This Week's Show •

Hacking the News

Last week before our show on violent extremism, we were talking over a big week in media news. We don’t quite know what we’ll do without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; we never had much ...

Last week before our show on violent extremism, we were talking over a big week in media news. We don’t quite know what we’ll do without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; we never had much use for Brian Williams or the latest iteration of The New Republic, but Bob Simon was the real deal.

The dream guest to talk it through was David Carr, the New York Times legend and booster, who had come last fall to Boston University to teach budding journalists. Carr was honest but balanced, candid, self-conscious, and lively. And he managed to avoid the solipsism that comes with media on media. So we wrote David that afternoon, and of course discovered that night that we had lost him, too.

We spoke to some of Carr’s students this week, and discovered that he was almost utopian about the future of news media. The Carr line was that journalism is a joyful job — hardly ‘work’ —and that there were so many new ways to join the conversation. In the next century, he thought, more diverse groups of more people are going to tell more stories, and the New York Times will weather all the change. How could that be anything but good news?

But there are warning signs all over that big-paper model, evident recently around the war in Iraq. So this week, we’re hacking journalism in the shadow of David Carr. We’re calling reporters and others from all over who want to build a better media establishment: more comprehensive and inclusive, more credible, and less the captive of power when it counts.

(Our apologies for the audio problems on Chris Lehmann’s line — take it as proof that this journalism work is a kind of trapeze act, and that things, sometimes, go wrong.)

That “New Media” Sound


Venture capital flows into media startups, so we’re keeping our ears out for the sound of new journalism. Call it a “new media mashup” of the storytellers behind #storytelling—Amy O’Leary of the Times’ Innovation Report, Alex Blumberg of Gimlet, Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed, and others.

The top photo of David Carr was taken by Nicholas Bilton in his own backyard. Bilton was a close friend and colleague of Carr’s and posted his own beautiful reminiscence on Medium.

Podcast • March 27, 2013

For Anthony Lewis, with love and thanks

The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of ...

The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of the Constitution. He had a historian’s grasp on how the law evolved. Justice Frankfurter said Tony knew the cases before the Court better than most of the sitting judges. And he could unfold the issues in lucid prose that grabbed me as a teen-age reader of the New York Times. It turns out now that lots of people, like my pal Rick Hertzberg, had that fantasy – of putting Tony Lewis on the Court, as a sort of teaching judge, a people’s man with law and language. Here’s what he stood for and loved to recite – in the Lydons’ living room – for example: Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in a free-speech case from World War I time, the Abrams case. The best test of truth, Holmes bellowed, is “free trade in ideas.”

“…That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment… While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in dissent in Abrams vs. United States (1919), quoted in Anthony Lewis’ Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, page 78.

Reading that stuff, as Tony liked to say, you felt the hair rise at the back of your neck. This was his meat: law, experiment, the rights of embattled South Africans, Palestinians and American outcasts, free expression, dissent, room for ideas we hate, and thundering prose. And of course Tony found he could thunder on his own, too.

My favorite Tony Lewis columns – oddly unmentioned in the Times obit – might have been his answer to the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the Nixon-Kissinger “terror bombing” of Hanoi – with no measurable purpose or benefit. Peace was at hand, they had said, the war all but over, but American B-52s poured it on: 2000 strikes over 11 days. “An episode that will live in infamy,” Tony Lewis wrote. And lest we forget he kept rewriting that column every Christmas for a decade. The lessons for Americans were still: “Beware obsession. Beware secrecy. Beware concentrated power. Beware men untouched by concern for the moral consequences of their acts.”

To my taste, Tony Lewis leaves the high-water mark in consequential newspaper work in our time – before snark and life-style and propaganda and the I-I-I voice in political columns came to seem standard. Chris Hedges wrote the other day that TV as a news medium began to die when MSNBC dismissed Phil Donahue ten years ago for his reservations about the war in Iraq. I would say newspapers started their descent to the grave right about the same time, when the Times sent Tony Lewis into retirement and retained William Safire who thought the war was a great idea. “Wait and see,” Safire ended a column. I wrote to him later: “Bill, we waited, and we saw.”

