199's initial hospital organizing and strikes, the union tried to
fuse civil rights and working-class consciousness. Several vivid
chapters in Not for Bread Alone describe how its "Union Power,
Soul Power" campaigns were built--first in New York, then in Baltimore,
Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina, site of an epic 113-day
walkout aided by Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young and
other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The
photographs accompanying Foner's memoir confirm the breadth of the
union's political alliances--with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr.,
Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Adam Clayton Powell.
If the 1960s and early '70s were years of triumph for 1199, they
culminated in a decade of byzantine internal feuding. Leon Davis
suffered a stroke in 1979 and decided, after nearly five decades as
president, to turn over the reins to Doris Turner, an African-American
and former dietary clerk who headed 1199's hospital division. At the
same time, the union's founder tried to realize his longtime dream of
creating "one big union for all healthcare workers" by merging 1199 with
SEIU. Neither the merger nor the internal transfer of power proceeded as
planned. Instead, the union was plunged into a terrible "civil war,"
replete with "bitter elements of racism, sexism, red-baiting, violence,
For a majority of 1199 members, two things eventually became clear:
Turner was an incompetent autocrat and their union had become a "busted
Stradivarius." Turner purged all staff critics, surrounded herself with
goons, moved the union to the right politically, engaged in vote fraud
to win re-election and then, in 1984, led "one of the most inept,
unplanned, and disastrous strikes in New York history." To get the union
back on track, Foner and other 1199 veterans joined forces with Dennis
Rivera, a staff organizer from Puerto Rico recently fired by Turner.
They created a dissident group called "Save Our Union," which ran a
slate headed by Georgianna Johnson in a federally supervised rerun
election for 1199 officers. Johnson narrowly defeated Turner, but her
presidency was only slightly less troubled. She was soon ousted by her
former backer, Rivera, who has led 1199 in New York since 1989 (and
engineered its long-delayed affiliation with SEIU three years ago).
On the subject of 1199's "self-destruction"--what Foner calls "the most
heart-breaking experience" of his life--Not for Bread Alone is
both unreflective and unrevealing. "To some extent, we all played out
events based on our backgrounds, and mistakes were made. But the union
survived," the author writes. Elsewhere, Foner admits that "the whole
affair had disturbing overtones" but claims, unconvincingly, that during
the union's 1989 leadership race he "was removed from the day-to-day
running of 1199, and [has] only a hazy idea of the details."
As a history of 1199, then, Not for Bread Alone is best read
along with Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg's Upheaval in the Quiet
Zone (which Foner, to his credit, helped the authors research,
despite its dissection of various 1199 flaws). Upheaval appeared
thirteen years ago, when the union's bloody and embarrassing leadership
succession fight was still unresolved. Yet it remains the definitive
study of what went wrong then--and its analysis is just as relevant
today, in light of 1199's recent right turn, under Rivera, into the camp
of Republican Governor George Pataki, a questionable ally for any
"progressive" trade union.
Fink and Greenberg criticize Davis not only for his disastrous choice of
Turner as heir apparent but also for functioning as a "charismatic
patriarch" whose "unquestioned authority verged on benevolent
despotism." According to them, even the 1199 bylaw reforms championed by
Save Our Union failed to address the problem of overly centralized
decision-making in a "local" union far larger than most national ones.
"Without provisions for an elected 'chief delegate' at each hospital or
elected area directors, there is still no structural accommodation to
pluralistic power centers within the union and little place for leaders
of the future to spread their wings," they contended. "Communication as
well as decision-making will still be formulated in a room at the top."
The local's history and internal politics aside, the main question
raised by Foner's memoir is whether Bread and Roses offers a viable
model for cultural programming elsewhere in labor. Or is it too much a
product of New York City exceptionalism--a unique expression of 1199's
interracialism and now-fading political traditions, including its
Popular Front alliance with artists and entertainers long in the orbit
of the Old Left?
B&R has, from the beginning, inspired other labor arts initiatives.
