Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Short History of Journalism and the Modern Fact (An Imaginary Book)

I was just fuming a bit over an article from the July 3, 2010 Economist, "The religious right in east Africa: Slain by the spirit." Because I've been reporting in this subject for the last nine months, I saw immediately the major factual errors in the piece, which I'll write about elsewhere. But the piece got me to wondering about fact checking. Evidently, The Economist either doesn't do any or does it terribly at times. What other publications don't fact check? I learned fact checking in the early 1990s, as an intern at The Nation. At the time, The Nation's rival, The New Republic, didn't fact check. (Or so we were told; I didn't check that fact.) I know they do now because they fact checked me, vigorously and well, when I wrote for them. When did magazines begin fact checking? Here's my proposal for a book that has probably already been written (again, I didn't check): A Short History of Journalism and the Modern Fact. If it hasn't been written, and you're interested in the subject, please write it and send me a copy.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post this morning, I've learned a few things. Apparently, very few British publications fact check. And The Economist is famous within magazine publishing for not fact checking. Worst of all, I'm told by a reliable source (you'll have to trust me!), are their statistics. On another front, I got the answer to a question that's bothered me ever since Ann Coulter misrepresented me in her book Godless: How do hacks like that get away with it? I don't mean, How do they persuade people? Rather, how do they avoid getting sued until they're in sack clothes? Why do their publishers stand by such crap? The answer, apparently, is publishers usually don't -- you can put a lot of garbage in a book, but if you do, the publisher says you're on your own. For people like Coulter, that's probably fine, since A) she's fabulously wealthy; B) lawsuits generate sales for people like her; C) people don't usually sue. I didn't sue Ann Coulter, and it's never crossed my mind to sue any of the online hacks who've said I use the blood Christian babies and kittens to bake my matzoh.

So it's up to the author. I paid a team of fact checkers to check my book before it went to legal review, instructing them to think of themselves as prosecutors and every sentence as guilty until proven innocent. Then the book, notes and all, went through legal review. That doesn't catch facts, but it does prevent any characterizations you can't back up. The lawyer's concern, of course, is defending the publisher, not me. Then again, I'm an afterthought to any lawsuit that's in earnest, since I have no real assets. "You sue the publisher for money," the lawyer told me. "You sue the author for fun." All the more reason to do everything she says.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Wire season 1, episode 6, Major Rawls

I get the irony of responding to this screed on "slow reading" in the Guardian on a blog, especially given that the article is itself the sort of thing the author doesn't think we should read much of at all. So I'm going to double down and blog, briefly, in advocacy for "slow watching" -- repeated viewings and pauses for contemplation. Not just for movies -- that's respectable -- but for TV. I'm in the midst of watching season one of The Wire for the second time, and I'm writing this during a pause in episode 6.

I was struck by a scene in which an external shot of police headquarters cuts away to show the careerist commander, Rawls, putting on his jacket to head home for the night. He glances down at a stack of three red folders on his desk, case files the season's hero, Detective McNulty, has left on his desk. Picks one up, shuffles it over, glances at another. Then he looks up and shouts "Jay!" -- his toady sergeant. That's it. The entire scene is about 25 seconds.

Two scenes later, we learn that what seemed opaque was actually exposition. Jay tells McNulty that Rawls wants arrests on the cases, a move they all know will improve their stats and hurt the larger case against Avon Barksdale's drug empire. But if it was just exposition, why make it so quiet, and why separate from the answer it's meant to provide?

So I watched again, and again. Most of the scene is dedicated to Rawls putting on his jacket and adjusting the lapels. He's a vain man, almost completely disinterested in police work. He's an apparatchik. He wants the system to work, which is to say that he wants to get a paycheck and to rise through the ranks and, perhaps, solve a few crimes. All this is summed up in the way the actor who plays Rawls, John Doman, puts on his dark grey jacket. He lets out an irritated sigh, gets his arms through the sleeves, and shrugs the coat up with his shoulders, still holding the puffed cheek expression of his sigh. Then he adjusts the lapels three times. He was too lazy to put the jacket on properly, but he wants it to look good. All along he's staring at the stack of case folders, his eyes presumably scanning the cover sheet. Again, too lazy to really engage with the folders -- three cleared cases, left to linger on his desk all afternoon -- but vain enough to want their rewards, and intelligent enough to recognize them easily. He knows what good detective work is, just as he knows how to wear his jacket. He just doesn't want to do the work to have either. He drops his hands, staring at the folders. We notice that his belt is around his belly button -- that although he's a man maybe in his late 50s, reasonably fit, aggressive enough in his demeanor that he passes for vital, he wears his clothes like an old man. We notice, too, his ID badge. For all his blustering authority, he's just a cog. So here's the cog, old before his time, vain, wanting something, too exhausted from his vanity to get it, seeing a shortcut on the desk before him -- and then he shouts "Jay," ordering his underling to make it happen.

