Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Letters to a Young Journalist—Monday, October 27th, 2014

He starts his memoirish collection of advice where one should start, the beginning, with plucky young reporters, wise old sages, and the inevitably burned-out hacks.

The reporters whom I got to know over the coming weeks seemed drawn in equal parts from the past and the future. There was an old-timer named Forrest who liked to avoid being assigned obituaries by hiding under his desk. One of his contemporaries, Maggie, sometimes fell asleep at her desk, letting her wig slide off. Phil, one of the editors, chewed cigars.1 I couldn’t dismiss the whole generation, though, because it also included Jack Gill, the streetwise skeptic who covered Plainfield, and Hollis Burke, an idealist who had done a midlife turn in the Peace Corps. They had about them not only experience but wisdom.

The youngsters in the newsroom came from hip backgrounds, including disc jockeys and poets.

Sam Meddis, one of the investigative reporters, had talked his way into the paper with a bunch of poems he’d written as a Rutgers undergrad.

Freedman himself always prefers the path less traveled. If someone else is covering the same story, it’s already passé.

If you give me a choice, I will always prefer to write about someone obscure than someone famous. And, as much as I savor the company of fellow journalists at a party or in a newsroom, I feel like I’ve done something wrong if I bump into any of them reporting the same story as I am.

Ah, but journalism has gone to hell since the days before cable television, when television news was a single voice with three heads and the news media in general spoke in unison.

My own bitter joke is that I remember when the New York Post published nonfiction. By that I mean that I remember it before it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. I’m not generally a believer in the Great Man Theory of History, but in Murdoch’s case, his despotic genius has been to infect contemporary American journalism with some of its most pernicious diseases. He transformed the Post from a spunky and serious paper to a gossip-and-sensationalism rag, created the tawdry genre of tabloid television with the show A Current Affair, and bankrolled Fox News Channel, a political movement masquerading as a news organization. No individual bears more responsibility for degrading the profession I practice and adore, and I would feel no differently if Murdoch had been a demagogue of the Left rather than the Right.

Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting—Friday, October 24th, 2014

Unlike the next book I’m going to review, Inside the Beltway is a nuts-and-bolts guide to committing journalism—print journalism—in Washington, DC. Don Campbell covers the various basic kinds of beltway reporting and follows each section with a list of resources.

The number one concern of the new beltway journalist is making contacts. Campbell describes DC as “a company town”, but it’s a company with constantly shifting lines of authority. It is very important to build contacts before the contacts are needed: once they’re needed, everybody wants to talk to them.

The reporters who get their phone calls returned in even-numbered years are the ones who phone you and have lunch with you in the odd-numbered years.

By the time the primaries and caucuses begin in February, much of the fun of covering a presidential campaign is over for print journalists. With the arrival of television crews, campaigns become a blur of photo opportunities and inane press conferences, a battle of TV ads and expectations, upon all of which the voters have the audacity to intrude briefly every week or so.

Campbell gives equal treatment to records searches and archival research as he does to making contacts and knowing people, but,

…Washington is a town of networks within networks within networks, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s crack investigator Edward Pound: “People are more important here because connections—who you know, whether you know the right lawyers in town, the right investigators—that’s more important in Washington than records.”

Washington is a town of egos, and most people’s egos exceed their grasp. This is true both of reporters and of candidates. “The best political reporters are people who like politicians,” but when reporters are assigned to a candidate, it naturally gives them a vested interest in that candidate. Not only do they tend to start to like the candidate, but the candidate’s success is their own success.

The Vintage Mencken—Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

In The Vintage Mencken, Alistair Cooke gathered “mainly to introduce to a generation that never read him a writer who more and more strikes me as the master craftsman of daily journalism in the twentieth century.” On the other hand, this could well be an “I compiled this not to praise Mencken but to bury him” sort of deal, only this time honestly. “Mencken’s thunder,” after all, “issued from an unmaterial mind, but also from a full stomach.”

This collection stresses “the newspaper pieces that had outlived more pretentious stuff”, and I’m not sure but I think Cooke means Mencken’s more pretentious stuff. For Mencken “was overrated in his day as a thinker” but “underrated as a humorist”.

Here are a few of the quotes I’ve added to my quotes database from The Vintage Mencken:

If I had my way no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust or profit under the United States…

In the whole realm of human learning there is no faculty more fantastically incompetent than that of pedagogy.

The great combat is ending this afternoon in the classical Democratic manner. That is to say, the victors are full of uneasiness and the vanquished are full of bile.

If revenge is really sweet he was sucking a colossal sugar teat, but all the same there was a beery flavor about it that must have disquieted him.

He sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite.

We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof.

