The “Bad News = Good News” Rule

One of the things that’s always worried me about American journalism is the “Bad News Is Good News” rule.

That is to say that a murder, riot, scandal, war or earthquake is “good” because it boosts circulation, while human interest stories about everyday life are run-of-the-mill, or “bad.”

After Roseburg: Obama calls on "news organizations"

After Roseburg: Obama wants media reports

True, it’s only human to be attracted to catastrophe and turn away from ho-hum goodness. But the job of the journalist, I’ve always thought, is to find the deeper story in the everyday, to write that story with a fresh angle and to bring to the surface every fact that might otherwise be overlooked.

President Obama spoke to this issue after the recent mass murders in Roseburg, Oregon, when he asked “news organizations to tally up the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks, and the number of Americans killed by gun violence, and post these side by side in your news reports.”

Funny how nobody’s done that before. As Vox.com’s subsequent graph reveals, no one has been killed by foreign terrorists since 9/11, while an astounding 10-12,000 Americans have been killed annually by homicidal crazy people acting on their own and armed to the teeth with guns.

Vox.com graph: 0 deaths from terrorism, about 12,000 a year from crazy people with guns

Vox.com graph: 0 deaths from terrorism since 9/11, 10-12,000 a year from gun homicides

“We spend over a trillion dollars,” Obama pointed out, “preventing terrorist attacks” but nothing “on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”

Well, it’s this insane “Bad News” rule: A mass shooting has occurred every day so far in 2015, and each time the press rushes in to exploit the Slaughter Scene with repeated coverage of bloodied victims, crowd hysteria, killer profiles, weeping families, think pieces on “how they [the killers] got their guns,” and the usual update about the “the divide” over anti-gun legislation that “reflects divisions between rich and poor, urban and rural areas” and zzzzzzzzz.

Deeper coverage happens before bloodshed. As Obama said, “our common life together” is at stake, It’s not the killer but the community we need to hear about. But each time it takes a killer to bring reporters into a community in the first place.

Extending Forgiveness

The “bad news” rule came to mind over the summer when the press rushed from one police shooting of an African American to another without providing wider or deeper coverage.

We did see quickie bios of victims on the news, parents worrying about drug and gang cultures and the endurance of the black church in the South. But these sidebars quickly moved aside for the guts of the story — outraged African Americans on the verge of terrible violence.

"In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness" --CommonDreams.org

“In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness” — from CommonDreams.org

 

Then came the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the astonishing moments afterward when family members faced the white supremacist charged with the murders and said they forgave him.

— “I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

— “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … As we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.”

— “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”

This was not the usual media story of African Americans erupting with outrage after each episode of oppression and charging en mass to loot and destroy stores and homes.

This was, rather, a response of dignity and grace that called for sensitive discussions among journalists and a larger understanding of community life beyond the church.

"Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness" -- FirsttoKnow.com

“Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness” — FirsttoKnow.com

Remember the Amish families who forgave the murderer of 10 girls in the Amish school in 2006 — and the Amish man who held the killer’s sobbing father in his arms for an hour? It was a cop-out for journalists to say “their religion” was the reason they could forgive. Acts of mercy are everywhere in American life, but perhaps that’s the kind of “good news” that’s too subtle to report.

Devising Strategies

Earlier this year, I expected more thoughtful news coverage for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.

But the press kept emphasizing the “bad news” aspect that kept selling the familiar story — police use of tear gas, charging horses and billy clubs breaking the bones of marchers who were peacefully attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago.

The confrontation begins at Edmund Pettus Bridge

Before the violence on Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965

That anniversary did call for film clips and articles showing the carnage on the bridge that occurred in 1965, of course. But there was a missing story, too, and this is what happened inside the African American community as protesters prepared for the the next try.

I’m taking the quotes below from Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins), an eye-opening memoir by the two founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

Their book takes us behind the scenes of Glide’s stunning history as a civil rights mover-and-shaker for the last 50+ years. But what really touches the reader, I think, is the depth of humanity and the potential for positive change that they believe exist in all of us.

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

For example, after Cecil watched the Edmund Pettis Bridge attacks from his office at Glide, he got on a plane the next day and flew to Selma. He didn’t know anybody there but walked through the kind of community he knew well — organizers, ministers, teachers, healthcare workers and food vendors who were working out of store fronts and tailgates without much money or volunteers to start up the march all over again.

