How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing


     Or, my life at the New York Times, CBS and other pillars of the

     media establishment




     The Nation June 26, 2000


     Like a tribal warrior in the Ramayana, throwing dice, juiced on

     soma, I want to tell some stories and brood out loud. But it's

     tricky. My favorite stories are all about what they did to me.

     What I've done to myself, I am inclined to repress, sublimate or

     rationalize. Once upon a time, I was a Wunderkind. Now I'm an Old

     Fart. In between I've done time at National Review, Pacifica

     Radio and The Nation; the New York Times and Condé Nast; New York

     magazine during and after Rupert Murdoch; National Public Radio

     and the Columbia Broadcasting System. I was a columnist for

     Esquire, whenever Dwight Macdonald failed to turn in his

     "Politics" essay; at the old weekly Life before it died for

     People's sins; at Newsweek before the Times made me stop

     contributing to a wholly owned subsidiary of its principal

     competitor; at Ms. during its Australian walkabout interim; and

     at New York Newsday before it was so rudely "disappeared" by a

     Times-Mirror CEO fresh to journalism from the Hobbesian

     underworlds of microwave popcorn and breakfast-cereal

     sugar-bombs. And I have written for anyone who ever asked me at

     newspapers like the Washington Post, the LA Times and the Boston

     Globe, at magazines like Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue

     and Playboy, and at dot-coms like Salon. I like to think of

     myself as having published in the New York Review, The New

     Statesman, the Yale Review and Tikkun. But there was also TV



     This sounds less careerist than sluttish. It is, however, a

     sluttishness probably to be expected of someone who had to make a

     living after he discovered that the novels he reviewed were a lot

     better than the novels he wrote. We may belong to what the poet

     Paul Valéry called "the delirious professions"--by which Valéry

     meant "all those trades whose main tool is one's opinion of one's

     self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of

     you"--but reporters, critics and "cultural journalists," no less

     than publicists, are caged birds in a corporate canary-cage.

     Looking back, I see what I required of my employers was that they

     cherish my every word and leave me alone. If I understand what

     Warren Beatty was trying to tell us in the movie Reds, it is that

     John Reed only soured on the Russian Revolution after they fucked

     with his copy.


     On the other hand, as Walter Benjamin once explained:


          The great majority of intellectuals--particularly in

          the arts--are in a desperate plight. The fault lies,

          however, not with their character, pride, or

          inaccessibility. Journalists, novelists, and literati

          are for the most part ready for every compromise. It's

          just that they do not realize it. And this is the

          reason for their failures. Because they do not know, or

          want to know, that they are venal, they do not

          understand that they should separate out those aspects

          of their opinions, experiences, and modes of behavior

          that might be of interest to the market. Instead, they

          make it a point of honor to be wholly themselves on

          every issue. Because they want to be sold, so to speak,

          only "in one piece," they are as unsalable as a calf

          that the butcher will sell to the housewife only as an

          undivided whole.


     I throw in Walter Benjamin, who killed himself a step ahead of

     Hitler, to muss the hair of the academics among you. Having been

     to too many conferences where working reporters and media

     theorists reach an angry adjournment of minds before the first

     coffee break, I seek to ingratiate myself. If it'll help to wear

     a Heidegger safari jacket, Foucault platform heels, Lacan

     epaulets and a Walter Benjamin boutonniere, I'm willing to bring

     the Frankfurtives and the Frenchifieds. Indeed, the production

     process of every major news-gathering organization can be thought

     of--in Foucault's terms--as an allegory of endless domination,

     like hangmen torturing murderers or doctors locking up deviants.

     And whether they know it consciously or not, these organizations

     are in the "corrective technologies" business of beating down

     individuals to "neutralize" their "dangerous states"--to create

     "docile bodies and obedient souls." How we escape their "numbing

     codes of discipline," if we ever do, is more problematic.

     Somehow, art, dreams, drugs, madness, "erotic transgression,"

     "secret self-ravishment" and going postal seldom add up to an

     "insurrection of unsubjugated knowledges." I like to think of

     myself as Patsy Cline. I sang the same sad country songs before I

     ever got to the Grand Ole Opry. After the Grand Ole Opry, I can

     always go back to the honky-tonks.


     Another paradigm is sociobiological. Everything is hard-wired,

     from the behavior of ants, beetles, Egyptian fruit bats and

     adhesive-padded geckos to the role of women, the caste system in

     India, the IQ test scores of black schoolchildren and the

     hierarchy of the newsroom. If the people on top of this Chain of

     Being are mostly male and mostly pale, in the missionary

     position, talk to Darwin about it. They've been Naturally

     Selected. Moreover, inside such a white-noise system, there is a

     positive feedback loop between nature and nurture, thousands of

     teensy units of obedience training called "culturgens," dictating

     what societies can and can't do, obsessing in favor of patriarchy

     and "objectivity," deploring socialism and "bad taste." Having

     ceded ultimate authority, on the one hand, to the credentialed

     nitwits of the mini-sciences, and, on the other, to the chirpy

     gauchos of the media pampas, we may thus find it difficult, ever

     again, to think through dilemmas of personal conscience, which

     look a lot like bad career moves.


