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 • February 3, 2010

McChesney and Nichols: $30-billion to save journalism

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Robert McChesney and John Nichols (56 minutes, 26 meg mp3) Robert McChesney and John Nichols are grappling with the question: what would Thomas Jefferson do about the death ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Robert McChesney and John Nichols (56 minutes, 26 meg mp3)

Robert McChesney and John Nichols are grappling with the question: what would Thomas Jefferson do about the death of the American newspaper? Better, Jefferson said, to have newspapers without a government than to have government without newspapers. Yet here we are two centuries later, and the papers are disappearing. What is to sustain essential journalism in the digital age?

Core doctrine among the Founders, in the McChesney-Nichols argument, was not just that the press must be free of interference and censorship but that its vigor and variety should be sustained by subsidized access to printing and the mails. Some of the freshest parts of their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, recount how Generals MacArthur in Japan and Eisenhower in Germany designed and built new institutions of free open journalism on the theory, as McChesney and Nichols put it, that “creating a viable free press is the first duty … of the democratic state.”

Thirty billion dollars a year is the subsidy figure that McChesney and Martin are proposing today — their projection of the support that Jefferson & Company gave to the press two centuries ago. They insist they are thinking of rebuilding a culture, not bailing out dying newspapers. They embrace Dean Baker’s idea of a Citizenship News Voucher which would let people direct the spending of, say, $200 a year, to the local, global or specialized journalism they value, so long as it’s non-profit and non-commercial.

My question — my reservation really — is the thought that the Internet is already the government’s accidental gift that keeps on giving. It’s worth much more than $30 billion to have wiped out the cost of paper, printing, delivery and all the capital barriers to a worldwide marketplace of ideas. My guess is that Thomas Jefferson, a blogger in retirement, would be reading and reveling in the digital miracle that has enabled kindred spirits like Glenn Greenwald, Juan Cole, Joshua Micah Marshall and Arianna Huffington… not to mention Robert McChesney, John Nichols and their admirable creation, FreePress. Net.

Post up, please, on what more you’d spend and where, to sustain the contentious journalism Jefferson had in mind.