A few days later Cecil flew back to San Francisco and put out a call from Glide for volunteers and contributions. Then he returned to Selma, this time not by himself but with two planeloads of volunteers and $45,000 in cash, which he divvied up among workers he had met in Selma during his first trip.

At that point, law enforcement was bolstering its ranks from every possible corner of Alabama while volunteers poured in from all over the country. When Cecil joined the organizers who were laying out strategies to lessen police power, something beautiful happened behind the headlines. As he recalls,

…the sheriff of Selma was deputizing civilians right and left and assigning them places on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the horrible conflagration I had seen on TV had occurred before.

Even now, the organizers of the march from Selma would need all the help they could get.

When a call went out for volunteers to distract the deputies from the main part of town, I joined a group of marchers taking buses to the mayor’s home to demonstrate for voting rights. This nonviolent act would probably be interpreted by law enforcement as a threat to life and property and would thus draw a number of deputies away from the city.

About 600 of us arrived at the house, but just as we assembled on the sidewalk and started our demonstration, the mayor’s wife ran out the front door with a gun in her hand. It was a little silver pistol.

“I’ve got six bullets!” she yelled. “I can take six of you niggers out!” We stood there facing her with our arms linked and were careful not to step on the mayor’s property. She appeared just wild enough to shoot but didn’t seem to know how to unlock the safety.

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selma's mayor.

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selma’s mayor.

It was a lethal yet humorous scene that got even more comical when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, each one carrying a baton, a cigar, a gut, and at least one gun. Collectively they looked like the classic image of the big, hulking, Southern white cop with everything sticking out. Trying to line us up for arrest, the officers realized there were too many of us to fit in the overcrowded jail, so the deputy chief made an announcement.

“You niggers think you can come here and share a cell with Martin Luther King? Well, he’s the last person you’re gonna see.”

They commandeered our buses and loaded everybody back on to take us to a large high school gymnasium with two big basketball courts that would act as makeshift holding cells – one for women and one for men … We sang freedom songs from the many marches of the civil rights movement, and we even made up new lyrics. Soon our voices, our clapping, and our cheering for justice resounded with a spirit that nearly lifted the gym off the ground.

[Cecil goes on to say the marchers were so committed — and having so much fun — that the police decided to release all 600 people. Nobody moved.]

We had no leader or spokesperson, no time to huddle or vote or make sure everybody agreed. And yet, all the people in both gyms just quietly shook their heads as if we had all planned for this moment all along.

Number of protestors swell from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

Number of protesters swells from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

To me, this was the potential of community at its rawest, most instinctive core. It proved as never before that when African Americans got together, a power they thought they never had emerged as a uniting force. It spoke of independence, of deciding for ourselves, and it spoke of unconditional acceptance – we trusted one another as deeply as we trusted our own families, and the deputies knew it. They were furious.

“Why, you niggers are crazy to stay here,” the chief deputy said.

“Book us, then!” people called out. “We’re not moving.” As long as our 600 remained, dozens of deputies had to guard us, or (so they thought) we’d tear the place up.

Quite the contrary – our message was nonviolent. It said:

We’re not going to fight you. We’re going to confront you with our love and with our goodness, because that’s who we are, in the face of who you are. Even if you choose to use violence, we will bring about change. Against your violent inhumanity, we will match you with our nonviolent humanity, so that even you will be changed.

It’s too bad that scenes like this, which occurred everywhere in diverse African American communities throughout the civil rights movement, got lost in the shuffle of media emphasis on violence and brutality – and, too, on celebrity.

American history rightly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr., as a gifted and charismatic minister whose leadership inspired 25,000 demonstrators to take part in the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery. But the spirit that really did move mountains to change laws and cultural traditions came as well from millions of African Americans then, and continues to inspire millions today.

How that everyday trust among people binds communities in the face of an unknown future is the story of a lifetime for any serious journalist. But maybe it’s too “good” for mainstream media.

[Note to readers: I worked editorially with Cecil and Janice during the writing of Beyond the Possible.]

 

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015): A brief remembrance

One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult “to negotiate your San Francisco hills,” he said.

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.

My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.

Going down California Street, Nob Hill

Tough on the knee: going down California Street

Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be “conspicuous, don’t you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.

But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act /conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! You’re famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe what’s going on in the mind.

I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a “linguistically complete” language all its own.

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students’ protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).

But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.

We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when it’s nurtured by the community and culture around it.

Vintage edition, today

Vintage edition today

Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.

And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain “conspicuous,” thank heaven, forever.