Frankness and courage are luxuries confined to the more comic varieties of runners-up at national conventions.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

Many of these are out of context; Mencken is at his best when taken out of context. Cooke recognizes this, and many of the articles are abridged. Reading this, I can’t but get the feeling that Cooke’s ambivalence about Mencken carried over into his choices; Mencken is a legend, but these articles seem to qualify Mencken for the Order of Cantankerous Emilies, Litella Class. The strangest is a nearly incomprehensible diatribe sarcastically proposing civilian awards for overzealousness (honest and cynical) in wartime, riffing off of the proliferation of fraternal orders at the time, the Elks and such. It almost makes more sense as if Mencken were making fun of opinion pieces rather than any topic therein. The ideas are only thinly connected and Mencken has, at least, a better reputation than not to realize that in satire and sarcasm the links must be strong to hold.

Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father—Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

David Goldhill begins Catastrophic Care by saying “I’m a Democrat and once held views about health care common in my party.” He isn’t lying: he is far to the left in his worldview: businessmen are evil and exist to screw the average person. But he is also a businessman, so he recognizes that even the evil businessmen have an incentive to not screw the average person, and that these incentives don’t exist in the health care industry:

Every business would like to get away with high prices, poor quality, and miserable service, but this behavior carries an unacceptable cost: lost customers, lost revenue, lost profits. In health care, bad behavior doesn’t produce these bad results; bad behavior is often rewarded with additional revenue, and efficiency is penalized with less.

As a leftist, he idolizes health care businessmen above other businessmen; as a businessman, he recognizes that they respond to the same incentives other businessmen do.

All of the actors in health care want to serve patients well, but understandably most respond rationally to the backward economic incentives baked into the system.

In fact, quite a few businessmen started their business to provide a service, and many, despite all of the regulatory incentives to not do so well, still strive to provide good service.

His dual, almost dissociative, worldview causes him to make extraordinarily conflicting sentences:

In a system burdened by complexity, bureaucratic explosion, and lack of innovation, the ACA paves the way for even more rules, many of which are merely mandates for future rules and ever more committees and commissions. The problem with the ACA isn’t that it represents “government takeover of health care” or “socialism” or even the famous but nonexistent “death panels.” The problem with the ACA is that it’s so old-fashioned.

The problem with the ACA, in other words, is not that it’s old-fashioned. It’s that it’s old-fashioned. Top-down, government controlled, filled with committees and commissions to determine what life-saving care will be allowed, that’s what old-fashioned means. But as a leftist, he can’t quite get to admitting that socialism is an old-fashioned solution.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
Amusing Ourselves to Death Television cover

Television, according to Postman, is emblematic of all electronic media.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is extraordinarily sloppy. On the very first page, he writes about a statue of a hog butcher that may or may not exist in Chicago. That may have been poorly-worded sarcasm, but on the next page he speculates that because President Richard Nixon—after resigning—advised Senator Ted Kennedy to lose twenty pounds if he wants to run for president,

…it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office. Probably bald people as well. Almost certainly those whose looks are not significantly enhanced by the cosmetician’s art. Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

Now, the conclusion may be true. But it is worded in such a passive-aggressive manner as to be near-useless. The evidence given—a disgraced politician’s dieting advice to a man whose biggest impediment to national office was not weight issues but leaving a woman to drown slowly overnight—simply doesn’t make any sense except as sarcasm. And not only was Kennedy’s weight not the biggest roadblock keeping him from the Oval Office, but the leap from Nixon’s advice on weight to baldness is done without any proffered evidence. And yet, this is not sarcasm: this is the thesis of the book, that appearance has become more important than substance.

He speaks a lot about Aldous Huxley in this book, contrasting Huxley’s vision of the future with George Orwell’s. But even that is impossibly vague, starting right in the first chapter when he writes that “We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators…”.

He describes his purpose at the start of chapter two:

It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism—Monday, July 21st, 2014
Chicago press, 1924

“Press group waits in Criminal Courts Building Memorial Day night, 1924, for expected confession of Nathan F. Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Author John J. McPhaul is person number 3.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines is a glimpse into an ancient world of titans: a world where, rather than one newspaper, or two cooperating newspapers, a city might have four or even five newspapers all competing for as much readership as they could steal from their rivals—or make without their rivals picking up on it until after press time.

John J. McPhaul came up in the tail end of that era, and his anecdotes are about Chicago, but I expect that the same kinds of stories could be found in any frontier-born city. At the time McPhaul wrote Deadlines & Monkeyshines, there were only two newspaper publishers, and only four papers, with each publisher putting out a morning and afternoon edition. But the world he tells about is a world where newspapers could start overnight on the shoestring of a whim and end just as quickly.

Many of the problems we complain about today existed then—they were just only told about in the backrooms and over card tables on the dog watch. McPhaul describes such a late-night card game on page one, consisting of two to three reporters, a sergeant or lieutenant, and possibly a bookmaker or bondsman.

They, as today, thrived on violence. During the 1894 Pullman Company strike, newsmen wrote the following irreverent ditty:

    • War correspondents bold are we
    • And our trade is grim and grey.
    • Peace and quiet suit us not—
    • We want war and we want it hot!

