Podcast • February 23, 2011

Philip Weiss: A Jewish Argument around the Arab Revolt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3) Photo from bigthink.com Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Philip Weiss. (65 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Photo from bigthink.com

Philip Weiss, exulting in the glorious news from Egypt, says: “the handwriting on the wall is Arabic.” The 55-year-old meta-journalist dedicates his website MondoWeiss to “the war of ideas in the Middle East.” His project is more daring and difficult than that sounds. Really it’s to start something between a moral argument and a civil war over the big book of Jewish tradition and “spiritual wholeness” — over US national interests, the Palestinian condition, Israel and the whole modern idea of Zionism, by which he means the judgment from 19th and 20th Century European experience that Jews cannot be safe as a tiny minority in non-Jewish countries.

On the page and in conversation Philip Weiss is celebrating the revolution in Egypt for the bold non-violent genius of the Arab street. It moves him to tears that youngsters are using the social Web — Western technologies of gossip and hooking up — to liberate a great people. He also writes bitingly that the revolution is a gift for us Americans, too, to help us purge decades of disinformation and denial about what our policies have accomplished.

Not the least of many ironies in the story is Philip Weiss’s acknowledgment of “another feature writer,” the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860 – 1904), usually cited as the father of Zionism. Herzl grew up, as Weiss did, a “Christmas tree Jew,” but he was alert to the reality of his day in Vienna and Paris in the late 19th Century — personal threats to Herzl and shouts of “Death to Jews” on the streets of Europe’s capitals. “Anti-Semitism made me Jewish again,” was Herzl’s line. Philip Weiss’s analog is “Neo-conservatism made me Jewish again.” The reality of Philip Weiss’s day in America is that “I went to Harvard-fucking-College. I lead a really privileged life. I’ve never had an obstacle placed in my way, career wise, that I didn’t put there myself. And that is true of my whole generation, and the next generation… So what does that say — what does that real experience say — about the central tenet of Zionism which is that a minority is unsafe in a Western country? It’s bullshit — that’s what it says. And the type of society that we treasure in which a minority is safe and free is one that we as a community are destroying in the Middle East! destroying that idea! … The denial of the real conditions of Palestinian life by Jews is shocking to me… that my people would be so blind to the suffering.”

We are sitting in Philip Weiss’ living room in a snow-bound house high above the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan. Iraq was “a war of ideas,” he’s arguing — many of them out of the Jewish-American right wing. It’s not enough to hate “that bastard Bush,” as his mother does, because George Bush wouldn’t know an idea if one bit him. The Best and the Brightest, Phil Weiss reminds you, was not about JFK but about his brains-trust. Iraq “came out of a Jewish neo-con fantasy… We haven’t dealt with it, but we’re starting. In five years it will be debated at centers for Jewish history. It will take a while.”

I want a civil war in Jewish life. My dream is to have a Jewish family on stage, arguing about this in front of everyone. Remember what it did for gay rights that Lance Loud was coming out on television in the early 70s. That family — whatever price they paid in their privacy, and certainly they entertained us — also helped liberate a lot of suffering homosexuals… I want the Jewish family on stage to be having that reality show around this issue. So that people get to see my surrogate in that family — there are many of them out there, the young Jews. I want to see the tears. I want to see the rage. I want to see the charges of betrayal. I want this all out on the stage. I want “you’re a traitor,” “you’re a self-hating Jew,” I want the whole fuckin’ thing. I want everybody to watch, because it’s vital. It’s just like the gay people. In the Jewish family, these people have been closeted. You know, I never thought about this before: they are just like the gay people, when they were closeted. A lot of them are afraid to come out, and a lot of people who help me on the website are not public. A lot of the Arabs aren’t, and a lot of the academic and government officials aren’t because their careers would suffer. One guy says: “you can’t use my name because my father will have a heart attack.” But this should be done publicly. Right now I want to tap into reality, and I’m actually trying to find a Jewish family that will do it. Because the Neo Cons believe what they believe. But I think as soon as they start offering their bullshit on stage, and start talking about Anti-Semitism on stage, I want Americans to understand what price we’re paying for the belief that Anti-Semitism is a persistent factor in Western society, and that Jews need a refuge. Americans have a right to judge the reality of that statement.

Philip Weiss in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cold Spring, New York, February 16, 2011.

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

Podcast • September 16, 2010

Arianna Huffington: who will change the conversation?

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America ...