 

 

Hey Bernie! Listen to Barney

If you’re already in awe of the fact that rogue Senator Bernie Sanders has been drawing as many as 10,000 people to hear his speeches about running for president, here’s an episode from Barney Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (Farrar), that may be of interest.

Barney Frank

Barney Frank

Early in the 2000 presidential campaign, Frank, the irreverent and tough-minded Democratic congressional representative from Massachusetts, sent a memo to Al Gore’s advisers about Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

Although observers were saying the vote between Gore and George Bush would be close, few worried about Nader’s effect on the campaign — except Barney Frank, bless his iconoclastic heart. He believed that Nader could pull enough votes away from Gore to give Bush the win.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

So Frank came up with this great idea. He sent a memo to Gore’s advisors proposing that a group of high-level Democrats meet with Nader to convince him to drop out of the race before he could become a real threat to Gore.

Of course, Nader considered Democrats loathsome and ineffective and surely would have refused any such meeting. So, Frank writes, “I suggested that Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder and I — an African American, a woman and a gay man — become core members” of a delegation Nader could not turn away.

It was a prescient move on Frank’s part, and it kind of wrenches the gut to read about it in his book, since we know that Gore could have won if Nader had dropped out of the running and encouraged his supporters to vote Democratic.

But no. “The (Gore) campaign’s first reaction,” Frank recalls, “was not to have one. My memo was ignored,” and as a result, nobody held Nader responsible for the consequences of his continued candidacy, and Bush creaked into office.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

And what a cautionary tale it is! Every time Socialist-turned-Democrat Bernie Sanders hits these high numbers, a little voice from 2000 is saying, Well, hooray this early in the campaign for a guy like Sanders whom many people love. But let’s learn from the RALPH NADER FIASCO OF 2000 (not Barney Frank’s words) that there IS a difference between Republicans and Democrats so we can be sure to make the pragmatically correct move and help Sanders step out when the time comes.

Warning: Policy Wonk Gobbledygook

Glimpses behind the scenes like the Nader memo are everywhere in Barney Frank’s memoir and should make this book more fun to read than it is. We expect it to be entertaining because in person, Barney Frank is a genuinely witty political presence. (About Ronald Reagan falling asleep during meetings, Frank once announced, “It’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. It’s what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”)

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Frank’s publisher describes him as a “disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew,” so he’s been accustomed, he writes, to “being in the minority.” And yet even with that garbled New Jersey accent, after 32 years in the House of Representatives (he retired in 2013), Frank’s ability to surprise and delight makes him oddly charismatic whenever he speaks into a microphone.

The problem is that whenever Barney Frank puts the same material down in book form, his message is so burdened with policy-wonk gobbledygook that the eye glazes over midway through every sentence.

Here, for example, is what he says about the long-term problems of having an idealist like Ralph Nader around in 2000:

“My fervor in this effort was stocked by more than my fears of a Bush victory. Throughout my career, I’d been troubled by my allies’ tendency to choose emotional gratification over tangible, albeit insufficient, progress. The fact that Nader appeared eager to help the right regain the presidency because he found the Democrats imperfect perfectly illustrated what was wrong with this approach.”

Wait. You what? They who?

What he means is that the Naders of the world use “extreme negativism” as a kind of “game theory” that says, “never let the other side think you’re satisfied.” When you play this game, you “maximize your gains in fact by minimizing them in characterization, until and unless you are 100 percent successful.”

Okay, the gobbledygook turned bippity-bappity there but his point is that if you complain about your opponents giving you anything, they’ll “soon realize they can obtain the same response by giving nothing at all,” and that would be the end of negotiations.

I tried listening to Frank read his story for the audiobook version from Macmillan Audio, and the experience is much better. His jowly marbles-in-the-mouth way of speaking keeps the ear intrigued in parts where the eye would stumble.

Barney Frank and Tip O'Neill in 1982

Barney Frank and Tip O’Neill in 1982

For one thing, you can’t help but laugh when Frank tries to do his impression of the Irish accent that made Tip O’Neill famous as the Speaker of the House when the two became friends during Frank’s early years in Congress.