But why this scene here, several minutes removed from the result of Rawls' decision? It's framed by two longer, more traditional scenes. Preceding it, we see Carve and Herc, the two greenest and most brutal detectives on McNulty's special detail, grab a young punk named Bodie who's been giving them trouble. They think he's skipped out on juvie, again, and begin to beat him for it. But he shows them a piece of paper that show's he's been given a pass by the court. They're incredulous. The thing is, so is Bodie. Not even triumphant. The juvenile system, he says, is a joke. Then he asks them for a ride to his grandmother's. "Get in the back, fucknuts," says Carve.

The scene following Rawl's jacket features D, a mid-level man in the drug operation -- something like Major Rawls -- waiting for a girl who's one of his runners to come out of a grocery. He takes her bag, looks in, pulls out some eggs. "Little early in the month for this, isn't it?" he asks, and begins dropping the eggs one by one on the sidewalk. He thinks she's been stealing. But D isn't a monster. In fact, he's too soft for the drug trade. He's killed one, maybe two people, almost cracked when presented with a (fake) picture of the kids of one his victims, and earlier in this episode was freaked out by news of the murder of one of the drug ring's enemies, by torture. "Let it go," he advises a younger guy, who can't; and D can't, either, so he passes it on to the girl.

Back to Rawls. Taken as a series, the three scenes are a study in authority. Nothing profound, just the observation that we pass suffering along. Not out of sadism but because the way you "let it go" is by getting it out of your system. Carve and Herc, constantly frustrated by the higher ups and by their own inability to either understand or really do anything about the crime they see, pass it on in a beating for Bodie, which Bodie escapes by pointing to the enemy above. D needs to purge himself of the poison of the murder he's been party to. And Rawls? That 25 second scene is the radicalism of The Wire. His poison is the system he's a part of. Not its corruption, but the system itself. Rawls, unlike drunken, idealistic McNulty, understands that his job is not to solve crimes, it's to "clear" them. Clear them off his desk, that is. Nobody expects anymore. Nobody wants anymore. And when McNulty gives them more, anyway, he disrupts the system. He thinks he's smarter than Carve and Herc, but he's not. Lazy, vain, amoral Rawls is the only one who gets what's going on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Giacomo Leopardi; Fishers of Men; Brilliant, arrived

A short post, since my deadline for my book has gone well into post-death, zombie time. Yesterday, though, brought encouragement in the mail. On lousy days I like to think of the review books that show up from publishers as "presents"; but they're usually the kind of presents you'd get from a semi-hostile distant relation. How else to describe the multiple copies of Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest I've received? According to the flap copy (which, to be fair, should rarely be trusted), it's a journey from crippling depression to self-acceptance by way of magic mushrooms and "shamanic ceremonies" in South America. Christ. I think I knew this kid back in college. You probably did, too. It's a good thing we have the Indians and their rituals to help us accept ourselves.

(My apologies to Adam Elenbaas if your book is not what your publisher has packaged it as. I know what that's about. But some of the blurbs from your friends really aren't helping -- that one about how tripping made you "God-realized" and capable of seeing the Christ we all need, or something like that? Or the one celebrating the "gradual absorption of ayahuasca shamanism into North American culture"? Really? Because absorption turned out so well for North American Indians?)