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America to ask her, as queen of the media transformation: why does our public chatter in a campaign year sound so idiotic? So full of mis- and dis-information, so full of untethered rage?

We got into it by way of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century’s great conservative English Parliamentarian who put the worst malefactors of the British Empire (the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Bushes of his time) on trial.

CL: You mention Burke… I didn’t realize we were on the same fan-page, but Edmund Burke is to me the missing voice in America today. He believed in empire, but in responsible empire — empire that cared as much for Indian people and Indian prosperity and Indian welfare as it cared for the English…

AH: America is in many ways acting like a declining empire. If you look at Afghanistan for example, only a declining empire with a perverse sense of priorities would be spending hundreds of billions of dollars conducting a war which is unwinnable, which is not in our national security interests … I quote Arnold Toynbee in the book, who said that empires more often die because they commit suicide rather than from murder. Imagine what would happen if that 2 billion dollars a week that we’re spending in Afghanistan were brought here to help rebuild the country and get jobs for people and rebuild our infrastructure. You mentioned Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. There’s no question that the fundamental mistake the Obama White House made was to appoint people whose view of the world was so Wall Street-centric to run economic policy. It was a little bit like having pre-Gallilean people, who believe that everything revolves around the earth, produce navigation maps. It wasn’t going to work, the ships were going to sink.

CL: I want to ask you the media question. Who are we going to believe to tell us this story? Who’s going to confirm in a kind of fundamental American narrative that we’re in the gravest risk of facing a kind of terminal imperial moment?

AH: Well, it’s not a Who. You see that is really what is different. That’s a very important question, because what is different is that we’re not waiting for some Walter Cronkite voice to tell us this is how it is. This is what is new and what is exciting: we all have to tell the story. We all have to tell the story of our time, and people are saying it online. So our job is to collect these thousands of stories and create a mosaic.

CL: I do want Walter Cronkite in a way to announce this. I still want the gods of my youth — Walter Lippmann, and James Reston, and page one of the New York Times — to confirm what we all know, but know in isolation. I’m still looking for a figure that’s vaguely authoritative, in touch with the historical narrative, with a base broader than one, who also can write commanding prose. I want someone not just to tell a story on a video screen, but to change the overall narrative. The overall narrative that people say is going to prevail in the elections this fall is that we’re taxed too much, that the government takes our money and throws it away, or that Obama’s a Muslim, or that some guy in the South wants to burn the Koran. We are awash in these basically idiotic narratives that are fundamentally out of touch.

AH: Chris, Chris, Chris, let me hold your hand. Get over it. There isn’t going to be a Walter Cronkite to tell us how it is.

CL: There is one, and his name is Glenn Beck —

AH: No, that’s the point. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement is responding to the incredible abuse of power by our establishments. Their response is potentially dangerous, but there is a lot of legitimate anger out there… If you scratch the surface of whatever the Tea Partiers are saying, underneath it is this incredible anger at the bailout. Right now, there are going to be two forces: the Tea Party response, which very often becomes anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, basically the scapegoating that we’ve seen throughout history. And then there can be a constructive response. Yes, the system is screwed up, we need to try and fix the system, while we’re fixing it we need to see what can we do in our own communities, in our own families, to turn things around. If we don’t do that, we are basically ceding the future to the forces of anger that are really creating these idiotic narratives to make sense of what has happened in their lives.

Arianna Huffington with Chris Lydon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, September 13, 2010

Podcast • April 19, 2010

David Hoffman: A Running Tour of YouTube Nation

David Hoffman produced 88 PBS documentary features and five feature-length films over a forty-year career. But that was then. And this is a guy whose life keeps starting over. Always interestingly. We’ve shared before our ...

David Hoffman produced 88 PBS documentary features and five feature-length films over a forty-year career. But that was then. And this is a guy whose life keeps starting over. Always interestingly. We’ve shared before our adventures with the great sound-man Tony Schwartz

We’re in James Der Derian’s class on global media at Brown again, and David Hoffman is pushing through the cliche that we live in a screen culture and a YouTube world. We didn’t know the half of it. Today we’re taking his tour of YouTube nation, peopled by more 1 billion searches every day. Hoffman, who thought he’d been around the whole block, has stumbled on a sort of “Louisiana Purchase” of the media landscape. It’s homey, it’s cheap, it’s much much bigger than network television already, and it’s barely begun to chew up what we used to call media and spit it all out.