One very touching scene occurs when Barney was forced to come out as a gay man in the early ’80s before the release of a book that would have exposed his homosexuality. In those days being “outed” could ruin a politician’s career, so Frank sought help from the influential O’Neill, who didn’t know much about gay life or gay language but promised to help. Approaching sympathetic members of congress to support Barney when he came out of the closet, O’Neill, also famous for his malapropisms, told his aides, “We might have an issue to deal with. I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.” (Frank’s reading: “I tink BAH-ney is gonna come outta da rum.” )

Surprise in San Francisco

There are plenty of surprises in the book, especially for San Franciscans who remember the exhilaration that spread across the city and the national LGTB community when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to legalize gay weddings in 2004. Despite the many ways Barney Frank strengthened the gay rights movement throughout his career, he reacted like a negative fuddy-duddy when Newsom proposed the idea in a phone call to Frank early on.

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Opening City Hall to same-sex marriage would be a “well-intentioned mistake,” said Frank, and even today he believes it was a “drastic move” by Newsom that “regrettably bolstered the GOP argument than an antimarriage amendment was needed.”

In fact, Frank says, the backlash that occurred after photos went viral of gay couples celebrating outside San Francisco’s City Hall crippled the whole gay-marriage movement so much that Newsom’s actions “made no substantive progress at all.”

Man of the People

Well, you don’t have to agree with him to admire Barney Frank’s reputation as a man of the people, whether “the people” liked the way he represented them or not. Take his dislike of folksinger Pete Seeger’s hit, Little Boxes, written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. “The song was a mockery of the postwar housing that had been built for working-class and lower-middle-class Americans,” Frank says. Even at the time, “I recognized (that disliking it created a) gulf that divided me from many others on the left.”

And he hated the lyrics, Little boxes on the hillside / And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same. “At one concert I attended at Harvard, most of the audience — filling Harvard’s largest venue — appeared to find this a hilariously accurate critique. They were oblivious of the fact that these ‘little boxes’ had been built on a large scale to be affordable by families who would not otherwise have been able to be homeowners.

Pete Seeger sings 'Little Boxes'

Pete Seeger sings ‘Little Boxes’

“The aesthetic disdain Seeger and many of my fellow students felt for these units was not, I knew, shared by the occupants, most of whom were happy — and proud — to own them…But Seeger, and many of his listeners, preferred to think that the capitalist profit-making system was depriving people with limited incomes of the chance to live in large, individually designed houses — which they of course could not afford.

“When I insisted that the inhabitants of this ‘ticky-tacky’ were very satisfied with their ‘little boxes,’ I was often told that they did not have the knowledge — or the sensibility — to know they were being mistreated.”

Goodbye, Barney

Goodbye, Barney

Well, good for you, Barney Frank, fighter for the little guy you have been from the start, and always on your terms. I just wish you had written this book a little more — oh, how to say it — down to Earth, where you always leveled with us before.

 

The Harper Lee Backfire

Don’t you think the whole debacle about Harper Lee’s “new” novel sounds like a Christopher Guest mockumentary?

For Your Consideration movie poster

For Your Consideration movie poster

Guest’s satires on American foibles about dog shows (Best in Show), folksingers (A Mighty Wind), small town theater (Waiting for Guffman) and the Academy Awards (For Your Consideration) portray big, big hopes for greatness building up all over the place in ways that are so, so stupid and so incredibly American that we have to laugh, even if the parody stings a little bit.

Go Set a Watchman jacket

Go Set a Watchman jacket

In the case of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, big, big print runs and really absurd hopes for another To Kill a Mockingbird are backfiring all over the place while a lot of people are making big, big money whether the author wanted the book published or not.

You have to admit, it’s funny.

On the one hand, we have America’s beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, turning into the worst, most fatuous and disgusting racist of the new century.

On the other, what timing! Go Set a Watchman comes out in the midst of kill-a-mockingbird-1edwhite police officers killing African American men more frequently than ever, the mass murder of an African American bible study group in Charleston and a President calling for new gun control laws that prompted this no-nonsense patriotic reply: Yes SIR, Mr. President! Our response to mass murder by yet another white supremacist is to … remove the Confederate flag! That’ll show we in the South mean business. Just ask Atticu– well, better not.

In fact, a mockumentary might use this occasion to get to the heart of the real problem about Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

First, just to confirm: It’s a fine novel that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m glad it’s taught in schools.

But come on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a white person’s view of racism that’s set the tone for scores of books and movies since its publication in 1960. It says that bad white people created slavery a long time ago, so now good white people have to fix the damage. African Americans get to stay in the background for the sake of this heroic modern story.

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

This view also goes back to that awful 1961 book, Black Like Me, in which a white person darkened his skin — under a doctor’s care, mind you — so that he could travel in the South and tell the world what it’s like to be black.