Tony Lewis was my standard of excellence, though the “narcissism of small differences” kicked in, too. I thought Tony was unfair to Ralph Nader. He knew the quality of Nader’s citizenship since their law school days in the 50s, but then Tony led the liberal chorus against Nader in that very stilted and stifling Bush-Gore campaign of 2000. I thought Ralph would have ventilated it, maybe brought Al Gore out of his own infamous lock-box, maybe scratched the veneer off George Bush. I thought it was unlike Tony to be narrowing the field and the conversation that was stuck in a deep rut, going nowhere. So we disagreed, and made a radio program around the argument with both Tony Lewis and Ralph Nader. Tony indulged his friends, like me, in all manner of differences. But then I realized years ago: inside my own head the relationship went further, maybe deeper. I found myself arguing all alone over small points of politics or taste with the mind of Tony Lewis. The oddest part was that as I sparred with my internal Tony, he often won the argument – with his patience, forbearance, and long view.

Over many years Tony was inexplicably generous to me as broadcast host. He’d begun with the granddaddy of public broadcast news, Louis M. Lyons on WGBH. He was an almost-regular on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and then on my Ten O’Clock News on WGBH-TV, where he could make a 4-minute interview sing – on anything. One night it was his idol Fred Astaire, and suddenly Tony broke into song with one of the Astaire classics — I think it was “A Foggy Day.” Margie Marshall, Tony’s new wife, said she would kill me, or him, if I ever let him sing again on TV, but he might have been happy to defy us. There was more to Tony than law and politics. He wrote and talked wonderfully about his suit salesman in Filene’s Basement; about Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; about a fine revival of “Porgy and Bess;” about Boston’s Mayor Ray Flynn, who rated better than Ed Koch of New York, Tony judged. I loved to hear him on newspaper guys – on his sponsor, the incomparable team-builder James Reston; on the great independents and adventurers Harrison Salisbury, I. F. Stone and Sy Hersh; on the nonpareil columnist, the genius among the great craftsmen of the Times, Russell Baker.

I saw Tony at home a month ago, not knowing the end was so close. His first words: “God, I miss Tom Winship at the Globe.” The last were: “Sure, let’s record our conversation the next time.” What we talked about most that February afternoon were song lyrics. He had a great book on the top of his pile: Reading Lyrics, compiled by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. Tony knew the words of Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein, Tom Lehrer, P. G. Wodehouse and Company the way he knew the law. And he worshipped above all, I think, Frank Loesser for the words and music of Guys and Dolls: “I Got the Horse Right Here” and Adelaide’s song: “A person can develop a cold,” which Tony loved to sing. The next time, I was going to bring him the Ray Charles / Betty Carter version of another Frank Loesser classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

Tony leaves us, I’d say, a memorable model for the best and broadest idea of a liberal at work. It wasn’t about dogma, much less radicalism. It was temperament as much as politics. It was about a modest optimism, a belief that institutions, even societies, could work on their flaws and get better. He was the human embodiment of the Warren Court, in that sense. He made a pair with his friend Justice William Brennan, who stood also for civility, compromise, persistence on an upward course. They stood for that era of reform in civil rights, in one-man-one-vote political representation, in the protection of defendants’ rights and the expansion of free speech and expression. Tony goaded the country with columns and landmark books on those central subjects, and by gum, the country got better. It can sound almost quaint, but he knew for certain that there were remedies for real ills in patient, hard-working devotion to our ideals in the Constitution and the law. So he never let up, and he never despaired.

Podcast • April 13, 2012

Jay Rosen on our Media Malaise: Who Will Tell the People?

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn't believe -- it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call "media" has been transformed by the digital revolution.

 

Jay Rosen – NYU journalism professor, social-media rock star and most thoughtful of press watchers – thinks the critical news stories of our time have grown “Too Big to Tell.”

We’re pulling on a thread — “what are we going through?” essentially — that began with the late Tony Judt‘s last book of sermons Ill Fares the Land and continued with Timothy Snyder and Thinking the Twentieth Century. It’s a wide-open inquiry that needs your nudges. Listen and comment, please!

Here’s Jay Rosen on the media piece:

It’s impossible to register in our public conversation an America in decline, a loss of confidence. We also haven’t dealt with the huge crisis of accountability. Nobody’s accountable for anything in this country. Who’s accountable for a phony case for war, put forward in 2002 and 2003? Nobody! Who’s accountable for a financial crash and corrupt financial practices that went on for years and made lots of people rich? Nobody! Who’s responsible for failing to detect a phony case for war — in the press? Nobody. Just to take an example: David Gregory [of NBC] to this day maintains that he and his colleagues reporting on the White House and the Bush Administration did a great job in the run-up to the war. He says this today. His reward for that is not to be laughed out of the profession but to get Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. He’s bigger than ever! To me just that little story tells the tale of accountability in the United States. And it’s that group of people that still has a hold on the political conversation, even though fewer people believe them or pay attention or rely on them. And so the alternative to a reality-based politics, which we do not have, is just a huge increase in cynicism.