     Molly Ivins, who was fired from the New York Times for saying

     "chickenplucker" in its pages, has admitted that if she ever

     dies, what it will say on her tombstone is she finally made a

     shrewd career move. Molly also claims that she's actually played,

     on a jukebox somewhere, a country-western song called "I'm Going

     Back to Dallas to See if There Could Be Anything Worse Than

     Losing You."


     A third paradigm is novelistic. It's amazing to me how much the

     controlled environments of both CBS and the New York Times

     resemble Tsau, the utopian community on a Botswana sand dune in

     Norman Rush's Mating, with windmills, boomslangs, dung carts,

     abacus lessons, militant nostalgia, ceramic death masks,

     "Anti-Imperialist Lamentations," a Mother Committee and an

     ostrich farm. And how similar the plantations of Murdoch and

     Newhouse are to Orwell's Animal Farm and Kafka's Penal Colony.

     Whereas Pacifica Radio and The Nation bring to mind Voltaire's

     Candide. On these margins, where everyone is paid so poorly that

     office politics are ideologized into matters of first principle,

     a little more self-censorship might actually be a good idea. I am

     reminded of what Amos Oz said in The Slopes of Lebanon about the

     Israeli left:


          The term Phalangist is derived from the Greek word

          "phalanx." The phalanx, in the Greek and Roman armies,

          was a unique battle formation. The soldiers were

          arranged in a closed-square formation, their backs to

          one another and their faces turned toward an enemy who

          could neither outflank nor surprise them, because in

          this formation the men gave full cover to one another

          in every direction. The lances and spears pointed

          outward, of course, in all four directions.


     The moderate, dovish Israeli left sometimes resembles a reverse

     phalanx: a square of brave fighters, their backs to the whole

     world and their faces and their sharpened, unsheathed pens turned

     on one another.


     But, wherever, they always fuck with your copy.


                                   * * *


     So much for the Big Pixel. And now for the prurient details. And,

     stuck as I am on my periphery of books, movies and television

     programs, I can't tell you for sure whether Tom Friedman, when he

     covered the State Department for the Times, should have played

     tennis with the Secretary of State. Or if Brit Hume, when he

     covered the White House for ABC, should have played tennis with

     President Bush. Or if Rita Beamish of the Associated Press

     should've jogged with George. Or if it was appropriate for George

     and Barbara to stop by and be videotaped at a media dinner party

     in the home of Albert Hunt, the Washington bureau chief of the

     Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Judy Woodruff, then of the

     MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and now of CNN. Or if one reason Andrea

     Mitchell, who covered Congress for NBC, showed up so often in the

     presidential box at the Kennedy Center was that she just happened

     to be living with Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Federal

     Reserve Board. Nor can I be absolutely positive that there's

     something deeply compromised about George Will's still

     ghostwriting speeches for Jesse Helms during his trial period as

     a columnist for the Washington Post, and prepping Ronald Reagan

     for one of his debates with Jimmy Carter, and then reviewing

     Reagan's performance the next day, and later on writing speeches

     for him. Or about Morton Kondracke and Robert Novak's collecting

     thousands of dollars from the Republican Party for advice to a

     gathering of governors. Or John McLaughlin's settling one

     sexual-harassment suit out of court, facing the prospect of at

     least two more--and nevertheless permitting himself to savage

     Anita Hill on his McLaughlin Group. Or, perhaps most egregious,

     Henry Kissinger on ABC and in his syndicated newspaper column,

     defending Deng Xiaoping's behavior during the Tiananmen Square

     massacre--without telling us that Henry and his private

     consulting firm had a substantial financial stake in the Chinese

     status quo.