We couldn’t trust African Americans to tell us this same thing because after all, they’re black. It could be emotional and confusing to explain their experience to objective white America. As Atticus Finch says in that new blockbuster from HarperCollins, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

Isn’t he great? Such a kind man, and he shows us why truly committed white writers are needed to set history straight. Wouldn’t Atticus have loved William Styron, for example, the humble white author who in 1967 wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner in the voice of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

“I was especially lacerated and hurt that [The Confessions of Nat Turner] was labeled racist,” Styron told an audience at the Library of Congress. “That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.” Aw.

But see? Here is another kind white man generously pushing African American writers aside so that he can become the heroic figure. “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.” What a guy. He knew the words “politically incorrect” would shield him from increasing criticism only for a while. In the end, he said, what really mattered was creating “a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.” Who else would know?

Also, a good mockumentary about Go Set a Watchman would feature heartfelt comments from all the legal advisors who’ve been in and out of the author’s nursing home for years. You’ve got to hand it to them. They not only helped Harper Lee unearth the manuscript that she herself kept buried for decades.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including "One Flew Over the Cosmo's Nest."

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”

They also took helped her apply for a trademark in 2012 on important To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise (there’s a Tequila Mockingbird guide to cocktails, you know), and create Mockingbird Co., a nonprofit company to control literary rights like a spinoff play that’s been running in the famous courthouse of Lee’s hometown (though it’s now closed, apparently because of the nonprofit). Royalties from the novel still bring Harper Lee something like $3.2 million a year, so you know she’s anxious to pick up extra dollars for those hardworking agents and lawyers and friends who’ve recently stepped into her life.

The mockumentary would also interview the publisher at HarperCollins who ordered only a “light copyedit” of the Watchman manuscript so that nobody could be blamed for Atticus Finch turning into a big, fat American bigot.

Of course, the question could be asked: What about those dedicated lifelong editors with high editorial standards who might have advised Harper Lee to be careful of shocking readers over the abrupt transformation of Atticus Finch? Well, those editors got to stay in the background, too. Who, after all, would want to change a word of the historic question Atticus poses to white people everywhere: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Nobody was going to touch that one.

As to marketing, that’s easy in the case of Go Set a Watchman, the publisher could say: You just make a big, big deal of its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird and keep silent about its, um, difficult contents right up to publication date. That way readers could pre-order millions of copies and have the fun of discovering an all new Atticus Finch by themselves.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the mockumentary concluded with big, big dumpsters all over the country collecting piles and piles of a book everybody bought but no one wanted to read? Nothing like a giant literary embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day mucking up the legacy of “our national novel,” as Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As the credits roll, the camera could then go back to the classroom and show us books being taught that all audiences love, written for example by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Octavia Butler, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Al Young, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Gaines, Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alex Haley, Sherley Anne Williams, Bell Hooks, Walter Mosley, Paule Marshall, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Edward P. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Marita Golden, Lalita Tademy, Frederick Douglass, Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, Cynthia Bond, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jesmyn Ward, J. California Cooper and Pearl Cleage, to name a only a few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brooke Shields and the Publishing Revolution

This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir, There Was a Little Girl (Dutton), about the death of her mother and former manager, Teri, in 2012:

“I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.

Teri and Brooke Shields

Teri and Brooke Shields in the 1970s

“They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?

“The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.

” ‘I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.’

” ‘Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.’ ”

[The back-and-forth conversation goes on. The Times reporter keeps insisting; Shields keeps refusing. Finally, the Times reporter gets one question answered (about the location of a city) and that’s it. Brooke thinks it’s over.]

“A few days later … I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.

“The first line read, ‘Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.’ What an opener!

The 1978 People headline reads: "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films"

The 1978 People headline reads: “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films”

“The obituary’s author highlighted-completely out of context-the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse-‘Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.’ This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.

“Who the fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.

“Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. I ran into the kitchen and began pacing around the table as I sobbed and rambled: Why are they so cruel? Why can’t they let her be? Why can’t they let her die without being nasty? Why can’t they be kind to her just once? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.”

So: what does this excerpt say about the “publishing revolution”?

First, there is the obvious point that huge changes in computer technology in the ’80s-90s were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry. What followed was the phenomenon of millions of readers leaving print for screen, and millions of writers publishing their own blogs, books and websites.

But the motivation that fuels a revolution rather than simply a transformation in publishing is this very outrage that launches Shields’ book — that of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” and publishers who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.