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn’t believe — it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call “media” has been transformed by the digital revolution. The tools of publishing and broadcasting have all been distributed, which is to say: democratized. Critically independent websites like Politico, TPM, Daily Kos and TruthDig have taken root, and vast horizontal networks like Facebook thrive. Yet, on the other hand, in some strange way “the conversation” has not moved. If anything, Jay Rosen says, the grip of reality has been weakened. As Joan Didion remarked in 1988 about the specialized and professionalized “process” around a presidential campaign: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” I am asking Jay Rosen: are we looking at the end of something, or the beginning of something else?

I would say ‘the end’ in this sense: the only real program for change we have now is: Collapse! Because we have these institutions that don’t work. They are in many ways constructed on illusions or lies. They go… go… go… go… go… until the day that they don’t. Like the whole mortgage-fueled financial system, right? It worked… it worked… it worked… it worked… and then one day it collapsed, with a lot of destruction and almost a kind of violence. We’re now in a period where we can’t reform, so we’re waiting for various forms of collapse. Now in the aftermath, yeah, sometimes that can be the start of something. But I don’t see right now any alternative. The institutions that are supposed to be able to take account of reality — name it, frame it, allow for a contest of ideas, permit a choice of large directions to be made and therefore allow us to find some sort of imperfect remedy — just don’t work. And so the alternative is: Collapse. But in the collapse there are new tools, there are new ideas, there’s another generation. Certainly it’s not going to be you and me! And so there’s where the case for optimism is. We still need people like Tony Judt. We need writers just trying to make sense of their own experience, who can name and frame what they see. But the tools for ignoring those people roar. They are powerful, too.

Jay Rosen with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 5, 2012

This all calls to mind our last conversation with the late Anthony Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his people-first coverage of the war in Iraq. What the most honored of reporters on the Middle East wanted to get off his chest with me two years ago was that “I find it almost painful to come home to the States…” He was in grave distress wondering if anyone had read his stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, about the war at the level of Iraqi villages and families. “I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. There was an incredible amount of arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.”

Podcast • April 11, 2012

Tim Snyder and Tony Judt: another narrative for Campaign 2012

 Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.” I’m taking Tony Judt’s ...

 

Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.” I’m taking Tony Judt’s last books as “a catalog of the malaise” in the land, and as a catalyst of an Open Source quest for an alternative narrative of the 2012 presidential campaign. Grab a line, please! Tim Snyder drew almost literally the last words out of Tony Judt as he succumbed two years ago to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Thinking the Twentieth Century is their “talking book,” which they spoke and edited together. It’s Judt’s intellectual autobiography and a shared reflection on history at a dicey moment in the Western world. Tony Judt’s hope was in the “social democratic” compromises that keep alive dreams of equality, inclusion and fairness on a capitalist playing field. Tim Snyder adds his own high notes of urgency. What’s ruinous today, he’s saying, is not the cost of “social democracy” in education, public health, and modern transport, which can be shown to pay for themselves. Rather it’s inequality and social isolation that exact a price in many measures of health and happiness — in crime, mental illness, life expectancy and social stability. The problem in Europe, Snyder says, is typified by Greece, which “like the United States has lots of wealth inequality and lots of rich people who avoid paying taxes.”

This is another lesson of history: you can tell states are about to fall when the wealthy people who have been their bulwark are no longer contributing. They’re making bets elsewhere, and the state isn’t strong enough to make them pay taxes. And that’s kind of where we are now, which is why I worry. Not only do we have very rich people who don’t pay very many taxes, but we have this idea that it’s bad to make them pay taxes. And Mitt Romney incorporates that argument.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

I hear a piercing cri de coeur in Tony Judt’s last several books, touching something much hotter and heavier than the campaign rancor so far, clearer and deeper than anything the Tea Party or Occupy have articulated, but not so distant from the general panic attack that many millions among us are facing:

We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. p. 217.