Just as 1199 once tried to spread its unique brand of hospital unionism
elsewhere in the country (with varying degrees of success), Foner helped
organize, in 1980, the first in a series of Bread and Roses cultural
festivals in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which have been held there on
Labor Day weekend ever since. For almost as long, the Labor Heritage
Foundation in Washington has hosted an annual Arts Exchange and
Conference on Creative Organizing, which brings together union activists
and entertainers. LHF also sells poster art, videos and CDs of union
music to help publicize the work of labor choruses and individual
singer-songwriters. At the local level, however, few unions have the
kind of membership base and staff support--or access to foundation
funding--that has kept B&R afloat for nearly twenty-five years.
(During his period of forced exile from 1199 during the mid-1980s, even
Foner found it hard to reproduce his past successes while working
part-time for a small Meat Cutters local in Queens.)
According to Esther Cohen, Bread and Roses' current director, the
project continues to achieve its founder's goal of providing
professional-quality programming and opportunities for creative
expression by 1199 members themselves. B&R's permanent art gallery
at union headquarters currently hosts eight exhibits a year, on topics
ranging from Haitian culture and Dominican religion to the lives of
Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Pennsylvania coal miners, and the
death-row experiences of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Once a month, Cohen reports,
the gallery becomes "a cozy nightclub" and cafe, with entertainment
provided by 1199 rank-and-filers. More than 150 members recently signed
up for a creative-writing workshop as well; and as part of an amateur
photography program called "Unseen America," Bread and Roses is helping
scores of its members--and other immigrant workers--record and display
scenes of workplace and community life rarely shown in the mass media.
However, in the issue of New Labor Forum that recently published
Cohen's account of B&R activity, the Queens College magazine also
bemoaned the fact that most professionals in the arts are no longer
stirred by "the plight of working people and the intoxicating promise of
their liberation." According to NLF's editors:
For two centuries, until now that is, there was always a cultural
alternative, a point of opposition that said no to the callous
calculations of the marketplace.... While many kinds of people and
institutions have, at one time or another, joined the opposition, the
labor movement was always part of the picture, sometimes at the center
of the canvas. No more.... The labor movement is at a cultural dead end.
It has been defeated in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our
Such funereal observations were not part of Moe Foner's game. He was
ever the optimist, the union survivor and upbeat promoter of new ideas
and causes. If still on the job at B&R, he'd be on the phone right
now buttonholing talent for its next production, badgering reporters to
cover it and rallying members to fill every seat in the house--while
organizing labor opposition to US intervention in Iraq on the side! He'd
also be applauding the role played by hip-hop stars in the mass rally of
New York City teachers (and thousands of their music-loving students)
held in late May during contract talks between Mayor Bloomberg and the
United Federation of Teachers. Better than some activists in his field,
the author knew that if "labor culture" is going to be sustained, it
must be periodically renewed--that Ossie and Ruby must finally give way
to the likes of Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Erykah
Badu, all of whom graced the platform of the UFT.
As New York City union historian Joshua Freeman observed, in another
recent exchange about the future of labor-oriented art and
entertainment: "There is no going back in time, and no reason to do so.
The strength of mid-century New York left culture lay in its organic
relationship to the needs and tastes of the city's working class. It
remains for another generation, in its own way, to build a new culture
of labor and the left."
Speaking on NPR recently, Cokie Roberts, the soon-to-retire co-host of
ABC's This Week, falsely informed her listeners that "the
President was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission." In
fact, even though his daddy was the President of the United States
during the incident in question, after a remarkably relaxed
investigation the SEC informed Bush's lawyer that its decision "must in
no way be construed as indicating that [George W. Bush] has been
Call me sentimental, but I'm going to miss the old gal. With no
discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and
frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media
critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by
any collision with messy reality.
Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press
breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like--and more important,
sympathizing with--the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep
an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a
Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the
slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve
Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to
give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his
television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store
"Dear Abby"-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy
his-and-her television contracts.
Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street
cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle
of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for
the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted
together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations
that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in
Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in
refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A
spokesman responding to a journalist's inquiry said that Queen Cokie's
corporate speaking fees were "not something that in any way, shape or
form should be discussed in public.")
Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is
to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic
and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service
of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the
peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having
considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from
Bartlett's or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a
reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking
engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol
in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a
real journalist; she just played one on TV.
Still, her commentary was invaluable, if inadvertently so. As a pundit,
she was a windup Conventional Wisdom doll. The problem with Bill
Clinton, for instance, was that he was the wrong sort for Cokie and her
kind. "This is a community in all kinds of ways," she told Sally Quinn
during the impeachment crisis. "When something happens everybody gathers
around.... It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile
pursuit." Here was her analysis of the complicated constitutional
questions impeachment raised: "People who act immorally and lie get
punished," she proclaimed, noting that she "approach[ed] this as a
mother." (Her own children are fully grown, but perhaps they're real
sensitive...) "This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us
ashamed of him." When the country refused to go along with the ironclad
Broder/Cokester consensus, she supported impeachment anyway, because
"then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through
the process." These same "people," meaning Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and
Cokie's friends, made a return appearance in Cokieworld when the Supreme
Court handed Al Gore's victory to George W. Bush following the Florida
2000 election crisis. "People do think it's political, but they think
that's OK," she averred. "They expect the court to be political, and
they wanted the election to be over."
All this is relevant to those of you who are not dewy-eyed about Cokie's
departure--or Dewey-eyed about democracy, for that matter--because
Cokie's inadvertent honesty helps us understand how George W. Bush ever
made it to the White House in the first place. Why are we hearing about
Harken Oil only today? Why did the press ignore the evidence of Bush's
personal and professional dishonesty back in 2000, when it still
mattered? Meanwhile, these same reporters concocted stupid stories about
Al Gore's penchant for "exaggeration," misreporting the simplest facts
on his (essentially accurate) claims about the Internet, Love Canal and
Love Story. It's not as if evidence of Bush's unsavory past was
unavailable. I wrote about it twice on MSNBC.com, in the fall of 2000,
following a damning Talk magazine exposé of Bush's
suspicious business ethics, written by Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles,
and based on documents made public by the Center for Public Integrity.
But nobody cared. The Times, the Post, the Journal,
CBS, ABC et al.--who had all championed Ken Starr's $70 million
investigation of a $30,000 unprofitable land deal--did not think Bush's
fortune-making sweetheart deals were worth more than the most cursory of
investigations. (Let's not even bring up the dubious Texas Rangers deal
or the missing years in his National Guard record.)
How did the media--and hence the nation--manage to miss these stories?
Just ask Cokie: As she explained back then in defense of herself
and her colleagues, "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore
isn't straight enough. In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as
opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial
exaggerator." Thus spake Cokathustra.
For more, check out www.altercation.msnbc.com during The Nation's
summer lull. We never take vacations at Altercation.
Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently
undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related
happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a
book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The
lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't
wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists,
by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession
"armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an
exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the
significance of stories and the manner in which they should be
presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a
profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from
professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the
professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits"
focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient
interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned"
profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.
Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered
Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or
anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine
journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet
in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of
figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction
of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its
corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're
not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing
more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on
As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the
obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few
observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been
transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with
more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.)
Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers
have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire
the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the
University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the
Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news;
swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless
task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive
the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff
wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its
Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual
end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many
people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with
exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David
Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But
its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been
shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier
lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed
discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism
that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel
Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si
Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary
journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS,
under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard.
If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else
can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?
With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of
survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a
significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news
division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman,
which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could
they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the
division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is
coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their
corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving
Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public
humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the
entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.
Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of
serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with
only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning
and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The
evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as
well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors
goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local
affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds,
It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public
watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who
has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service
regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein
Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue
operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US
Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies
really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter,
Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's
dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little
noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?
In an end-of-the-year column devoted to "Politics and Prose," Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, asserted that there had been a "new gravity" and "sobriety" to American journalism since September 11. Literary responses had failed, he argued, to process the event, notably in a commemorative issue of The New Yorker in which the writing had been "excessive, even grotesque when applied to mass carnage in downtown New York."