Brooke Shields in a scene from "Pretty Baby" (with Keith Carradine)

American Film, 1977 — Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine in “Pretty Baby”

When even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the status of being an outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of people across the world who are furious with media entitlement.

Granted, Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, she did manipulate the fashion and magazine industries, and she did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon.

But none of that, Brooke insists, “damaged” or “wounded” her, as press stories suggest. Early on, she even grew accustomed to that brutish tendency of magazine publishers to make controversial subjects like Brooke and her mother defend the media’s rapacious appetite for scandal.

New York magazine, 1977. The caption reads: "Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell."

New York magazine, 1977. “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.”

What did cause hardship in her life (Teri’s alcoholism, for example) is, Brooke insists, for her discuss through that fine old platform for personal truth, the full-length book.

In the case of the NYT obit, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone. When it comes to an obituary, she says, the facts of a person’s life are sacred (as every obit writer used to know).

Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to anything that will increase audience ratings. Where was the human decency? she says about the New York Times in particular. After all, someone’s mother just died.

 

Radio Bookmobile, Program #2, April 8, 2015

H Is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

Doris: This is a beautiful passage from a new book called H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a British naturalist and falconer. It’s about a period when she the author battling grief after her father died and began dreaming of hawks after the death of her father. This passage doesn’t mention her grief, but it’s a parallel theme to the discovery that emerges later:

The birds she studied with a team of scholars…

“were goshawks, and one in particular. A few years earlier, I’d worked at a bird-of-prey centre right at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks. This one, an adult female, had hit a fence while hunting and knocked herself out. Someone had picked her up, unconscious, put her in a cardboard box and brought her to us. Was anything broken? Was she damaged? We congregated in a darkened room with the box on the table and the boss reached her gloved left hand inside. A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian. Carefully, we fanned her great, broad wings as she snaked her neck round to stare at us, unblinking. We ran our fingers along the narrow bones of her wings and shoulders to check nothing was broken, along bones light as pipes, hollow, each with cantilevered internal struts of bone like the inside of an aeroplane wing. We checked her collarbone, her thick, scaled legs and toes and inch-long black talons. Her vision seemed fine too: we held a finger in front of each hot eye in turn. Snap, snap, her beak went. Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm rain.

Pat: Here is rich, dense writing that really hits every physical sense of the reader’s body. We feel that bird, touch its bones “light as pipes,” inhale its “prehistoric scent” and most of all — well, this really brought it visually home to me — we see this “meringue of aggression” coming out of the box to “completely fill the room.”

Doris: Well, this is a dream, so we know that’s not true, and yet we understand the exaggeration. Same with the bird being “muscled as a pit bull.” Well, of course not, but we get it. So much is implied, and so descriptive: the scent of the bird’s feathers: peppery and rusty. I can almost smell it.

Pat: Yes, this goshawk is both real and imagined, something “bigger than me and more important,” like a “dinosaur pulled from the forest.” She too is being pulled out of her own box of despair.

—–

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile I read a passage about upended toilets covering bombs that hadn’t exploded after they rained down on a village in Chechnya during wartime. This scene is so unusual and so gripping, it’s typical of the crazy and amazing things we learn, as well as the incredible writing found in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

One thing that struck me here is the way people in war have to adjust to the sudden disappearance of loved ones who may never be seen again. In this scene Sonja, a surgeon who’s spent a great deal of energy purchasing an ice machine on the black market for her decrepit hospital, has just realized that her sister has been kidnapped by men who’ll sell her to a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, once used up by the clientele, she’ll be murdered.

It’s in that state of shock that Sonja walks around her apartment until she comes upon a tray of melting ice in the kitchen. The process of solids turning liquid catches her eye as she ponders the way death turns people from physical bodies we can touch to memories that cling to us emotionally and run over us like sheets of water.

You know how when you first pull the ice cube tray out of the freezer and it’s all solid and crisp and squared off by the cold? Well, this is what Sonja discovers after the tray has been sitting there for a while.

“Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

It’s a stunning metaphor, and it suggests for people in grief that sometimes losing the physical body is almost the easy part. It’s the memory of that person that stays with you for a very long time because it isn’t solid — it’s intangible in remembrance; there’s nothing to hold onto.. The loss feels like a slow, excruciating dissolve, to repeat this part of the quote. It’s

“not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

Doris: It’s interesting that of all the profound images in this book-those turned-over toilet bowls covering unexploded ordinance, in particular-the description of the ice cubes melting is one that stopped me in my reading. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I think you’ve explained it here, Pat: that physical softening, an “excruciating dissolve,” as you put it, that mirrors Sonja’s loss.