Tim Snyder is speaking also of something gone drastically wrong in the public conversation. We now have a 24-hour news cycle, as he puts it, and an ever narrower discourse. It annoyed Tony Judt, he says, that we call ourselves a nation of non-conformism and free speech, when in truth “our intellectual life is impoverished compared with many democracies in the world or with the U. S. 50 years ago.” Here’s the Tony Judt version in print:

We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation — no less than our crumbling infrastructure — unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition. No democratic state should be able to make illegal war on the basis of a deliberate lie and get away with it. The silence surrounding the contemptibly inadequate response of the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina bespeaks a depressing cynicism toward the responsibilities and capacities of the state: we expect Washington to under-perform… Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. pp. 161, 172…

Tony Judt acted out a rare conviction in the power of the word — and of his own words to the last breath. He believed it was the intellectuals’ job not only to broaden the public conversation but to change it. “If we do not talk differently,” he wrote , “we shall not think differently.” So a central part of this Tony Judt challenge we’re pursuing has to do with the mainstream American discourse we call “media” — how it works and what we make of it. Our next conversation in this thread is with the ever provocative champion of “civic media,” and now a star of “social media,” Jay Rosen of the dauntless and durable PressThink website, who chanced also to be Tony Judt’s colleague at New York University. By way of reintroducing Tony Judt, consider his passion for trains, and train stations — those “cathedrals of modern life,” collective projects for individual and common benefit, as he wrote. In Mumbai and Milan, Paris and New York, trains and their stations remain both “perennially contemporary” and “aesthetically appealing” — quite unlike airports. And they work! — much as they were designed to work from the beginning. Tim Snyder makes trains a sort of lesson that Tony Judt learned in scholarship, in life, in politics — that “we don’t become individuals all by ourselves. We can’t become responsible, we can’t become interesting, we can’t become individuals of any sort without some sort of collectivity. And I think trains were all about that…”

When you’re on a train, you can be all alone — reading your book, you don’t have to be paying attention to anyone else. But you are with other people, even if the only thing you have in common with the others is that you’re going to the same place, in the same direction. But the process of being on the train is one of looking around and noticing differences, right? So you can be alone together. Which is different from, on the one hand, the American practice of commuting in your car by yourself, staying up late playing a video game, where you’re alone alone. It’s also different from the kind of radical socialist or communist dream of being together together, where we’re all part of the same working class and we’re going to get rid of all those other people who aren’t… It’s somewhere right in the middle. It’s alone together. Together alone. Trains give us that, and in some sense I think that’s what modern society has to be like. The alone-alone is kind of a nightmare. The together-together is kind of a nightmare. It’s the alone-together, you know, which is tenable and which we can make if we want to make it.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

Comments, please! Or email to chris@radioopensource.org. And thanks!

Podcast • September 13, 2011

Imtiaz Alam: So you want to be a journalist in Pakistan…

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Imtiaz Alam (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3) Saleem Shahzad on the cover of a report edited by Imtiaz AlamImtiaz Alam has the gruff manner of your classic, chain-smoking, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Imtiaz Alam (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3)

Saleem Shahzad on the cover of a report edited by Imtiaz Alam

Imtiaz Alam has the gruff manner of your classic, chain-smoking, get-to-the-point “Front Page” news editor. He seems a Chicago sort of newspaper guy, except that he works and represents the profession in Pakistan, “the deadliest place in the world to be a journalist,” as all now agree. First point in our conversation is to register some constructive horror at the murder last May of Saleem Shahzad — a reporter of Sy Hersh’s or David Halberstam’s hyper-adrenal zeal for the ugly facts. As Dexter Filkins details in this week’s New Yorker (September 19, 2011), Saleem Shahzad had pushed his many cloaked sources in Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistan Army and the CIA to establish the working (but deniable) links among the official and opposition gangs. For telling the story in Asia Times Online after he was warned off it by Army Intelligence, Shahzad was tortured, killed and dumped in a farm ditch. His was the 28th “target killing” of a Pakistani journalist in the last five years — the first to be investigated seriously. None has been prosecuted, and nobody’s betting that Shahzad’s killer will be. But it’s time, Imtiaz Alam is saying, to write a few groundrules of news reporting on the rough crossfire of Pakistan. For example: journalists should get risk and life insurance from their employers and the government; the Army and its media handlers should lay out its practice of “embedding” and often paying reporters; “all cases of the target killings of journalists should be investigated and the culprits brought to justice.”