Documentary film-making was, and is, a rich person’s pursuit, as he tells us. But anyone can talk to a camera and post the result. He loves YouTube’s celebration of a messy, cheap aesthetic, helping viewers learn to love jump cuts and engage raw content. No one could be happier about this victory of moving image and spoken word: “It’s terrible to sit at your computer screen and read words,” he says, “It’s painful.”

For David Hoffman, this is just the beginning of a long-needed move away from censorship and big media control over information. But it’s a shift, he cautions, that demands a comprehensive new standard of media literacy.

Our conversation begins with this month’s release – by Wikileaks – and its viral penetration – through YouTube – of a classified US government video documenting the alleged “indiscriminate slaying of more than a dozen people” outside of Baghdad:

Podcast • November 4, 2009

"The Wire" Rewired

“The Wire” was the genius series on HBO that “revealed” Baltimore today (“Bodymore, Murderland”) the way Dickens’ Bleak House and Oliver Twist revealed 19th Century London. It was “reality television,” finally, about no-go America: not ...

The Wire” was the genius series on HBO that “revealed” Baltimore today (“Bodymore, Murderland”) the way Dickens’ Bleak House and Oliver Twist revealed 19th Century London. It was “reality television,” finally, about no-go America: not just terror-stricken drugged-out public housing but the complexity of human responses inside it. It was the new-media breakthrough that made producer David Simon an authority on how and why old media failed. It was the series that retired in glory after five years, but in DVD release is still challenging all our mythologies of drugs, race, schools, work, want of work, and police work.

First Middlebury, then Duke, now Harvard are teaching courses around The Wire, because as the esteemed Harvard Sociologist William J. Wilson put it, the show goes deeper into the challenges and inequality of urban life than social science ever has. This is television that changed also the people who made it. Our conversation is with two of the key contributors who are part of teaching the Wire are also still dealing with what it stirred up in their own lives. First, the real Donnie Andrews, a “ghetto famous” free-lance killer of drug dealers in Baltimore who fired up the idea of The Wire and inspired “Omar,” a main character in it. Ed Burns, later a co-producer of The Wire, was Donnie’s arresting officer. David Simon covered the story for The Baltimore Sun:

It was during a time when I think I was at my lowest point, because I had just lost a very dear friend of mine, who died in my arms… As he was dying, he asked me who he was, who was I? And I told him: Donnie. He said “Donnie, I can’t see you.” At that point I realized, I couldn’t see myself either. That was the turning point for me. It was like we had a war going on, a drug war, in Lexington Terrace. We were always assigned to take somebody out. And the guy I took out, I already put like 4 bullets in him, and I stood over top of him, and he looked up and asked me: why? I stood there for what seemed like an eternity trying to figure out that question, why am I doing this? He’s black just like me, got a mother, brother, sister, family, just like me, and I just took everything from him. And I don’t even know why. And at that point it began to turn my life around. So I went home and I read the Bible. Paul. I read Paul. I didn’t come out of the house for like 2 days, and I just kept reading Paul over and over. Finally I realized that if Paul, who did basically same thing that I did, God forgave him. And converted him, so maybe he can do the same for me. So I got on my knees and I prayed.

Donnie Andrews with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, October 30, 2009.

And the actress Sonja Sohn, who played the often anguished narcotics cop, Kima Greggs:

My first year on The Wire was absolute torture. For some reason, and I didn’t know at the time, I would get on the set, and many times I couldn’t remember my lines, I would go into a little bit of a panic, and it just – it was something I just couldn’t figure out. And I thought, gosh, am I really this bad of an actor? I later started learning about complex PTSD, and realized that a part of my brain was just shutting down, the entire year I was shooting The Wire. I’ll give you an example: my mother was battered by my father on a somewhat regular basis. And in the neighborhood, you don’t ever call the police, ever. You don’t snitch and you don’t call the police. But there were a number of times when I thought my mother was going to be killed by my father, and I would go upstairs and call the police, hoping that my mother was going to be alive when they came. And the police would come – and I thought “wow, thank god, they’re going to take him away.” And they would talk a little bit, and they would leave my father there. I would go, “why aren’t they taking him away?” and then after a course of time, third, fourth time, they would come and just sort of smirk and snicker, just kind of pooh-pooh this thing away. And I started to hate the cops, because I thought “you guys are supposed to help me, you’re supposed to save my mother, and it’s not happening, and as a matter of fact, you’re now laughing at my family.” So I realized, one reason I couldn’t step into the character of a cop is because I had such deep resentment for the cops, and a lot of pain, that eventually I had to unravel.