This was a book, our listeners might want to know, that we read for Pat’s book group in Point Reyes, and one that lives up to the high praise it received. It’s also a first novel for the author, Anthony Marra, whose photo in the back of the book suggests he’s no more than 16 years old.

It’s funny — before reading this book I felt ignorant of Chechnya and found myself avoiding news about the country and its tormented history. Now that I’ve devoured this book I can’t get enough of Chechnya and am looking forward to reading The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen, which just came out.

It’s about the two Chechen brothers named Tsarnaev who bombed the Boston Marathon a year ago, and I think no one could report this story better than Gessen, the Russian-American author of a truly eye-opening book about the rock-resistance band Pussy Riot, and a tough-minded biography of Vladimir Putin.

The Brothers is an important story because the two Tsarnaev brothers were descendants of ethnic Chechens whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia along with hundreds of thousands of others. How a dictator can simply ban an entire population to another country is both impossible and understandable when you read about it in a work of fiction as good as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

—–

About Bunin
Susan Trott

West Marin Review, Volume 4

Doris: Susan Trott is a whacky, funny novelist, but in this story she gives us something very serious. Bunin was Anton Chekhov’s biographer, and he’s thinking back on their first meeting at the seashore some sixty years before. There Bunin is so intimidated by the great Russian writer that he thinks only sophisticated words should be used. So he begins with an attitude of dismissal.

” ‘Big.’

“How full of disdain I was for that word. Bunin smiled to himself. Chekhov, my Antochka, however, seemed to relish it, seemed to delight in its apt discovery. But I, 20 years old, ten years younger than he was, full to the brim with the egotism of youth, in my mind patronized such a paltry adjective to describe the sea, while far better words coursed through my mind how I would describe the sea. For instance, how beneath its glittering serenity lurked the lassitude of death….

“But! Bunin remembered, I was also cowed at the time because he was Checkov, and if he believed the word ‘big’ to be descriptive, I was on the wrong track entirely. I would like to write in my book how I trembled in his presence at that first meeting, in Yalta, at the edge of the Baltic. I’d been waiting hours for him to pass by. It was not a chance meeting at all, more like what they would call a stalking. And then I would like to tell how he sat and talked to me with the utmost friendliness, his eyes shining through his pince nez, so genuine and modest.

“He asked me to come see him the next day at his villa and then, as we continued to talk, sitting on that wall, overlooking the sea, how dismayed I became that this conversation, going on so long, might replace the next day’s invitation. Why meet this young man again so soon, he would think, and be bored anew?”

Doris: It’s the language that appeals to me with this excerpt. For instance, the use of the word patronize: Bunin “patronized such a paltry adjective” as “big,” meaning he thought of the word condescendingly. The year of their meeting is 1890, and though Bunin is in his 80s when he writes this, I feel as if I’m hearing a turn-of-the-century sensibility.

Pat: But you know, the first word that comes to mind when anybody sees a body of water as large as the Baltic is that word, “big.” We live on the coast next to an ocean, and every time I see the water, I think to myself, “it’s so big!” If we tried to say, “it’s so immense!” or “enormous,” we’d feel like a phony. So it’s kind of amusing that the word “big” IS “paltry” compared to the way a great master of language like Chekhov could use it, but he chooses it just the same. So Bunin is right on both counts.

Doris: I’m also impressed that Susan Trott captures Bunin with unexpected depth: his near-embarrassment in the present at the inexperienced writer of half a century ago who dared to disdain a simple adjective then. (In fact, we’re not even sure he’s almost embarrassed. Maybe he still thinks “big” was too paltry.) His love for Chekhov, to whom he refers with the affectionate “Antochka.” His careful way of arranging to meet Chekhov-what he sees as “almost a stalking.” His fear back then that he would bore the master with his prattle. And look how much Susan Trott reveals about Bunin’s description of Chekhov: friendly, shining eyes, the pince nez, Chekhov’s modesty. The scene: the two of them, sitting together on the sea wall, their legs probably dangling like two new friends (Bunin so hopes!) gazing out to sea….

—–

The Orphan Master’s Son
Adam Johnson

Pat: Dory, you and I were surprised that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t mentioned very much during the recent e-mail-hacking fiasco at Sony Motion Pictures — do you remember? This and apparent threats from the North Korean government followed release of the latest Seth Rogan gross-out movie, The Interview.