Imtiaz Alam is also giving us one rough-and-ready newspaper man’s take on Pakistan in general: “a horrifyingly difficult situation,” he says. “We are sitting on a big bomb, and it’s ticking.” The extremists are not the majority or even the mainstream, but they are powerfully organized, and there’s been no leader around since Benazir Bhutto to say no to them. Imtiaz Alam admits a certain nostalgia for British rule, which he is not old enough to have experienced. “They learned about our culture, our ethos… they are to blame for divide-and-rule — typical colonial methods. But they brought good things” — railroads, law, the liberal constitutional tradition. Even now, he says with a guffaw, “the Americans should hand over the job to the Britishers.” The problem with you Americans, he says, is not just inattention and tactlessness. It’s that the US armed the Taliban in the first place, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “That was the original sin. You made these people… your president even brought them to the White House — so disappointing! — and compared them to the founders of your country… So now when they turn their guns against Washington, you are saying they’re terrorists. I considered them terrorists then, and I consider them terrorists now.” The US handed Pakistan a bigger problem than Pakistan can handle, he is saying. My question: But can the US undo the damage. His answer: “The Urdu couplet says: “you gave the pain, you find the medicine.”

Podcast • June 7, 2011

Joi Ito: How to Save the Internet from its Success

If the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like ...

fl20061105x1aIf the Internet dream could take human form, it might look and sound a lot like cheerful, boyish, 44-year-old Joi Ito, the new director of the fantasy factory known as the MIT Media Lab. Like the Web, he’s everywhere and nowhere — often, in fact, 30,000 feet in the air, circumnavigating the planet every couple of weeks, but wrapped always in a digital cloud of conversation and omnidirectional exploration.

Joi Ito draws on Japanese roots and American experience. Born and continually tutored by his grandmother in the old cultural capital, Kyoto, he was raised also by his parents in surburban Detroit. But his air seems less East-West hybrid than a spirit of self-consciously detribalized human energy. His home airport now is Dubai, because he wanted to cultivate a Middle Eastern perspective on events, investments, social turmoil.

Joi Ito is as complexly “global” a citizen as Pico Iyer, the English-Indian writer who went to university in the States and now bases himself at TIME magazine and in Japan. But the effects, and the affect, are entirely different. Pico Iyer’s passions are literary; his oldest best friend is the Dalai Lama. Joi Ito’s issues — applied urgently to technology, culture, teaching and learning — are innovation, openness, connectedness. His passions — which seem to be engaged serially — have evolved from experimental “industrial” music, which he transported from Chicago to Tokyo, to start-up investments (early into Twitter, Kickstarter, Flickr). Then came on-line games, and scuba diving. In conversation, he might impel you to join his advanced World of Warcraft guild; but then he might make others scream “Only disconnect!” and go home to a Victorian novel.

Like the Web, Joi Ito is a natural-born connector — cherished by fellow futurists for giving them courage. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab 25 years ago and author of Being Digital says of his heir: “Joi got the job because he is the most selfless young person I know who has made his short life-time one of enablement. This is so key. The Media Lab is now much broader than I ever knew it, where the ‘media’ du jour is the mind.” Joi’s job, Negroponte adds, “is to make the Lab crazy again.”

We are talking about wrinkles in the Internet dream — about the self-cancelling possibility, for example, that digital tech has leveraged the surveillance state as much as it has linked up the social-justice crowds. I’m asking Joi Ito about Doc Searls‘ dread, that “our commons is being enclosed” by phone companies, the entertainment industry and regulators who see the Net essentially as “a better way to get TV on your mobile device, delivered for subscription and usage fees.” And I’m venting some of my own latter-day anxiety about the damage the Internet has done to the old-media institutions we miss more and more, and maybe didn’t cherish enough — the late great New York Times, to name just one.

Podcast • April 19, 2011

“A Dirty Shirt at Night”: Jimmy Breslin on …

Jimmy Breslin is the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily ...

breslin wideJimmy Breslin is the newspaper columnist whose gruff prose has extended the whole human comedy of New York to the world, first in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, and later the Daily News and Newsday.

Breslin is telling us the story of Branch Rickey, the owner of the old Brooklyn Dodgers who integrated baseball — and changed our country — when he hired Jackie Robinson back in 1947. Rickey, Breslin says, “decided that there was a great American sin, and a great America to be gained by putting a black into baseball. He could see things.”