Sonya Sohn with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, October 30, 2009.

Podcast • April 30, 2009

Angles on Empire: Book Week at Brown

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new books from the Watson Institute this spring. Two common points here: you won’t forget these perspectives once you’ve taken in the view; and you won’t see them anytime soon on page one of the New York Times. One is about our military real estate: 900-plus US military bases around the world — many of them toxic, more and more of them under local protest. The other is about the cultural process of war: the technology, media, narrative story line, TV and digital graphics of military power into the 21st Century. The anthropologist Catherine Lutz edited The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts. Political theorist James Der Derian wrote Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media-Entertainment Network.

I asked James Der Derian to take apart the pun in his title about virtue, virtuality, virtuosity…

JDD: I was hoping that “virtuous war” would be a felicitous oxymoron — the tension between the idea of war, which is bloody and dirty, and the whole idea in the virtuous that you can do good through something so blunt as warfare. Part of it comes out of the humanitarian intervention systems that evolved out of earlier administrations; we shouldn’t put this all on the doorstep of the Bush administration. You see it coming together, the virtual and the virtuous, both in doctrine and technology. The idea that what we can do should determine what we should do is part of the notion of “virtuous.” At one time the words “virtual” and “virtuous” were synonymous. They went down separate tracks in the Middle Ages. They always contained this idea of producing an effect at a distance, which technology can do; but it was about producing a good effect. Christ was in some ways a “virtual” tool of God. The notion also in Greek thinking as well of how the gods operated carried the idea of “virtuosity.” So in the United States it becomes almost a “deus ex machina” — to use war — in particular, a high-tech, low-casualty (at least for our side) form of warfare — to solve some of these intractable problems.

CL: What is the connection between the “war on terror” and your “virtuous war”?

James Der Derian: virtual virtuosity

JDD: It speaks to the virtualization of the enemy During the Cold War we had a fairly obvious enemy other. General Powell at one point said we’re being deprived of enemies: all we had left at one point was the North Koreans. In one way when you talk about the War on Terror, it’s to recognize that the old models, the old paradigms of war (particularly the idea of organized violence among and between states) no longer holds. And yet the master narrative continues. So you’re looking for some “other” to plug into this notion of “the enemy.” One reason why the President and others use the term “war on terror,” as absurd as it sounds, is that we didn’t want to recognize the face that you could have 19 terrorists spend about $500-thousand and incur close to $25-billion in immediate destruction, not including the Iraq war that followed, which is going to top out probably around $1-trillion before we get out of there.

CL: Is it possible that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda mastered virtuous or virtual warfare before we did?

JDD: No, but it you look at what Bin Laden said in a famous interview in 2004, he’s talking about how “we’re going to provoke the superpower, provoke the Crusader, and we’re basically going to beggar them.” He was very savvy about the notion of how to magnify this minuscule group of really pathological heretics within Islam into this colossus that would produce this over-reaction — would call out almost an auto-immune response where our attempt at a cure would be worse than the disease. In that case, Bin Laden was incredibly rational and savvy about how to magnify what was a pretty insignificant force into something that now can play on the same field as the superpower.

James Der Derian in conversation with Chris Lydon and Catherine Lutz at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Cathy Lutz picked up immediately on the convergence of these two scholars’ perspectives.

Catherine Lutz: a fantastical system

I think that’s exactly the way to look at the American military bases — as a response that has a certain rationality but ends up being a completely overwrought response to the notion of empire — of the desire that the United States has a role, should play and can play a role in controlling events around the world. Hence this global spread and distribution of these bases with that dream behind it of global control, global surveillance, global knowledge. The assumption that there’s a lot of rationality in the system as a whole — we need to rethink that. There’s rationality in parts of it, different forms of rationality, but they form up into what we can see is a pretty fantastical system… It costs over $100-billion in the US military budget. It’s a very significant investment in a certain kind of idea of the world, and the US role in it.

Catherine Lutz in conversation with Chris Lydon and James Der Derian at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Podcast • July 18, 2008

And now for something completely different…

John Maeda, the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design, has said his wants his job to be “something delivered live as a kind of open conversation with the RISD community and the ...

