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 • 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 Alam Imtiaz Alam has the gruff manner of your classic, ...

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 • 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 • October 19, 2009

Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. When I got to the New York Times (some years before Chris Hedges) in the late Sixties, Alden Whitman had the bad news moniker, writing obits of great figures for the paper of record. When Alden Whitman knocked on your door for a long interview about your life, you were supposed to know it was almost over. It’s Chris Hedges’s gig now, observing all of us. After most of 20 years as a war correspondent with the Times, Chris Hedges in 2003 charged his paper and others with “shameful cheerleading” for the war in Iraq, and left to study up again on ancient history, theology and classic literature, and to write his own classic, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. In his new jeremiad, Empire of Illusion, pro wrestling and pornography are the bookend spectacles in a parody culture all around us now — the grotesque joke representations of power and eros in the end times. I find these resonant arguments, from the rare daily-news ace who’s trained himself also in the long view:

To believe somehow that we are the culmination, that time is linear, that we are progressing morally, is to ignore human history and human nature, and essentially to remain in a state of infantilism. That’s what illusion is about. If we had an understanding of what the dying days, the twilight hours of great civilizations were like we would be able to see all the flashing lights, the warning signs around us. But I think that the illiteracy which has gripped the country (a third of this country is either illiterate, or is technically literate but doesn’t read anymore); that shift from a print based culture into an image based culture, the belief that how we are made to feel is a form of knowledge, propaganda being a kind of ideology — these are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are image based, spectacle based states.

We have set the ground for a seamless transfer from a democracy into a kind of corporate state. With the corporate state always comes the rise of the surveillance or the security state. We lack the capacity, having been unmoored from print, and relying on skillfully manipulated images, to fight back… We see it in the environmental crisis; we are literally destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species; the gap widens between the illusion of the world we think we live in, and the reality of that world.  What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face. They will react like all children, which is to reach out for demagogues who promise a new glory, vengeance and moral renewal.

CL: What survives of American hegemony if in fact it’s over?

CH: Well, it is over. We can’t continue to borrow, to sustain either a level of consumption or the empire that we demand. It’s just a question of when, and how do we respond. I don’t think learning to live without the piles of junk that have been bequeathed to us by consumer culture is going to impoverish our lifestyle. I don’t think that learning a new humility as empire is dismantled is a negative. We will have to learn another language other than the language of force by which we speak to most of the rest of the world, certainly those in the Middle East. It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of hope or a life of meaning or a life of richness; it just means a different kind of life. The danger is not grasping this reality. That’s the danger. if we’re not prepared for this reality, if we continue to live as the most delusional nation on the planet, than we we will end up like Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia was caused by the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia — it vomited up figures like Slobodan Milosevic; the Weimar republic did the same; did the collapse of Czarist Russia…

What remains? I think that unfortunately American culture (or cultures, for we once had many cultures with their own iconography and aesthetic, and a decentralized press that gave expression to local communities) was dismantled and destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with mass corporate culture… The drive of corporate culture was to implant the need for consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. Drawing on Freud, it was about manipulating people, appealing to subliminal desires and anxieties, often creating those anxieties, to fuel a kind of wild orgy of consumable products that were supposed to sort of ameliorate our alienation and atomization and loneliness and despair. And all of that is falling down around us. And yet we haven’t recognized that reality. It’s not unique. There’s that emotional incapacity to understand how fragile the world is around us and how rapidly it can disintegrate. I think having been a war correspondent, and having lived in societies that did disintegrate, I’m much more conscious. I can walk in my supermarket and imagine all the windows knocked out and the shelves bare and the neon lights hanging, because I’ve seen it. There’s that dual capacity to see how swiftly and quickly any society can collapse.

CL: We elected a president who promised literally a kind of transformation. I don’t want to to argue Obama politics, so much as just to ask: is transformation an illusion?

CH: Well, we elected a brand. We elected a presidential candidate who campaigned, like his rival, primarily on a personal narrative. You had rallies where people were chanting slogans like “yes we can,” which they stole by the way from FedEx-Kinko’s. It was campaign by experience: it was a very effective way of making us feel a certain way about a candidate. But Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state anymore than George W. Bush threatened the core of the corporate state.  That has been more than evidenced by Obama’s willingness to continue the looting of the American treasury, the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history. In the 17th century in England, speculators were hung. In our society they are given tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, and they run the government.

Chris Hedges in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 8, 2009.

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.