Jimmy Breslin can see things too. In our conversation, he’s musing far and wide about the great America that’s been gained, and the one that’s still in the offing. It’s all delivered in the unmistakeable style that he calls “a dirty shirt at night.”

He’s sharing observations on everything from “Who killed the newspaper?”;

The thing in the air, where you don’t have to read. What is it? — Google, internet, this, that. You’re gettin’ beat by the air. The air. The air wins. …

to the future of The New York Times;

The New York Times? 82 words in a lede sentence, I’m reading one day, and you expect it to last against the words that come whizzing through the air? No. It cannot be. Not for long.

to Obama;

Obama comes from Robinson. There was a White House waiting for him because of Robinson. You put a black into the White House! Tell me that isn’t amazing. It makes the mouth drop open. Then the first thing he does is he’s in support of three wars. And I’m supposed to like him. Hard-ly.

to the view from his apartment, 38 floors above Columbus Circle;

The river is marvelous. I just look at the river; with the clouds, on prime days, it’s beautiful. It’s not going to help you — you better sit down and write! But it’s good to gaze once in a while.

to the origins of the Breslin – (Norman) Mailer bid for NYC government;

BAR! One hand on the wood of a bar while we expounded what we were going to do. It was a night at the bar and it spilled into too many.

to the right wing today,

Why do they waste their freaking time with those views in a country like this? What are you worried about saving money for so much? Spend the money! Spend more. Help people, be known for it and you’ll find there’s more money there than they believe is.

and being called a “master.”

It’s marvelous to be embarrassed.

Jimmy Breslin with Chris Lydon, NYC, April 2011.

Podcast • January 25, 2011

David Rohde’s Taliban Captivity

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones ...

David Rohde

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones were hunting for them and him, and were going to take his life with theirs:

DR: At first you’re sort of afraid because you don’t know when the strike’s going to happen. There’s no warning. The missile comes down faster than the speed of sound, so you won’t hear the missile that kills you. After a while you sort of get used to them and you don’t pay as much attention to them. But it’s a devastating weapon, and you have no idea when a strike will come. It sort of haunts you.

CL: But what was your fundamental response to the sight and sound of these things in the sky? Was it, “Whew, help is on the way,” or,  “Holy shit, this could take me out too” ?

DR: It changed with time and as my view of my captors changed. I want to be honest: I came to just despise them. I hated them. I hated them for what they were doing to my family. I hated them for the fact that they were essentially making my wife and my parents and my siblings feel like they were just cheap people, and if they could somehow just come up with the millions of dollars they wanted, that my family could save my life.  Kidnapping’s really an incredibly personal crime.  As time went by, if drones were killing Taliban it frankly made me happy. I saw them [my captors] as hypocritical criminals who were doing horrible things to my family. We tried to escape because we were basically ready to die. And we wanted them to get nothing. We wanted our families to not have to suffer like this, and we just completely despised them. So my view of the drones changed over time…

David Rohde, with Kristen Mulvihill, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 25, 2011.

New York Times reporter David Rohde was a prisoner for seven months in 2008 and 2009 of the Haqqani network in the Taliban-run Tribal Areas of Pakistan. This is the same Haqqani network that a generation ago (pumped with Saudi money, Wahhabi theology, American Stinger missiles and CIA generalship) led the charge of the mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The late Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (as in Charlie Wilson’s War) pronounced the Haqqani patriarch, Jalaluddin, “goodness personified.” What should it tell us that a generation later, the Haqqani sons, Badruddin and Sirajuddin, are the point of the Taliban lance against U. S. forces in the region and both seem to have enjoyed overlordship of David Rohde’s kidnapping ordeal. In David’s account with his wife Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer, and in many other versions, I take the large arc of the story to be about the killer mix of fanaticism and firepower that came back to bite us on 9.11 and ever since, and how it is still tearing up the home grounds where the US helped plant the virus thirty years ago. David Rohde knows the details of that story — of our “Frankenstein’s monster,” as he puts it — far better than I do. And still I have to say his thematic question in this book strikes me as stunningly wrong. First with smoke in his nose in Lower Manhattan in September, 2001 and on to the last strokes of this book, he is asking himself “how can religious extremism be contained?” He thinks those drones might actually be part of the answer.