I say gross-out because it stars two typically dumb and dumber American stoner-journalists played by Rogan and James Franco, who cuss and copulate and stuff things up their posteriors when they find themselves ordered to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

Quite surprisingly, once you get past the toilet and genital humor, The Interview is a revealing and funny movie. Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a very smart, media savvy guy who deftly exploits American narcissism to his own ends.

That works in a simplistic movie, so enough kudos for Seth Roganbut it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson that goes much deeper in a literary way to provide us with one of the most knowledgeable and penetrating works of fiction we’ll ever see about North Korea — and one of the best novels I’ve read.

For one thing, this story about a soldier who’s trained to be an assasssin, a kidnapper, a sailor, a tunnel explorer, a diplomat and an interrogator is a blistering indictment on propaganda as a way of life, not only in North Korea but in the United States. Often couched in Communist lingo, these exaggerated statements are supposed to evoke pity and disgust at the self-indulgent and backward ways of Americans.

“[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.

These observations are funnier when you consider they’re all true in a way.

The American guitar, which most North Koreans have never seen, is described as theinstrument of choice [in the United States] for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision-making.”

When an American athlete leaves after a visit, “her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.

Doris: I also read this book and loved it. There are lots of surprises in it, but the descriptions of life in North Korea, the brutality, the insanity-all of which the reader absolutely believes-though how could the author know all this about a country that remains so secretive and unknown to the western world?-causes you to constantly be shaking your head in wonder. And there is as much to laugh at here as to be horrified by: remember, Pat, the part where they talk about “canines”?

Pat: Right, mention of “canines” occurs several times because in North Korea, dogs as pets are illegal and unthinkable. “The canine (is) an animal not meant to be domesticated,” we learn. If you say to a dog, “sit” or “lie down,” you’re guilty of using “indolent phrases from capitalism.” Dogs in North Korea are raised in warrens, as are ostriches and rabbits and goats, so the way Americans treat dogs is seen as possessive and maniacal.

“You must never hurt a dog in America,” a North Korean expert says. “Dogs are considered part of the family and are given names, just like people. Dogs also have their own beds and toys and doctors and houses, which should not be referred to as warrens.”

The question is later asked if dogs in America have their own groomers, their own food, and their own aisles in supermarkets. “Oh no,” says the expert, “that would never happen.”

What do North Koreans learn from all this? Discovering that in Texas, hunting dogs are given treats by their owner, the North Korean visitor “understands that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”

Doris: I’ve got to say, this is one of the best books I read last year. There are no false moves. The story is fascinating, the characters drawn beautifully. The writing is sophisticated and smart. Never a clich?, no manipulation of the reader by the writer-which is something I’d like to talk about another time.

—–

The Medic
Leo Litwak

Doris: Leo Litwak is a novelist and journalist in the Bay Area who’s been a professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He served as an Army medic during World War II, as were thousands of others, but what attracts me to this passage is its simplicity. He was 18 at the time and seems to want only to state, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the reality of combat in Belgium as the war came to an end in 1944.

“The captain told us, ‘When you hear the order to attack, stand up and start marching and firing and keep marching and firing and don’t run, don’t hit the ground, don’t take cover, don’t lose your intervals, always stay in line with the advance. It doesn’t mater that you can’t see what you’re shooting at.’

“Captain Dillon called this maneuver ‘marching fire.’

When we used marching fire, I had to force myself to rise and start marching. I walked into enemy fire and didn’t hit the ground, didn’t start digging, didn’t wiggle on my belly toward the nearest tree, didn’t hug the ground and hide my face. I walked at a steady, modest pace, buddies strung out to the left and right, utterly exposed. It was against all my inclinations. I was as terrified and resentful as if I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.

Doris: I know nothing about war, about the rules of war — the idea that the captain will ask these men to walk into their possible death, and that the men will do it, even if they have to force themselves to. Could I do that? The author is terrified and resentful, and he does exactly as he’s told. How is that possible? What kind of brainwashing is necessary for this to be possible? All of this is suggested in this short passage.

Pat: I think they’re taught in boot camp that the only way to survive the war is to do exactly what they’re told — after all, if the troops give into fear, they’ll be killed. No wonder Leo Litwak writes with such minimalism — he’s so terrified his sentences are skeletal, like stick figures. And yet that word “resentful” comes through; they may have turned him into an unquestioning soldier, but how could we miss that last line: “I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.”

Doris: We get it. He doesn’t have to say another word.