Beinart declared it was now the era of the essay--"non-reported, non-narrative, political or historical analysis"--and "the sombre profile of a person in power"--stripped of excessive description, wanton psychoanalysis and "edge" but not of dutiful and accurate quotation. "American journalism, after a long while on the sidelines," he rallied, was "back in the game."
It was a shaky argument, one some editor of The New Republic (a magazine that confuses an antiliterary style of journalism with an anti-indulgent outlook as a matter of policy) was bound to try to make sometime.
Let's face it, the new Hunter S. Thompson won't ever be found in its Puritan liberal pages, though the journalism of a New Yorker writer like Jonathan Franzen just might be, albeit a soberer, straighter version. Franzen himself exhibits too minute a panic in his work, too much of an "edge" (see his novel of last year, The Corrections), is simply too much like a literary forefather such as Joseph Heller (Catch-22 and, more important for Franzen, Something Happened) to make any editor at The New Republic feel he had a grip on the world. And what is The New Republic--or any news and culture magazine--about if it isn't grip, skeptical firmness, analytical rectitude?
Ever since the 1960s and the advent of New Journalism--subjective and, yes, "literary" in its aspirations, distinguished by figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Gail Sheehy, Joan Didion--there has been an ongoing and necessary argument in favor of old-school values like objectivity, plain writing and reporting craft. Beinart's analysis of the American print media today is just the latest salvo, objectively put of course, saying out with "the New" and in with the old. It's part of a larger debate about consciousness and language, and how best to represent the state of the nation in both journalism and fiction in ways that reassure Americans their world can be secured, defined, reinforced.
Ironically, the tag New Journalism has been a misnomer from the beginning, implying--all the more alongside the revolutionary context of the 1960s that birthed it--a rejection of past values and a blind dive into the postpsychedelic waters of contemporary reality. It also denies the historical significance of figures like George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell and Damon Runyon, who created openings in journalistic convention, idiosyncrasies that demonstrate that "New Journalism" had been around for the best part of the century--if a writer had the gift and the license to explore the possibilities. For that matter, is it so far from Walt Whitman's 1882 diary of the Civil War in Specimen Days, to Michael Herr's scattershot report on Vietnam, Dispatches?
Many writers disliked the term New Journalism for these very reasons, preferring less-catchy descriptions like "Immersion Journalism" to describe the intense amounts of research and closeness to one's subject matter required to make such subjective reporting great and accurate storytelling; or "Literary Journalism" because of the undisguised desire to apply the techniques of fiction to a retelling of factual events and conversations.
One of the most notorious indicators of the style was the use of interior monologue, even pure streams of consciousness in groundbreaking pieces like Gay Talese's "The Loser," a brilliant profile of boxer Floyd Patterson (Esquire, 1964) and Tom Wolfe's "The First Tycoon of Teen" (New York, 1965) a feature story on the recording mogul Phil Spector. How absurd, these voices from inside their heads! Wolfe's rhetorical answer to the critics was a slap in the face: "How could a journalist, writing nonfiction, accurately penetrate the thoughts of another person? The answer proved to be marvelously simple: interview him about his thoughts and emotions."
A radical and disciplined art, New Journalism presented a cinematic and psychological rupture with the prevailing journalistic approaches, using dialogue, scenes, thoughts in a dramatic reconstruction of events and interview material. But it still depended on the old verities: solid research, thorough interviewing, good writing (albeit more jazzy in tone and form) and diligent fact-checking. It was an extension of the possibilities, not a denial or negation of what had happened before.
Not content to disturb the print media, New Journalists started shaking up the literary world by producing "narrative non-fiction" bestsellers that caught the times better than any novelist seemed capable of: Capote's masterful and groundbreaking insight into murder and America's pathological underbelly, In Cold Blood (1965); Didion's neurotic essays on her pale sense of selfhood amid West Coast cultural decadence, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Mailer's rambunctious, egomaniacal coverage of an anti-Vietnam War protest march on the Pentagon, The Armies of the Night (1968).