I am presuming in this conversation not just to differ on the drones, but to suggest he “buried the lede” of his own story. He lets me get away with it, perhaps because I’ve watched his work with affection, often with awe, since he interned as a Brown undergraduate with our Ten O’Clock News on WGBH, public television in Boston.

Podcast • January 21, 2011

Howard French on Africa in a Chinese Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3) Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder by Belgium with help from our CIA — the journalist Howard French is sketching an alternative path ahead for African development today. China is the big investor in 21st Century Africa. China sees Africa as yet another “natural-resource play” but also as a partner in growth — not a basket-case but a billion customers who’ll be two billion by mid-century. With the West and Japan deep in a post-industrial funk, China is keeping its focus on manufacturing, exports and markets, “and we’ll have them largely to ourselves,” China calculates, “because the West doesn’t make the stuff middle-class Africans are buying — cars and houses and shopping malls and airports and all the things associated with a rise to affluence. Those are the things that China makes.”

For the New York Times Howard French covered Africa and then China, where he learned Mandarin. He returns to Africa now on a book project, observing and overhearing Chinese migrants to places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and Liberia.

HF: I was struck every time I got on a plane: the Westerners tend to be rich American tourists on their way to seeing lions and giraffes; or aid workers and NGO people — coming with a mission to minister to Africans about capacity-building or democracy and what my father used to do: public health. I say none of this with scorn, but the Chinese have a very different mission. The Chinese that I saw on the planes — and by the way, ten years ago I saw no Chinese; now they’re maybe a fifth of all the passengers — are all, almost to a person, business people. They’ve pulled up their stakes wherever they lived — in Szechuan province or Hunan province — and they have come to make it in Africa. And they’re not leaving until they do. Whatever it takes for them to make a breakthrough in farming or in small industry, they’re going to work 20 hours a day till they make it. They see Africa as a place of extraordinary growth opportunity, a place to make a fortune, to throw down some roots. These are not people who’re there for a couple of years. They’re thinking about building new lives for themselves in Africa. So you have this totally different perspective between the Westerners and the newcomers. One sees Africa as a patient essentially, to be lectured to, to be ministered to, to be cared for. The other sees Africa and Africans as a place of doing business and as partners. There’s no looking down one’s nose or pretending to superiority. It’s all how I can make something work here.

CL: I just wonder: among those development geniuses who argue about Trade vs. Aid as America’s next gift to Africa, in the face of all the Chinese activity buying forests, or building railroads, or planning the sale of billions of cellphones, what is the West’s better bet? Do we have one, or are we still asleep?

HF: I think we’re still asleep.

Yes, Howard French observes a Chinese style of racism in Africa, both familiar and different. “There’s a certain discourse about Africans being lazy or lacking in intelligence or unready, variations on a theme. One guy said to me just last week in Liberia essentially: ‘there’s a thousand-year gap between them and us,’ meaning… culturally, educationally, just sort of temperamentally; the ability to save, to sacrifice, to commit to a long-term project. But there’s an important distinction to be made. Western racism was instrumentalized to justify the sale of black people and their enslavement across the ocean to work as animals of labor on other continents. Chinese racism is, comparatively speaking up until this point, a largely rhetorical phenomenon…”

And what are Africa’s chances of doing well in the new Chinese “deal”? Howard French sees “an incredible opportunity for Africa,” but no guarantees. States with a vigorous civil society, strong elites and an informed view of “how people’s daily and longer-term interests will be served” stand to get good results. “In states that are stuck in the kleptocratic authoritarian mode, the Chinese will pay cash on the barrel for whatever they want and all of the contracts will go through the state house and none of the money or very little of it will enter the public budget. Twenty years from now, China will say: it’s not our fault if the money is frittered away on Mercedes and villas in France and Swiss bank accounts. We paid you exactly the amount we said we were going to pay you. Don’t blame us if you have twice as many people and all of your iron ore is finished.”

Podcast • January 13, 2011

Mohammed Hanif’s Af-Pak: A Case of Exploding Absurdities

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously. Click to listen to Chris’ ...