John Maeda, the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design, has said his wants his job to be “something delivered live as a kind of open conversation with the RISD community and the world.” At our own joint site lydonmaeda.com, we are embarking on our own digressive ramble around whatever topics pop up — a few of them referenced in the visuals here. You are cordially invited to join the conversation with a comment, or with suggestions as to where we go from here.

Click to listen to the conversation with

John Maeda and Chris Lydon (49 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

maeda page

Podcast • June 27, 2008

Tony Schwartz — for the Next Generation

Tony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the ...

tony schwartzTony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the old “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of West Side Manhattan. Hunched over his turntables, wrapped in earphones and cables in a room lined on every wall with Tony’s 40 years of sound recordings, he’d remind you of the Wizard of Oz with his bumbling air of magic, but also of Orson Welles with his grasp of theatrical effects, and also his friend Marshall McLuhan with his flair for multi-media theory and his experience with how message systems really work, in and out of your body. I’d first entered this little high church of sound covering George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.


I went back in 1974 to write this Times piece, Packaging Voters for Candidates, TV-Style on Tony, the “best in the business” of media consulting. And I went back and back for ever after to absorb Tony’s coaching. He was gently instructive when I took him my first television stand-ups after leaving the Times. “You’re trying to do what Times training impels you to do — push ‘facts’ through the camera lens at the viewer. But listen to me, Chris: television is not a medium of information; it’s a medium of effects…” I learned on my own, when I came back from vacation to the TV desk with a mustache, that television viewers are looking mainly at their presenters’ hair, and not hearing much of what they say. Tony observed that television is mainly an auditory medium, and would be more effective if your picture tube was out of commission. He beleived that for many evolutionary and anatomical reasons — not least because “people are born without ear-lids” — the ear and audio deliver more of the signals that form our thinking than the eye does. And many of the trademark Tony Schwartz spots on television were commercials that deliberately slowed down the eye input with still photos, for example, or neutralized the eye with a shot of just an office clock and a second hand, while an actor’s plummy voice was asking: “Would you give me sixty seconds to tell you why Bob Abrams should be Attorney General of New York?”

tony and mike

Tony adored the babble of babies and the outdoor sounds of his block of New York. Above all he loved what Studs Terkel calls “that fabulous instrument, vox humana.” The blossoming of Tony’s reputation in the Seventies and the soundness of his books — The Responsive Chord and Media: the Second God — ran nicely parallel with the rebirth of radio at NPR. I was late taking the cue to radio myself, but I knew from Tony that radio was God’s own medium, and by the time I got there I knew from Tony why it felt like home. It is wonderful to realize, in the responses on Tony’s death two weeks ago, that the pied pipers of the rising radio generation — people like Jay Allison and Ira Glass— are devoted practitioners of Tony Schwartz’s ideas.

So maybe the next question is how many more of the podcasters and other newbies enabled by the inexpensive tools of Internet radio will get the blessing of Tony’s techniques and wise encouragement. I engage the brilliant and prolific TV documentarian David Hoffman — of “Sputnik Mania” in theaters this summer and the comprehensive film Guerrilla Media about Tony — in the conversation here not only to remember the master of sound and his signature pieces, but to introduce the wisdom of Tony Schwartz to the podcast generation. With your help, it might be just the start of our appreciation of Tony.

Podcast • March 28, 2008

The News about the News: Jay Rosen

This seems to be the moment in which the death of the American newspaper can be foretold with some authority — by Eric Alterman in this week’s New Yorker; by the new local owners of ...

This seems to be the moment in which the death of the American newspaper can be foretold with some authority — by Eric Alterman in this week’s New Yorker; by the new local owners of the great old papers (“The news business is something worse than horrible,” says Sam Zell, in what sounds like buyer’s remorse over Chicago’s Tribune Company); by The New York Times itself in what has become a serial, almost daily obituary (here, for example) and by our guru and guide to the transformation of media, Jay Rosen of New York University.

Jay Rosen was the prophet of people-first “civic journalism” twenty years ago, before the Web gave citizen-bloggers the tools to be press lords, or at least publishers, on the cheap. In our first podcast nearly five years ago, Jay was among the first to see the breadth of the upheaval. “The terms of authority are changing,” he put it then. His website PressThink has become the real Press Club of thinking practitioners in this drawn-out existential crisis.