But yesterday, it really did seem like I received presents in the mail. Probably from a shaman, since the two books that arrived were both desired? One is Jane Brox's new Brilliant, about which I made a note here before; the other is Canti, a thick, bilingual edition of the poems of Giacomo Leopardi translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi. I learned about Leopardi, said to be one the first modern European poets, while I was reporting a profile on the cultural critic Cornel West:

“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and its dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “ ‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”
This, to West, is a good thing, the naiveté that makes ambition possible. “Engagement! I like that. Now, Brother Leopardi on the other hand”—Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher revered in Italy but little read in the U.S—“he starts with what he calls, ‘The mind’s sweet shipwreck.’ Ain’t that a beautiful phrase?”
Leopardi should be the poet of our times, West tells me—late empire, mid-recession. “You hear about people rereading Steinbeck now,” he says, referring to a recent surge in sales of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Great Depression chronicle. “They got to go deeper than that!” Steinbeck lets us off too easy. West prescribes Brother Leopardi for “deep-sea diving of the soul,” a process’s not just personal but essential to understanding “the paradox of human freedom”: that we must summon the strength to resist and endure oppression even as we acknowledge that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire,” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.”
West gets down on his hands and knees, crawling along the bottom shelf until he locates a green volume. “This is the Leopardi, brother.” He flips through the pages. “Oh, man! See this one? ‘I refuse even hope.’” He repeats the line, his body suddenly slack, staring at me as if to ask, “Do you follow?” I do, or, at least, I’ll try. West begins to read, rocking forwards and backwards at his hips like a metronome. “‘Everything is hidden,’” he reads, “‘Except our pain.’” He looks up. “Deep blues, man.” He returns to the green book in his hand. “We come, a forsaken race, / Crying into the world, and the gods / Keep their own counsel…’” I bend close, following the rhythm of his handwritten annotations down the margins: “blues,” “jazz,” “blues,” “blues,” “jazz.” ...
“Now, this, this is the greatest one,” West says, petting a page of Leopardi’s poems and looking at me with giant poem eyes as if to communicate the gravity of the words in his hand, the necessity of their immediate recitation.  He resumes rocking and reading:
That man has a truly noble nature
Who, without flinching, still can face
Our common plight, tell the truth
With an honest tongue,
Admit the evil lot we’ve been given
And the abject, impotent condition we’re in;
Who shows himself great and full of grace
Under pressure.…
West closes his book and stands still. His head shakes back and forth with admiration. That’s too polite a word for the emotion flooding over him: it’s relief, gratitude. 
After that interview I walked across the street from West's Princeton office and looked for a copy of Leopardi at Labyrinth Books, an amazing bookstore (with one of the best remainder tables I know of) that was my best bet for finding such a volume. No luck. I suppose I could have ordered one from Amazon, but books like this -- books that you bump into by accident -- are best waited for.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cover Me

I've a collection of essays coming out next year from Norton called Sweet Heaven When I Die. Subtitle to be determined. It's a collection of previously published pieces and some new work, but it's not a grab bag. Rather, it's organized around some themes that guide some of my favorite work outside the subject of fundamentalism. There's the last Yiddish writer, a forlorn banjo player, an anarchist martyr, a blues philosopher, a bewitched preacher, and the long unpublished piece that I'd originally planned to title the book after, "Sweet Fuck All, Colorado." I'm keeping the "sweet" but saving the "fuck" for inside the covers. The book, sadly, is not as naughty as that sentence. Fortunately, it's not as corny, either.

Other titles I considered and rejected: "Old Enough to Die," "Still Waiting to be Born," "The Point of Despair," and, most bluntly, "This Is Not a Redemption Story." But nor is it as grim as that list would suggest. The pieces I've included are almost all in one sense or another blues stories, which means they're attempts to squeeze from brutality something that's near-tragic, near-comic, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison. I don't know if I've succeeded, but I've "done all I can do" -- which is another title I considered, a line from an old Dock Boggs song. As is Sweet Heaven When I Die.

The question then becomes: What should the cover be? It's a serious question. I'm asking for your help. A suggestion of an image or a concept. If Norton uses it, I'll send you a free copy.*

Here are my past book covers and some other covers I covet:

This is the cover for Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, which Peter Manseau and Published in 2004. It's my favorite of my book covers, and a favorite in general. It shows up in books about design, too. But, for obvious reasons, it didn't work so great in bookstores. Free Press put the title on the paperback, which really crowded it.

I wasn't crazy about this cover, but other people liked it. I thought it was a bit of a cliche, since other books have used the fake Bible approach. (Though none have the pun. "The Family Bible." Get it? Nobody else did, either.)