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Hanif (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Mohammed Hanif, the Pakistani novelist, is observing from Karachi that “even the believers” don’t believe in the war in Afghanistan anymore. No statement of purpose passes the “you’ve got to be kidding” test — not the US professions about stabilizing the region, not the Pakistani Army’s mission to defend its country. Pakistan’s tribal areas that were peaceful before the war have been devastated. The future is disappearing. Certain dark absurdities underlying Pakistan’s situation, underlying Mohammed Hanif’s “insanely brilliant” novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, are chasing their own tails.

On January 4 this year Salmaan Taseer, the rich, connected governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated in broad daylight in a public market in Islamabad. The shooting eerily prefigured by four days our made-in-America madness in Tucson, but it was more horrifying by many measures. Taseer took 26 rounds of sub-machinegun fire from one of his own guards before the rest of his security detail intervened. Prominent mullahs in Pakistan have celebrated the murder and promised vengeance on Taseer’s funeral goers. At issue, so to speak, was Taseer’s enthusiasm for repealing an Anti-Blasphemy law — an old statute that in today’s fervor has enabled religious prosecutions and deadly personal fatwas on farcical grounds. (You can be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan for discarding a salesman’s business card — if the salesman, like so many of his countrymen, bears the name Mohammed.)

We are drawing again on a novelist’s gift for figure and ground, the big contexts of war and faith, news and nationhood, for tragic jokes.

MH: I think the basic kind of crisis that we are going through is that somehow a large majority of people are convinced that their faith is under attack. Now, how can their faith be under attack if 98 percent of people who live in this country are faithful? What has happened is that this environment, these perpetual wars that we’ve been involved with, have somehow convinced our people…

We’ve never even begun to deal with the reasons for which this country was created, which was that there should be some kind of economic and social justice for the Muslim minority in these parts. That’s what this was supposed to be about. But yesterday I was at this big religious gathering where all the kind of hot-shots of Pakistan’s religious parties were there. And they were saying that Pakistan was actually created to protect the honor of Prophet Mohammed. Now I’ve lived here all my life. I haven’t grown up in some kind of sheltered community. But I haven’t heard that kind of discourse ever in my life…

CL: How does the Af-Pak war, ongoing, affect the day-to-day outlook of Pakistanis?

MH: Well, I think it has radicalized a section of Pakistani society. It has made a lot of people cynical and anti-American… I think this is probably the first time in the history of the world that a so-called friendly country, the United States, is using robots to kill the citizens of its partner in war. Now whatever logic you might apply, that doesn’t come out nice. It’s never, ever going to sound good to anyone.

There’s an Urdu saying that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, the chances are that fire will get to you as well, [especially] if you as a nation, as a country, have been stoking that fire for 30 years. If you’ve had this attitude towards your neighbor, if you’ve never considered Afghans as human beings, if you only speak of them in military terms, as targets or allies or collateral damage… then Pakistan is going the same route. You can’t create a monster, you can’t create a jihadi group, as the military has in the past, that will exclusively go and kill Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and not do anything else. You can’t create a faction of Taliban whose sole duty it is to go into Afghanistan and fight the Americans. They will do it for a while. They’ve done it for a while. But after that, they will come back and they’ll find other targets. The jihadi groups that initially were supposed to fight in Afghanistan, and then fight in Kashmir and then go and liberate Sweden or whatever country, they’ve finally turned their guns on Pakistanis, sometimes on the Pakistani establishment…

CL: What is it about Pakistan — a dangerous place, a dangerous state of mind — that seems to invite broad satire? I’m thinking of your own Exploding Mangoes and also Salman Rushdie’s Shame and even the Tom Hanks movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” People seem to forget the unfunny truths here.

MH: I grew up in a small city in Punjab, and the traditional form of entertainment there was standing on a street corner, making jokes about current affairs, about political leaders, about the village elder, about the mullah in the mosque – anybody who carried, or thought that he carried, any authority. And it was quite accepted in our culture. So for me, the first insight into how the world is run, how a city is run, how a family works together, I got from the comedy clubs. But I don’t have it in me to be a standup comic. I’m a sit-down comic. I’ll sit down and struggle with myself and maybe compose a joke, or come up with a character that can reflect some of those absurdities…

Pakistan has lots of TV news stations, and suddenly I’ve seen that every single channel has got a political satire show, and those are the shows that are doing really well. Things are so bad that nobody actually wants any more analysis. Nobody wants any more pundits telling them the future because they know it is all downhill. So we might as well sit here and laugh at ourselves.

Mohammed Hanif in Karachi, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Providence, January 11, 2010