In James Der Derian’s Global Media class at Brown last week, Jay Rosen gave his account of the Web stars becoming institutions: Instapundit, the first distributed newsroom; DailyKos, “by far the most vibrant community I know”; The Huffington Post, rising on the power of aggregation; and “the first Web-born media company,” Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and its offspring. But Jay was at his most compelling on the bad news: what feels like the inexorable, personal, cosmic, professional, civic tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes at the New York Times:

JR: The Times is a unique property… an extremely valuable institution, and it would be a tragedy if it just fell apart, or became like everything else… They’ve gained huge numbers of readers online, but they’re caught in an economic squeeze: that the readers are moving online but advertising is not, or at a much slower rate. The reason for that is even more fundamental. The newspaper of old was a sort of compendium of unlike things that were blended together because it made economic sense: sports together with the classifieds, international news, the bridge column. And now if you’re interested in bridge, there are a zillion bridge sites that are better than the bridge column. And if you’re interested in a car, you go to Auto Trader.com And if you want a roommate, you go to Craigslist. This is called un-bundling. It turns out that what the New York Times has that’s really important is not the presses; they’re not that valuable. It’s not the advertising; it’s not the classifieds, which are basically over now. It’s this reputation for trust and reliability. They’re caught in one more dilemma that fascinates me. They understand that they need to become more transparent online. By transparent I mean: telling people where you’re coming from, owning up to mistakes, explaining how you make decisions. These are the things that create trust online. However the New York Times as an institution has always operated the opposite way. It’s been a Cathedral of News: you don’t explain why you do stuff, you just put it on the front page. As [executive editor] Bill Keller says, “Watch the paper.” They’ve built up their authority by not explaining themselves, but they’re caught up in a publishing environment that values transparency. They don’t want to relinquish their authority either. They end up veering from one standard to the other. They can’t decide whether they want to be the priest of news, who had a certain mystique about him — or the most potent, most transparent institution on the Web. The only person who could resolve that strategic choice– Cathedral or Transparency? — is the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. And the tragic thing for the New York Times is that he’s just not up to it. He’s not smart enough, he doesn’t have enough depth or vision to make that choice.

CL: I want to gild that lily with one thought. It seems to me you could argue that the most important thing about the New York Times, it’s great value, is not even its reputation but its readership. Richard Rovere wrote a piece in the New Yorker in the Fifties, I think, that said basically: the American Establishment — what is it? It’s the people who read the New York Times. And vice versa. If you want to join the club, become a regular reader of the New York Times. I keep waiting for the New York Times to liberate its readers to report the news for them. Stop telling us what happened and ask us what happened. The Web is a perfect device to filter news and opinion. If they would only turn that telescope around, we could be approaching a new day.

JR: Dan Gillmor, who covered Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News, was the first newspaper reporter to get a blog, to know what blogging was. A few months in he realized — he could have known, but it took the blog to teach him — that “my readers know more than I do.” That was always true of any beat reporter: that readers in the aggregate knew more than he did. What is different today is that because of the Web, that knowledge that readers have more of can now flow back toward the journalist. So the number-one asset of the New York Times is — you’re right — is not just their trust and reputation. It’s actually the knowledge and sophistication of the people who read the New York Times. And if the newspaper could begin to reverse that flow, so that they’re taking in as well as broadcasting out, they would become, I believe, a news powerhouse. But they don’t want to do that. They hesitate. They fumble the ball. They hem and they haw… because it doesn’t fit with their notion of authority, to go back to the beginning. It undermines their ideas about the Cathedral of News. It undermines, in their view, their authority to start asking: “what do you know?” That’s not the business they want to be in, that they thought they were going to be in when they joined the New York Times. The glory of the New York Times is not: “hey, tell us what you know.” It’s: “we’re going to tell you what we know, and you’re going to listen to it.” And so it’s this nostalgia for the world of one-to-many communications. What fascinating to me as an observer is that they’re very intelligent people… They know what open-source journalism is… They even read my blog occasionally. They know what I stand for… But they can’t bite the bullet, primarily because it doesn’t fit with their self-image. Isn’t that funny?

Jay Rosen of New York University and PressThink, at Brown University, March 19, 2008

James Der Derian, esteemed head of the global security program at Brown’s Watson Institute and our host professor, closed as he is wont to do with a quote from the German culture theorist Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940). “When you live in times of terror, when everything is a conspiracy, then everyone must play the detective.” Thank you, Jay Rosen, for showing us how to do it.

Podcast • March 7, 2008

London: The News about the News

“Harry’s War is Over” was the headline all over London on the weekend of our grand gabby openDemocracy conference on “Credibility in the New News.” But, of course, that scoop about 23-year-old, third-from-the-throne Prince Harry ...

