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Catch and Kill

 

Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.

 

--Walter Cronkite

 

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!

 

Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," a novel published in 2004

 

In the beginning, all the world was America

John Locke

 

I've been thinking about the upcoming Harvey Weinstein criminal trial, which begins in a few days, and Ronan Farrow's riveting podcast, "Catch and Kill," based on the book of the same name, which I have not, as yet, read. I did read the New Yorker pieces upon which the book is based, and I'm impressed with Farrow, a still young, brave investigative reporter who has been "hunted," surveilled, forced to move, threatened. It took him more than two years to get the story.


His interview style is patient and kind, and he's well educated, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar; he asks incisive questions. It is no wonder that several of the eighty-seven women who were assaulted by Weinstein entrusted him with their stories. Formerly an anchor and reporter for a NBC investigative unit, Farrow's bosses at the network did not value his integrity and determination. They succumbed to pressure, a complicated story in itself, and killed the Weinstein story.


I've lamented the demise of real journalism in my blog more than once, and the struggle of determined reporters to do their work, free of prior restraint, a form of censorship unacceptable in a democracy. The firewall between the editorial departments and business departments eroded slowly over a period of years; it has now completely shredded. What we cover, what eventually is published or broadcast, depends, largely, on the demographics of the audience and the stated—and sometimes unstated—wishes of the advertisers. In many regions in the United States, one person, or one corporation, owns all the newspapers, cable, television and radio stations, an unhealthy monopoly, and though the reporters on staff are real reporters, many of the articles read like PR handouts. Equally insidious is the reliance on clickbait, a headline, article, or photograph designed to entice readers to click on a sometimes questionable hyperlink.


I often have students from China in my NYU workshop, usually the children of government officials or successful business owners. I have a prepared speech about freedom of the press in the United States, an explanation targeted particularly at them, and any other overseas students from despotic regimes. It's our mandate to get under the skin of a story, I say, and write our hearts out in a bold voice. A writer must feel absolutely free, and we are free here in America. Witness the proliferation of podcasts, print stories, editorials, online magazines, and investigative reports in recent years. That's how I begin. It's only later in the term that I talk about the censorship of the marketplace, clickbait, product placement, the presence of the publicist at the interview spinning the story, the power of advertisers and targeted social media, the new phenomena of journalists being "hunted," not jailed, thankfully, but "hunted." I was shocked when I heard Ronan Farrow use this word on the podcast and relieved that he was not hurt as he gathered the story, though he admits that he was frightened when he realized he was being followed by a private spy agency.


As editors and writers we swim upstream against these dangerous anti-democratic trends and a regime in Washington that is oblivious to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We must be as courageous as Ronan Farrow and persevere.

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When Language Dies

This 1930 photo is by Walker Evans.

 

But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as  a name for what they desire any one else to do.

                                 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

 

               

It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.

 

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, January 9, 1928, Berlin at a training conference for Nazi party members.

 

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

 

George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, 1940

 

 

I thank George Orwell and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) for the inspiration to write a "critical" essay this morning, which hopefully will sustain my readers' interest and attention. In this sound-byte culture we are living in—and as a writer and educator—I despair at the loss of attention, curiosity, and language itself. I had wanted to write a humorous blog post this week, or to post some lovely holiday photos and mountain sunsets, which I am assured my friends will "like," but it feels impossible.


And with that preamble, I will proceed:


These past few tiresome weeks, we have been witness to an unprecedented political spectacle, aided and abetted by both the mainstream media and social media. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, or what market-driven channels we watch, we are consumers of this media, all of which delivers us to the advertisers. Books and commentary are proliferating; 45 is a media cash cow.


It is time to take a breath and think.


The outcome in the Senate is pre-ordained: Donald Trump will remain in the White House until the election, possibly beyond. We are at great risk and must prepare for such a result. I ask myself and my readers to consider this possiblity, and worse, and to initiate a process of self-questioning and problem solving.


What can we do in the short term? What can we do day-to-day to make our individual, too-short lives joyous and fulfilling while, at the same time, remain constant in our efforts to resist fascist impulses, retrograde laws, and constitutional challenges.


I cannot ask others to do what I must do to answer these questions. I will list a few suggestions here and ask you, dear reader, to add yours to the mix with your comments in this open forum:


1. Read more history to maintain persepective about the fault lines in the American Experiment that have led us to this dire moment. Resist escapist literature and series binging, at least some of the time. Each day, shut down electronic devices and read. Reading slows us down and exercises our cognitive muscles so that we can think deeply and precisely. We will need strengthened brain power in the months ahead.


2. Help a young person become educated. If you do not have children or grandchildren, and even if you do, volunteer some hours every week with the other 98% as well as the entitled 1 %. Both are important. Help deepen literacy in the broadest sense of the word. Encourage and participate in a content analysis of the media this young person relies on for information and entertainment. Study together. Talk constantly. Use evolved language to defeat propaganda.


I work in two disparate educational instituions—one privileged, one under-privileged—and I can attest to a stark similarity: Americans are under-educated. All of us need to raise our knowledge base.


3. Think global, work local. Wherever you are, in whataever town, village, hamlet, city or county--volunteer. Canvas. Meet and greet your local politicans, call them when you have a concern, write them emails, insist that they speak to you in full, considered sentences. Resist jargon, platforming and fund-raising pitches. Most are good people who want to serve until they get swept up into the "system." Insist on continuing accountability.


4. Get outside, away from the computer and television and news feeds, into the fresh air and sunshine. Walk with a friend, or wander and explore solo. Let your brain and spirit rest. Talk to everyone, do not assume anything, including a political point of view. People are more than one thing: they have struggles, they have stories. Listen to their stories. Remain open and compassionate. We owe it to the next generation. We owe it to ourselves.

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