Books like Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (1973), Herr's Dispatches (1977), Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) and Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979) were among a slather of later releases that proved the phenomenon was not going away--from magazine and newspaper journalism or the bestseller lists. In a twist of fate, Mikal Gilmore, the brother of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, Mailer's subject in the capital punishment "thriller" The Executioner's Song, would go on to become one of the few decent writers of the 1990s operating within what could be called the New Journalist tradition, producing a superb book on his brother as well as some excellent writing for Rolling Stone.
Something sick, though, has been happening since the 1960s and '70s heyday of such writers and books. News as non-stop entertainment, the journalist as B-grade personality, a long, slow, moronic nose dive into excess on a scale difficult to imagine back then.
Beinart is right to attack a media consumed today by "lifestyle writing," the bastard child of New Journalism, and a puffed-up aesthetic attitude lacking the flair and depth of earlier, greater writers. Rather than simply attack an excess of style, though, and perhaps a poverty of generational talent, I'd locate the current malaise in the format-driven glibness that is smothering the oxygen of intelligence--not to mention true journalistic creativity--out of magazines and newspapers today.
As serious print media have attempted to go "lighter" and chase readers in the past decade, circulation figures have dropped, even plummeted. This is a worldwide crisis for up-market magazines and newspapers, dimly explained with arguments (not entirely believed, even by those proposing them) that people are getting more information from the Internet or that the educated reader is disappearing. The truth, more awfully, is that readers of all stripes are disillusioned with what's available. Editors and publishers don't seem to know what to do about that except to go further down-market to anything dumber, faster and glitzier, pursuing that fragmenting audience, that shrinking attention span.
Unfortunately, the old formulas aren't functioning anymore in this fractured, increasingly unstable--some might even say dystopic--market. Thus the argument for "sections" and targeted bites of information neatly accompanied by highly supportive advertising. Even if it's meaningless and no one reads it, at least it turns a profit.
If the New Journalist was merely an "impresario" of stories, as the critic Michael Arlen caustically observed in 1972, today's news feature is altogether more miserable, niche-marketed directly to you without need of any bigger and possibly destabilizing voice. The impresarios are mostly gone; now only the product exists, its sheen undisturbed.
Market conditions of the industry aside, there is something deeply conservative beneath Beinart's analysis, a view that spells trouble for the future of modern journalism and where it might go in the United States today--and therefore the world at large. Certainly Beinart's reactionary spirit is in tune with the nation's siege mentality and a chauvinism that encourages the closing not just of borders but of the state of the American mind. There is a feeling that the unexpected, the elusive, manifest in the form of volatile individuals and their creativity, are not legitimate concerns and activities for American voices in an era of uncertainty and instability.
This affects both the media and literature as the struggle for "representation" in American life takes on a deeply political dimension in terms of the language that should be used. It is not just a matter of what is debated, interpreted, depicted--but how that debate should be carried out, the implication being that the wrong words themselves betray the state. There has been an across-the-board conservative intellectual push in the United States for some time now, making an argument for a return to literary order in fiction. B.R. Myers's controversial essay, "A Reader's Manifesto," in The Atlantic Monthly last summer, struck similar notes to Beinart's more recent aria, attacking the wordy pretensions and metaphoric excesses of contemporary American fiction writers like Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy and E. Annie Proulx. Subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose," the essay denounced evil postmodernists, showoffs and "pansified intellectuals" who had undermined good language and sound thinking across the nation. What Myers demanded was "a reorientation towards tradition."
In one of many trainspotting examples he berated Proulx for some "characteristic prose" where she thanked her children at the end of Close Range (1999) for putting up with her "strangled, work-driven ways." According to Myers this phrase made "no sense on any level." When a reader wrote in to complain that it was "an implied metaphor and hardly difficult to understand," Myers stuck to his guns, returning to the dictionary and rules of grammar to justify himself. Fortunately for us, language moves--and is received--poetically and intuitively, even if Myers doesn't want to admit it.
However, he did finger a crucial distraction from the building of the modern American novel and how it is reviewed, even sanctified today. He called this "the sentence cult," those who adore wonderful phrases and patches of writing that finally do not add up to a fully felt, organically "alive" book worth reading, let alone relating to deeply. On this point of literary fragmentation, a collapse away from storytelling and character, a collapse of identification and therefore identity, he may well be right. As to whether such a collapse makes the literature inherently bad--well, that's another thing altogether.
