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If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May 10th, 2007

Graduation

Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007

[This is an open-letter to the person who asked.]

If you listen carefully, you can hear faint cries from Manhattan, every so often, from 2 May at 4:45 pm, when I turned in my MFA thesis, until 2:30 pm on the 18th, which is Commencement. The cries are pleasure or pain, like a baby’s, or the bouncing ones from the couple in the motel room next door getting it on. They’re pleasure and pain both, the bittersweet realization that school is over. I loved each and every class, and my classmates, and being with them, and I’m going to miss it all.

The literature seminars were terrific, though in an regular university way. A writing workshop class is something else again. There’s the ownership we have in our words, the risks we take in writing them, the way even fiction and poetry are about ourselves, one way or another, and the way the risks are all doubled and tripled when we show others work that still in progress…. It all makes for something that’s part encounter group, part martial arts.

Bittersweet as well was the thesis reading last week. For three days, Thurs/Fri/Sat, we each read 350 words from our theses; 30+ per night, almost 100 in the program in total. Two hours a night, snack food, beer, wine, an intermission, it was very pleasant. Last year apparently they had a longer time limit, and crammed it into two nights that were marathons of 5 and 4 hours.

350 words is not enough by half when you’re choosing them, but it turned out to give a real taste of what people did in their thesis and to let you know which ones you really wanted to go to the library and read (one copy of the thesis will be in the New School library forever). They were funny and fun and sad and revealing and sometimes the words soared high above and exploded like fireworks, and sometimes they hit you as if you had tried to catch a football with your ribcage.

I was put next-to-last on Friday night and couldn’t decide between two choices. My advisor wanted me to read one the end of Chapter 1, which is about a day of ice climbing. The other choice was the beginning of Chapter 3, about my climbing partner Crazy Mike.

The Crazy Mike selection would be easier for people to understand and it had a killer image in the first paragraph, the kind that blinds you like a camera-flash and lingers, making it hard to hear what’s next. It also ended with a great list, and writers love lists (because readers love them). It had a character who was a real character. Basically, it showed a lot of what I learned in the program and it was well liked in workshop.

The ice climbing passage had some drama, emotions, some nice images, and was about climbing, which was a huge plus. In addition, it went, as my advisor, the writer Susan Cheever, put it, from the particular to the general, which she said always worked. It didn’t workshop nearly as well.

Even at the intermission I, I was undecided. I asked Susan again, and again she said the ice climbing piece. I was still unsure. Finally, I said to myself that she knows what she’s talking about. She’s written book after book, she’s given hundreds of readings, she just finished a book tour where she had to decide what to read. She knows what works, and why the hell was I asking her if I didn’t think she knew best.

I brought both versions to the podium, looked up, said my name, adjusted the microphone, and decided to trust Susan. As I was reading, I knew it was going well. I was slow, I was clear, I was quietly animated, I was standing just the right distance from the microphone. I could barely look up at the 200 or so people sitting there—I hadn’t practiced the ice climbing piece, so I had to really look at it. The one time I remember raising my eyes I saw, in the front row, three faces listening intently—the head of the program; my final-semester workshop teacher; and the head of the fiction program.

I sat down to applause, shaking. (The next night I would talk to the person who I think had the absolutely best reading, a poet named Liesel, who described how much she shook after reading.) I looked over at Robert, the head of the program. He was waiting to make eye contact with me and smiled and nodded. I smiled back and looked to his right. My workshop teacher smiled and nodded. Then the head of the fiction program, who didn’t know me even by sight, did the same. The next night she would stop me as our paths crossed during the intermission, clasp my arm lightly, and tell me how much she liked my piece.

Thanks Susan. What I didn’t realize until afterwards is that it was the right choice because it was the risky choice; it was the believe-in-yourself choice.

A lot of people aren’t going to the recognition ceremony our part of the school is holding next week, nor the university-wide Commencement, the day after, so there was a strong sense on everyone’s part that this was our real graduation. In a sense, we were done last Wednesday when we turned in the thesis, or when we read from our thesis, or not until Commencement, but I know that, when Robert said, at the end of the thesis readings on Saturday night, “Congratulations,” that’s when it was really over for me.

I was graduated (sweet!) and we would never be together again (bitter), not for classes, or readings, or the bar after; we would see each other, but not in groups, not as fellow students, not with our writing raw and our selves turned inside-out, exposed to one another as if an experiment in collective open heart surgery. I miss it already.

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Liberal bias – against liberalism

Posted by metaphorical on 10 May 2007

“One of the great pressures we’re facing in journalism now is, it’s a lot cheaper to hire thumb-suckers and pundits and have talk shows on the air than actually have bureaus and reporters.”

  — former CNN president Walter Isaacson to Bill Moyers

I finally watched last month’s Bill Moyers special report, “Buying the War,” which PBS has made available here.

The day after it aired on 24 April, Tom Shales had a good write-up in the Washington Post. He called it one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year,” but added,”it’s as disheartening as it is compelling.”