McPhaul also reproduces the Wilbur Storey quote above, but in the context of being a Democrat who

…was no admirer of President Lincoln or the Republican party. He seemed principally interested in the war as a means of selling papers. His standing order to his reporters with the troops was “Telegraph fully all news and when there is no news send rumors.” News and rumors alike were published under exclamatory headlines.

Even modern gremlins such as the sock puppet were exercised by early reporters, in the form of journalists writing letters to the editor under pseudonyms.

Even back then government officials knew how to trade access for good publicity.

Sarah—Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Sarah is an amazing book simply because it was published in April 2008, a scant four months before Governor Palin became the Vice Presidential nominee who threatened Senator Obama’s presidential bid. Back then, the media and fellow Democrats supported Palin as a maverick, fighting corruption in a nonpartisan matter, including in the Republican establishment. There is no hint in these pages of the media savaging in store for Governor Palin.

In her first year as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has plunged ahead with the fearlessness of a polar explorer.—Associated Press

She had a tough-girl Alaskan résumé that most politicians could only dream of—the protein her family eats comes from fish she has pulled out of the ocean with her own hands.—Vogue

In Alaska, Palin is challenging the dominant, sometimes corrupting, role of oil companies in the state’s political culture.—Newsweek

[Governor Palin] stands out in a state that has seen few fresh faces in politics. She is untainted by government scandal and unburdened by political debt.—New York Times

This book is very short. It’s just a simple outline of then-Governor Palin’s life story, the basics from her young life in Alaska, through college, a few words about her and Todd Palin’s courtship, and, mostly, but still abbreviated, her political career first in Wasilla and ending in the governorship of Alaska.

Throughout the book we see Palin without the partisan lens that came after 2008. We see the kind of centrist conservative the country needs: a principled politician who can work with the other side of the aisle and still not discard her principles. A Republican politician who can work with, and be admired by, Democrats.

For example, after Palin resigned from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to protest the corruption there[as a member, she was forbidden to talk about anything that went on at the AOGCC], she worked with Democrat Representative Eric Croft to investigate corruption by the Republican governor’s crony, Gregg Renkes. The party line was that, because Renkes owned only .02% of stock in a company, there was no conflict of interest during negotiations with the company. It turned out, that .02% was worth $120,000.

And when Palin challenged incumbent Governor Frank Murkowski, she received support from Democrats as well as Republicans, including Fairbanks Democrat John Reeves.

“I knew from the moment I met her that she was going to win,” said Reeves, who switched parties in order to support Sarah.

“So many people from all walks of life came together and said, it doesn’t matter what party, Sarah is what we want,” Reeves said.

This is a fascinating look at Sarah Palin before the storm, and worth picking up if you see it just for that. I probably wouldn’t go looking for it, though, just because it predates the most interesting parts of her career.

A Matter of Opinion—Monday, May 5th, 2014

Reading Victor Navasky’s memoir is like entering another world, a world where Democrat Ed Koch isn’t just less liberal than his fellow Democrats, but is a neo-conservative.1 A world of Binkys and Hams and Pings summering in Martha’s Vineyard. A world where well-off socialists fight for the right to eat caviar, and “socialist experiments” good for every business but those of socialists.

A world where intentions matter more than actions and results.

Over the years, I have learned from George Orwell, from Khruschev’s revelations at the Twentieth Party Congress, from Gorbachev’s and other memoirs, from the Venona decrypts and selected Soviet archives, some of the many things wrong with this particular naïve internationalist version of “the new world a-comin’.” But as the democratic socialist Michael Harrington wrote in 1977 in The Vast Majority, although the popular-front vision was sometimes manipulated to rationalize cruelty rather than to promote kindness, “for all its confusions and evasions and contradictions, it was a corruption of something good that always remained in it: of an internationalism that is still the only hope of mankind. My heart still quickens when I hear the songs of the International Brigade.” Mine too.

Journalism, especially journals of opinion, are an elite that transcends not just movement (eschewing employee ownership, for example) but even technology. Journalists are more reliable than tape recorders. In support, he discusses Gabriel García Márquez’s idea that the tape recorder “is not a substitute for memory”:

Gabriel García Márquez, who when he is not writing his magical realist novels runs a journalism program in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia, has named the tape recorder as one of the guilty parties in much that is wrong with modern, speeded-up journalism.

Before it was invented, the job was done well with only three elements of work. The notebook, foolproof ethics and a pair of ears that we reporters used to listen to what the sources were telling us. The professional manual for the tape recorder has not yet been invented. Somebody needs to teach young reporters that the recorder is not a substitute for memory but an evolved version of the notebook, which served so well when the profession started.

His point is that the tape recorder listens and regurgitates, but it does not think, “it does not have a heart.” In the end, for García Márquez, the literal version of the spoken words it captures “would never be as trustworthy as those kept by the journalist who pays attention to the real words of the interlocutor.”

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