This is the cover for a sort of sequel to The Family forthcoming this fall from Little, Brown. Evidently, the designer wanted to evoke the heavy brown of The Family. I like the title treatment. With this one I need to wait to see it in the flesh, so to speak. But for Sweet Heaven When I Die, I definitely want something lighter. And without Christian elements.

I love this cover for my friend Peter Manseau's travelogue, Rag and Bone:

But if that cover is beautiful, the paperback, sadly, is a case study in how to go wrong:

Awful! What's with the turquoise? Is that meant to be sky? This looks like a couch in a Russian dentist's office. (It's a great book, though, in cloth or paper.)

I think this one's so great this is the third time I've posted it:

This one's beautiful, all the more so when one considers that the painting is probably an archival image, but the car detail at the bottom really cheapens it, as if the publisher got worried that people wouldn't connect "Fordlandia" with Henry Ford. I'm a fan of covers that are beautiful but don't try to explain too much.

I've been reading The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle and I think the cover is as well matched to the book as the title. It's a photograph of the author, cropped just below the eyes so he becomes a sad sack every man, wrapping his hands. The gloves desired by Anasi, a past boxing prime writer with a chip on his shoulder, are the golden ones you win in amateur boxing's biggest match, so the font is gold, too. I'd have made it a little shinier. But they handled placement just write. This is a book about a man with questions about manliness (he routinely gets thumped by his female sparring partner, a better and stronger boxer), so there are The Gloves, down between his thighs.

* At least two of this blog's three readers know that I'm not very fast about mailing things, which is putting a crimp in my new mail order free bookstore. But with this, I promise you'll get your copy in timely fashion, since I'll just put the winner on the comp list for the publisher.

The Corrections

I've just been having an unpleasant email exchange with a flack for Congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican running to become Tennessee's next governor. I gave a research assistant a long list of politicians linked to C Street who I'd like to talk to. I'd tried most of them before, with little luck, so I wasn't expecting much. It was mostly a courtesy to the congressmen, an opportunity for them to put their spin on their C Street affiliations. So far, I believe, only a press rep for Wamp, Laura Condeluci, has even bothered to answer my researcher's very polite note. Her response, in total: "Is this a joke?"

I thought that was rude, so I wrote back with great earnestness:

No, Ms. Condeluci, but your response must be. Because it'd be hard to imagine a staffer for a U.S. congressmen [sic] expressing such open contempt for the free press. I understand that Rep. Wamp is most comfortable taking canned questions from papers stripped of their investigative capabilities by media consolidation, but I thought it would be fair to give Rep. Wamp a chance to respond to some real questions. I know he's had some nasty things to say about me, but, in the spirit of reconciliation, I'm willing to forgive him! We can have a real lovefest. Wamp talks about reconciliation, too, and works with the Fellowship Foundation, which has practiced it with some of the world's worst murderers, by any standard, left or right. 
Does Rep. Wamp's Christian faith and small-d democratic convictions not extend to journalists, even those he despises? 
Of course it doesn't. Condeluci wrote:
Your previous work has included complete falsehoods and absolute misrepresentations of the Congressman’s record. I work daily with the press and have a high regard for professional journalists; however, I don’t consider you one of them.
I'm interested in the concept of "absolute misrepresentation." To be honest, the worst thing I think said about Wamp was his name, on the Bill Maher Show. "Wamp." It has a nice heavy thud to it, which Maher picked up on, interrupting me and repeating "Wamp?" for laughs. In The Family, I speculated that he may have been part of the prayer group Senator Sam Brownback told me he was in during the mid-90s. Brownback wouldn't say and Wamp's people never returned my calls. Did I guess wrong?

I told Condeluci that I'd be glad to make a correction if she'd care to provide me with some errors. I don't I'll ever hear from her again.

But I wasn't kidding. And, lucky for me, fate comes along to give me an opportunity to prove it. Just tonight I stumbled on an error in The Family. On p. 281, I described a German Family associate named Rudolf Decker, active with their work in Africa, as a Bundestag member during the 1980s. In fact, although Decker often traveled with Bundestag members, as best I can tell he never held office. He moved with ease among some of the world's most powerful and unsavory people -- he counted among his friends Zaire's Mobutu and Sudan's al-Bashir -- but he did so as a private citizen, Chance the Gardener without the charm.

My apologies to Mr. Decker.