This debate about the state of the American novel has been going on for years. Indeed, American literature regularly convulses to such landmark essays--and the need to write them--a battle for intellectual territory that should not be underestimated. The reverberations of these opinion pieces among cultural elites carry through as manifestoes for the times and exert enormous influence in publishing houses and the media. They should also be understood as beachheads for the highbrow magazines presenting them: in this case the long-running desire of the Atlantic to overtake Harper's as the defining literary and intellectual periodical of the day, a desire underlined by its drift toward political and aesthetic conservatism. The Atlantic is ready for the Bush era, righteous, satisfied and a little smug, just as Harper's might be seen as aristocratically Clintonian, progressive to the point of dilettantism and somehow out of step with the narrowing contemporary mood.
Myers's essay is an attempt to supersede an argument put forth by Franzen in Harper's in 1996, in a piece titled "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images a Reason to Write Novels." In that essay, Franzen wrote of his own "despair about the American novel." His conclusions, and hopes, however, were somewhat different from those of Myers.
Of the social novel Franzen wrote: "I didn't know that Philip Roth, twenty years earlier, had already performed the autopsy, describing 'American reality' as a thing that stupefies...sickens...infuriates, and finally...is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents." His despair for the state of the American novel was born out of the 1991Gulf War and "a winter when every house in the nation was haunted by the ghostly telepresences of Peter Arnett in Baghdad and Tom Brokaw in Saudi Arabia--a winter when the inhabitants of those houses seemed less like individuals than a collective algorithm for the conversion of media jingoism into an 89 percent approval rating."
Questioning the difficulties of social realism in the age of electronic media, and arguing that TV could represent reality better than any novel could, Franzen pined for the days when a book like Catch-22 had a huge social impact, raising questions about society to such a level that its title became part of the common vocabulary, entering itself in the dictionary (a thought that must give B.R. Myers a sleepless night or two).
What Franzen saw in Heller's black and absurdist work was less of a need to find legitimacy in a realistically detailed social novel of the present à la Dickens, but instead to write a novel that socially engaged, quite a different--if not unrelated--thing. It was this thinking that guided him in writing The Corrections, with its vaguely hallucinogenic, forensically detailed portrait of American family life, and the struggle of its characters to remain human amid the blizzard of consumer alienation. Despite the rave reviews and bestseller status, it is perhaps a little early yet to know if Franzen has succeeded in his project of engagement; but there is no doubt he has struck a nerve.
None too surprisingly, The New Republic took Franzen to task for his epic yet atomized scope. Observing the influence of the novelist Don DeLillo on the younger Franzen, the critic James Wood made a piercing summation of the senior writer's impact on The Corrections: "The DeLillo notion of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry, has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die." Noting that Franzen imagined "a correction of DeLillo in favor of the human," Wood went on to say that this was "more than welcome, it is an urgent task of contemporary American fiction, whose characteristic products are books of great self-consciousness with no selves in them; curiously arrested books that know a thousand different things--the recipe for the best Indonesian fish curry! the sonics of the trombone! the drug market in Detroit! the history of strip cartoons!--but do not know a single human being."
It's clear that Wood--one of America's finest literary critics--finally favors something of Franzen's humanity but resents the occult unease beneath DeLillo's crowded linguistic responses to consumer capitalism and how he applies that language to create a surreptitious and infecting despair, a deep, flamboyant coldness. There is also a vague feeling from Wood that DeLillo is somehow evil, a monster of hidden tones, corrupting America from within. He is certainly appalled by a DeLillo essay that appeared in the New York Times, "The Power of History," wherein the novelist declared, "At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition, and awe. Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history."
How strange those words from 1997 read now, post-September 11. In the buildup to this statement DeLillo had defined the modern novelist as a radical and an outsider to all systems: political, social, linguistic. "Fiction will always examine the small anonymous corners of human experience," he wrote.