It’s always depressing to learn that you’ve been had, but incalculably more so when the deception has resulted in thousands of Americans dying in the Iraq war effort.

The Moyers report starts with Bush’s 6 March 2003 so-called press conference, which was anything but. As Shales puts it: “The press conference was a sham, with Bush calling only on ‘friendly’ reporters who’d ask friendly questions.” Bush called out names from a list that was visible on podium; there was no pretense made, and the reporters themselves laughed nervously as Bush looked around after he said one of the lucky reporter’s name.

“At least a dozen times during this press conference,” Moyers says, Bush would “invoke 9/11 and al-Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America.” The link between al-Qaeda and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was never proved and had to be taken on faith, Moyers recalls, as did the administration claim that Hussein had developed, was developing, or might soon develop weapons of mass destruction.

Moyers does not set out to attack anyone himself; instead he tries to find out why journalists — electronic and print — behaved in ways that are supposed to be anathema to a free press in a free nation.

Isaacson, quoted above, talked about being caught between the hyper-patriotism of the country and having a strong competitor, Fox, eager to exploit it. He described pressures from big corporate advertisers telling him not to run video of killed or wounded soldiers in Afghanistan. (Similarly, newspapers were getting angry and even threatening letters when images of dead soldiers were put on the front page.) Isaacson said he told his reporters to mix in footage of 9/11, hoping that “putting the war” in context would placate the public and his advertisers.

The pressures on CNN weren’t the exception, they were the rule.

Pressures subtle and blatant were brought to bear. Phil Donahue’s nightly MSNBC talk show was virtually the only program of its type that gave antiwar voices a chance to be heard. Donahue was canceled 22 days before the invasion of Iraq, Moyers says. The reason was supposedly low ratings, but the New York Times intercepted an in-house memo in which a network executive complained: “Donahue represents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time, our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Dissent was deemed not only unpatriotic, Donahue recalls, but — perhaps even worse — “not good for business.” Most of Moyers’s report involves serious, respected journalists who let themselves be swept up in war fever and who were manipulated by the administration sources who had cozied up to them. Instead of investigating administration claims about al-Qaeda and WMDs and such, cable news offered up hours and hours of talking-head television.

At the same time as Moyers’s report, Jeff Cohen wrote about his experiences at MSNBC and the the network news channels. Cohen is the founder of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Much of his post was excerpted from his book Cable News Confidential. Cohen saw first hand the fairness problems at CNN that Isaacson spoke of.

I know TV news better than I ever wanted to. I started appearing as a guest on CNN in the 1980s when it was the only news channel on cable. But CNN attracted competitors, as others saw how easy and relatively cheap it could be to spatter “news” across 24 hours. Over the years, I’ve been a pundit on all three such channels: I got my feet wet at CNN, waded halfway in at Fox News, where I appeared each week for five years—and then became completely submerged at MSNBC, where I was a producer and pundit until terminated for political reasons three weeks before the Iraq war.

What I found inside cable news was a drunken exuberance for sex, crime and celebrity stories, matched by a grim timidity and fear of offending the powers-that-be—especially if the powers-that-be are conservatives. The biggest fear is of doing anything that could get you, or your network, accused of being liberal.

I also found in cable news a passion for following the media pack (sometimes resembling a lynch mob)—whether in pursuit of a sex scandal or war. And a fear of finding yourself alone, asking questions no one else is asking.

Here’s Cohen’s take on Donahue’s problems at MSNBC:

And actual journalism might undermine the “show.” Stars might refuse to appear on your channel. Big “gets” from the White House would be found only on rival programs.

When Phil Donahue toughly interviewed big-name guests, MSNBC execs were petrified that the VIPs would be offended and not make return engagements. They’d complain that Phil was “badgering” the guests. “Access is everything in Washington,” Phil later told a reporter. “If you’re the executive producer at one of the big news shows and you piss off Karl Rove, you’re not going to get Condi or Rummy or any of those guests who would legitimize your show as a serious, important program.”

Cohen says that he once booked former Attorney General Ramsey Clark on Donahue’s show as a critic of the Iraq war. “Soon after, I was told it wasn’t supposed to happen; MSNBC bosses had Clark on some sort of blacklist.”

What we have, Cohen says, is a media so cowed by charges of a liberal bias that it was highly biased in the opposite direction. Regarding the two week period before and after Colin Powell’s U.N. presentation about Iraq’s weapons of mass distruction, he says, a “FAIR study of the nightly newscasts on CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS” found that:

Of the 393 people interviewed about Iraq during those crucial weeks, only three were antiwar advocates. That’s a fraction of 1 percent—a nondebate, at a time when polls showed half the country opposing a rush to war.

As I sat at my MSNBC desk watching Bush or a top associate carry on, I knew painfully well that my network would not be following the administration event with a critical view, no matter how dubious or manipulative were the official claims. To do so—to practice actual journalism—might prompt the dreaded charge of “liberal bias.”

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