“Harry’s War is Over” was the headline all over London on the weekend of our grand gabby openDemocracy conference on “Credibility in the New News.” But, of course, that scoop about 23-year-old, third-from-the-throne Prince Harry at the front in Afghanistan had been suppressed for weeks by the embedded London papers until it finally surfaced in the Drudge Report. Is there more to be said about the near-death of British newspapering? They’re all colorful tabloids now, shrunken in size, seriousness and self-respect, except perhaps for the Guardian and the broadsheet Financial Times. Who’s got the credibility problem?

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations at the Open Democracy conference in London here (39 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

tony curzon price

Tony Curzon Price of openDemocracy

Yet there we were at the London School of Economics in a wary, often worried meditation on the rewiring of the circuits that go from information to “content,” to news, to master-narrative, to belief, to action in the body politic these days. Tony Curzon Price, editor of openDemocracy, spoke with reserve about the “very hectic slow motion” in which the digital transformation in media reveals itself. “It’s all up in the air,” he said, “and it’s still falling, no one knows where.”

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, a contrarian in the openDemocracy fellowship, is not reconciled to the ease of access to the blogosphere and what seems to him “massive self-publication by imbeciles.”

David Hayes neatly identified openDemocracy, of which he is deputy editor, with the spirit of the Gandhi line: “I want the winds of all the world’s cultures to blow freely through my house. But I don’t wish to be blown away by any of them.” The mission of openDemocracy and Web journalism, Hayes said, must be to build a space both broad and deep, that brings many kinds of outsiders into the conversation, because “everything now works both ways.”

masha lipman

Masha Lipman: “Pro et Contra” the Web

Masha Lipman gave a vivid picture of a burgeoning Internet culture in Russia — making not the slightest dent in the crushing power of the Kremlin. Mark Hunter, an American journalist who teaches at the University of Paris, argued that right-wing presslord Rupert Murdoch of FoxNews and left-wing movie man Michael Moore are the real success stories of the new “consensual media,” blatantly surfacing the identities of their customers in both style and content. John Lloyd of the Financial Times pressed the question of who, in the new market, is interested in the wider view — in reality — and who is willing to pay for it?

My takeaway is that we’re having a hard time thinking big enough — or talking as cheerfully as we actually feel — about the Internet blessings in store for a planet that must be liberated and reconciled in new ways. I have been reading Arnold Toynbee (1889 – 1975) recently (at Parag Khanna‘s urging) and on the flight to London I was struck specially by a Toynbee essay from shortly after World War II, just 60 years ago, that told us to be on the lookout for a “scaffolding,” an epochal tool (sounds like the Internet) for “the unification of the world.” We are, he suggests, the last innocents, the last provincials, in a world that our technologies have changed utterly. So here, from the meta-historian of civilizations, is what I take to be Toynbee’s summary of the 500-year course from Vasco da Gama, who reached India by sea in 1498, to the World Wide Web:

arnold toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

The main strand is not even the expansion of the West over the world — so long as we persist in thinking of that expansion as a private enterprise of the Western society’s own. The main strand is the progressive erection, by Western hands, of a scaffolding within which all the once separate societies have built themselves into one. … [The] future world… will be neither Western nor non-Western but will inherit all the cultures which we Westerners have now brewed together in a single crucible…

The paradox of our generation is that all the world has now profited by an education which the West has provided, except… the West herself. The west today is still looking at history from that old parochial self-centred standpoint which the other living societies have by now been compelled to transcend. Yet, sooner or later, the West in her turn, is bound to receive the re-education which the other civilizations have obtained already from the unification of the world by Western action…

The West alone has so far escaped this unceremonious treatment. Unshattered, up till now, by an upheaval of its own making, our local civilization is still hugging the smug and slovenly illusion in which its ‘opposite numbers’ indulged till they took their educative toss from the levelled horns of an unintentionally altruistic bull. Sooner or later, the repercussions of this collision will assuredly recoil upon the West herself; but for the present this Janus-like figure slumbers on — abroad a charging bull, at home a now solitary Sleeping Beauty.

Arnold Toynbee, “The Unification of the World,” in Civilization on Trial, Oxford University Press, 1948. Pages 79 through 91.

For “the West” I would read the United States these days; we have met this Sleeping Beauty, and she is Us.