But there is also the magnetic force of public events and the people behind them. There is something in the novel itself, its size, its openness to strong social themes that suggests a matching of odd-couple appetites--the solitary writer and the public figure at the teeming center of events. The writer wants to see inside the human works, down to dreams and routine rambling thoughts, in order to locate the neural strands that link him to men and women who shape history. Genius, ruthlessness, military mastery, eloquent self-sacrifice--the coin of actual seething lives.
Against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self. Here it is, sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy. It is also free and undivided, the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality.
This is a nihilistic view, divorcing itself from history's involving tug or becoming perhaps a perversion of it. DeLillo might argue that such perversions are simply the logical result of a "social individual" in the Information Age. A kind of endgame--alienated, yes, but lit with negative protest nonetheless.
Franzen identified this problem similarly in his "Perchance to Dream" essay as the way "privacy is exactly what the American Century has tended toward. First there was mass suburbanization, then the perfection of at-home entertainment, and finally the creation of virtual communities whose most striking feature is that interaction within them is entirely optional--terminable the instant the experience ceases to gratify the user."
The collapse of the myth of the Internet as a democratizing force in news and information, as a glue for a new public consciousness, is part of this great feeling of disaffection and disconnection. While it remains a counterculture organizing ground for assorted global protest groups, it is not quite the democratic free-for-all it was once hoped to be. Meanwhile, clichés like "the New New Journalism" and "the Way New Journalism," which try to give countercultural weight to new forms of Internet journalism, have fallen fast to the reality that major news corporations are maintaining their centrality and indeed expanding it, seeking international print and electronic monopolies over freelance writers in a manner that all but strangles them out of the mainstream system. Add to this a babble of impotent, even crazed voices, and you have confusion, not liberty, shouting to be heard outside the corporate gates.
Where New Journalism once challenged a homogeneity of opinion, even one of its most extreme practitioners, Hunter S. Thompson, the godfather of "Gonzo," finds a heterogeneity on the Net so repulsive he can't bear it. As he put it, "There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but at least there is some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting."
The language of the Net itself is affecting new books and the audiences who might be reading them. Figures like Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are also partly a literary byproduct of chat rooms and websites, and use an eclipsed language more heady and conversational at once, and therefore "young." Overall, though, one senses an impatience at root in Net culture, a desperation for sensation and the moment that does not feed itself into writing or reading books. In that regard the seething quality of the public consciousness, its near-madness, is really what the Net comes to represent--and with it a deep loneliness, a frenzy masked as social activity. Novelists like DeLillo, Franzen, Eggers, David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody order that sea of thought, but also manifest its rabidity and pointless depths, indexing it to the furies and absurdities of consumer culture. To steal a line from Marshall McLuhan, "Some like it cold."
A critic like Wood finds this sprawling ambition depressing. You might recall his lament that "It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.... This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist's quarries anymore." It could be argued that just when New Journalism was pushing its way into literature's representational culture, the more talented novelists were moving out to the fringes of consciousness, to places "nonfiction narrative" could not reach. So much so that Tom Wolfe himself eventually berated modern American novelists for their abstractions and lack of research in his own essay manifesto, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast." Wolfe espoused a return to the qualities of naturalism, citing Emile Zola and, of course, the importance of the "novelist as reporter." (Since Wolfe had recently written The Bonfire of the Vanities, his screed was seen in many quarters as bald self-promotion.)
Wolfe's views are not so far away from those of B.R. Myers. Wolfe's zippy writing style may have sung with pop culture verve, but he has always been a conservative at heart, as his rigid championing of realism, or "documentation," as he prefers to call it, shows. Aside from a stoush with Mailer over A Man in Full, Wolfe has also argued with John Updike and John Irving, the latter describing all of Wolfe's novels as nothing but "yak" and "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction." Wolfe responded to them all in an essay called "My Three Stooges" (it can be found in his latest collection, Hooking Up), accusing Mailer, Updike and Irving of having "wasted their careers by not engaging in the life around them...turning their backs on the rich material of an amazing country at a fabulous moment in history."
