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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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A Writer in The Family

Once upon a time there was a writer in the family who used his backstory in the first five chapters of his novel, fictionalized, of course. He changed the names of his nearest and dearest—his familiars, people he loved, people he found troublesome—and amplified the characters beyond recognition. Or so he thought. He told his writers group, and then his agent, and then his publisher that the work took on a life of its own, that the story wrote itself, without reference to his own story or anyone he knew. By the time he was done, he said, he didn’t remember how the book had started or who had inspired it. Nonetheless, a brother recognized himself, then a cousin, then a former lover. A more distant relative threatened to sue. Luckily, the writer carried indemnification insurance. He had been warned by his agent: publishers no longer indemnify. So what had started as a writing project became a legal nightmare. Many writers have been through it; few can afford it. Including me.

I have had more than one such conundrum in my writing life. I’ve had a death threat and a request from an English Lord in the House of Lords—where I’d been called to testify because of an article I’d written—to return to the country from whence I came, post haste. My very own mother asked that I refrain from writing a memoir about her side of our family for fear of legal action, which never happened. The book was published, it did well, my mother was proud.

I am a reporter, Nancy Drew writ large. I gather evidence. The story is told from my point of view; I own it and take responsibility for it. I write fiction now, too, which is different in many ways, but the same ethical rules apply.

Recently, not that long ago, alas, I published an essay called “Why I Believe in Interventions.” Someone in my extended family took exception to it and threatened to sue unless I withdrew it from the online magazine, or changed a few of the sentences. I no longer carry indemnification insurance so I had to prevail upon a mediator—my skillful husband—to quiet this relative. It was an unpleasant episode that affected me and members of the family adversely. Afterwards, I asked myself questions: Should I have written and published this essay? YES. Did I have a right to publish it? YES. Should I have shown a draft to various family members mentioned in the piece, directly and obliquely? PERHAPS. Would that constitute censorship, or prior restraint? YES.

Every term I begin my workshop classes with a mantra: every writer must feel absolutely free. No self-editing, no censorship, no prior restraint, no coy references or hidden agendas. Remain credible, write honestly and fairly, do your research, raise your knowledge base, state your point of view, and the writing will soar.

I do not live in a police state, I am free, I am a writer. This is what writers do.  Read More 

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Freedom to Write Redux

I went to see the Diane Arbus exhibition—her early work—at the Met Breuer last week. The arrangement made me dizzy—free standing syncopated columns. But walking through them, around them and, sometimes, into them, I began to experience the photographs in a new way. Many of the images have become iconic so the unusual curation was necessary to witness anew the work of a controversial photographer. She was a “super recognizer” of what used to be called freaks, people living on the edges of life, who may or may not have had mental or physical deformities. Arbus asks us to know and accept them, as she has done, and to reflect on our own afflictions. She grew up in a privileged world where suffering was kept at arms length and rarely acknowledged. What was her quest? I believe she wanted to find an affinity with the suffering of others so that she could feel her own—and to acknowledge it with her camera. Sadly, she took her own life in 1971 at the age of 48.

Not every artist or writer lives as intensely, of course. At the very least, we observe differently—with a heightened sensibility like the marginalized freaks in the Arbus portraits, like Arbus herself. And what we produce is far from perfect. Maybe the rendering isn’t clear enough, or we’ve faltered in our understanding, or we’ve made errors of judgment, or gotten a chronology wrong, or our readers/viewers take offense. They may even assert that we have no right to tell their story in concert with our own. And though our eye penetrates and the heart is full, a negative response is always startling.

Years ago, when I began “Searching for Fritzi,” the memoir about my Viennese family and the genocide that had killed nearly all of them, my mother did not want me to write the story. Our famous cousin, an Oluympic ice skating champion, had disappeared during the war. What had happened to her? It didn’t take long for me to find out. Fritzi had married a Japanese national and spent the war years in Japan. Worse, she had entertained German officers when they visited the Japanese High Command; she was a collaborator. My mother feared that Fritzi would sue if we exposed her even though the facts had been corroborated multiple times. Nonetheless, my mother’s intuition was correct because she had grown up with Fritzi Burger, watched her become a celebrity, and knew that she would not tolerate a tarnished image.

Fritzi had died before the book was published but her son and grandson were still alive. Both of them threatened to sue. The threat itself—like terrorism—was enough to scare me, of course. What writer has the money to go to court to defend a libel suit? None that I know. But I checked and double-checked what I had written and I still stand by it. The book has had legs—it found it’s way not so long ago to a library in Berlin and was taken up by a scholar there who has lived in Japan and speaks and reads Japanese. He’s dug even deeper, pulled articles from contemporary newspapers, and continued the examination of Fritzi Burger’s war years in Japan. I’m gratified by his attention to this piece of history.

Like Diane Arbus, who also was a writer, I write to see, to understand, and to share whatever insight I’ve managed to attain about subjects that others cannot or will not write about. If I allow any kind of prior restraint—whether it is a wish that I not write about a certain subject, or a warning that if I do I might be sued, or a request to read the copy before it is submitted, I could not continue being a writer. Of course, there are extenuating circumstances—when we write about loved ones, for instance—but they are few and far between. And, even then, we should pause before we hand over copy.  Read More 
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