In Wolfe's final opinion, the American social novel is suffering not from "obsolescence" but from "anorexia." For all its force of actuality, though, Franzen's sickened density in The Corrections is quite a different creature from Wolfe's idea of what a social novel should be. It doesn't just observe or document; it palpitates, realistically, with the surreal excess Wolfe once identified as an indulgence. And in a strange way, perhaps, it softens the blows of DeLillo, tries to put us back together again without hiding the cracks.
Now, however, a new era of unvarnished reporting and the dogmatism of style that underlies it appears to be dawning. September 11 is fuel to this conservative fire. The world has become so unsteady, the argument runs, that we have to get back to our roots, find the lines that moor us safely to what and where we are. Plasticity of language, tangential and subjective reporting, work that emphasizes a fractured or restless view of the world--these must be stopped. Examples abound.
There can be little argument that September 11 has sent everyone into the spin of re-evaluation. But writers have always had to wrestle with such extreme moments, monstrous acts that threaten to annihilate us, spiritually if not actually. Where is the sense in it? How do we become human again, rather than vengeful, blind with loss or hate? One danger for literary journalism, of course, is that it threatens to aestheticize the experience of an event like September 11. The same may well be true of writing about Hiroshima, the Holocaust, even something as basic as a brutal, anonymous murder. Straight journalism must negotiate the obverse dangers, the tendency to reduce everything to the details, an impartiality that becomes desensitizing and objective to the point of emotional irrelevance.
The proof of value must finally lie within the words themselves. And for all of Beinart's criticisms of unnecessary poetics and dubious metaphors, the literary fraternity and journalists of literary inclination still gave us much to be grateful for. What that may mean in terms of novels and a broader state of mind to come is still too early to tell; but his and Myers's demand for a retreat from the frontiers of ambiguity, from wordplay and a tensile language that the likes of Don DeLillo tease into something conscious and unsettling within us is, well, a backward step. It may be awful to say it, but the obsession with information that underlies the work of DeLillo, Franzen and others could still be capturing the real and enduring trauma for society, way beyond the immediate horror of September 11 and its psychic impact.
I have to note that the English novelist Ian McEwan's dark and cool eloquence in The Guardian--his interrogation of the images and our action-replay absorption in them, our nauseating lust for news--was of the first order, as both literary essay and as a moral inquiry between self and the society of spectacle. Factual journalism alone can't easily create that kind of recognition. In Vanity Fair, the novelist Toni Morrison's address to the dead was the finest elegy I read from anyone, anywhere, with her bruising admission of "nothing to give...except this gesture, this thread between your humanity and mine." Yes, facts can make us grieve, too, but there are times when we also need the obscure magic of poetry to heal us.
Even the issue of The New Yorker so maligned by Beinart was filled with great literary journalism. The one exception to the form was an essay--nonreported, nonnarrative, political, historical, analytical--by Susan Sontag, a piece strangely overlooked by Beinart in his comments, given the new aesthetic world order he perceives. Sontag questioned the proposition of national innocence, and how that outlook refuses some of the baggage--some of the baggage--of responsibility America has to bear for its foreign policy. It was easier to misunderstand, simplify and demonize her arguments than to take on board the questions she was asking, even the sober ones.
September 11 did do something to the imagination, did go beyond words. It was a profound blow to the spirit. In all the realms of journalism and analysis since then, some have spoken well, some haven't. Some, most interesting of all, have evoked confusion and mixed feelings, and longed for the light of understanding. The clamor to speak has itself become a problem, a moral dilemma that reflects the media's sickening habit of overproduction, its sheer commerciality.
After any death, any tragedy, there is an inevitable level of sobriety and reserve, yes. If that leads to better journalism, better writing, better books, how wonderful for us all. But the argument that literary responses and literary journalism are somehow not up to the task, that reflection and rebuilding the public consciousness should be left to the practitioners of conventional bricks-and-mortar journalism and old-fashioned storytellers who know their rules of grammar, is far from convincing. To do the job fully we need a little soul and poetry, a little shaking up too. Literary journalism and great, radically written novels are more than able to fill that gap. And perhaps raise a few questions as well in that world between the imagined and the real where nightmares--and dreams--are born.
Facebook Like Box