                                   * * *


     For that matter, who knows deep down in our heart of hearts

     whether the nuclear-power industry will ever get the critical

     coverage it deserves from NBC, which happens to be owned by

     General Electric, which happens to manufacture nuclear-reactor

     turbines? Or if TV Guide, while it was owned by Rupert Murdoch,

     was ever likely to savage a series on the Fox network, also owned

     by Rupert Murdoch, who was meanwhile busy canceling any

     HarperCollins books that might annoy the Chinese, with whom he

     dickered for a satellite-television deal? Or whether ABC, owned

     by Disney, will ever report anything embarrassing to Michael

     Eisner, the Mikado of Mousedom? It wasn't the fault of

     journalists at ABC's 20/20 that Cap Cities settled the Philip

     Morris suit before selling out to Disney. But nobody quit, did

     they? Nor was it the fault of journalists at 60 Minutes that CBS

     killed another antismoking segment, to be immortalized later in

     Michael Mann's movie The Insider; it was the fault instead of the

     CBS legal department, on behalf of a Larry Tisch who actually

     owned a tobacco company of his own, on the eve of the big-bucks

     sale of the network to Westinghouse. But nobody quit there

     either, did they? Not even aggrieved producer Lowell Bergman,

     till two years later. Nor have any of the Beltway bubbleheaded

     blisterpacks on the all-Monica-all-the-time cable yakshows quit

     in embarrassment and humiliation, renouncing lucrative lecture

     fees, after being totally wrong in public about almost everything

     important ever since the 1989 collapse of the nonprofit police

     states of Eastern Europe.


     Stop me before I go on about the petroleum industry and public

     television's shamefully inadequate coverage of the Exxon Valdez

     oil spill, not to mention Shell Oil's ravening of Nigeria. Or say

     something I'll regret about the $5-11 million a year that the

     NewsHour With Jim Lehrer gets from Archer Daniels Midland, the

     agribiz octopus whose fixing of prices and bribing of pols got so

     much attention in 1995 everywhere except on the NewsHour. How

     suspicious is it that so many Random House books were excerpted

     in The New Yorker back when Harry Evans ran the publishing house,

     his wife, Tina Brown, ran the magazine and all of them were

     wholly owned subsidiaries of Si Newhouse? Is anybody keeping tabs

     on what Time, People and Entertainment Weekly have to say about

     Warner Brothers movies? What else should we expect in a

     brand-named, theme-parked country where the whole visual culture

     is a stick in the eye, one big sell of booze, gizmos,

     insouciance, "lifestyles" and combustible emotions? Where the

     big-screen re-release of George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy is

     brought to you by Doritos and the associated sale of stuffed

     Yodas, Muppet minotaurs, trading cards, video games and a

     six-foot-tall Fiberglas Storm Trooper for $5,000? Where the

     newest James Bond is less a movie than a music-video marketing

     campaign for luxury cars, imported beers, mobile phones and gold

     credit cards? Where Coke and Pepsi duke it out in grammar schools

     and Burger King shows up on the sides of the yellow buses that

     cart our kids to those schools, in whose classrooms they will be

     handed curriculum kits sprinkled with the names of sneaker

     companies and breakfast cereals? Where there is a logo, a patent,

     a copyright or a trademark on everything from our pro athletes

     and childhood fairy tales to the human genome, and Oprah is sued

     for $12 million by a Texas beef lobby for "disparaging" blood on

     a bun during a talk-show segment on bovine spongiform

     encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?


     And where, I might add, all of us "delirious professionals" sign

     away, in perpetuity, our intellectual-property rights, our

     firstborn children and our double-helix to synergizing media

     monopolies that will downsize our asses before the pension plan

     kicks in. Marx made a mini-comeback on the 150th birthday of his

     Communist Manifesto. But years before he wrote the Manifesto he

     was overheard to say: "Since money, as the existing and active

     concept of value, confounds and exchanges everything, it is the

     universal confusion and transposition of all things, the inverted

     world, the confusion and transposition of all natural and human

     qualities." In other words, if money's the only way we keep

     score, every other human relation is corrupted.


                                   * * *


     There's a great line in one of Grace Paley's books: "Then, as

     often happens in stories, it was several years later." Let me now

     get up close and personal.


     Not long after I took charge of the Times Book Review, in the

     early seventies, I had a surprise visitor. Lester Markel, the

     editor who had invented the Sunday Times with all its many

     sections, the eighth-floor Charlemagne who was rumored like Idi

     Amin to have stocked his fridge with the severed heads of his

     many enemies, liked to stop in and sit a while, like a bound

     galley or an urgent memo. This was because, after his forced

     retirement, he wasn't welcome in anyone else's office. Alone

     among the editors of the various Sunday sections, I had never

     worked for or been wounded by him. I was, besides, a fresh ear.

     It was rather like chewing the early-morning fat with El Cid

     himself, propped up on a horse but secretly dead.


     It turned out that Markel was writing his memoirs. And he was

     having trouble finding a publisher. I made some suggestions and

     some calls. Never mind the propriety of the editor of the Times

     Book Review lobbying a publisher on behalf of an author with a

     manuscript for sale. We achieved a contract. And I didn't see

     Markel for months. Until, of course, galleys of his book came in.

     And so did he, with suggestions for reviewers. And I had to

     acquaint him with the etiquette of disinterested criticism. After

     which he fixed me with the blood-freezing basilisk's eye. And I

     still had the problem of finding a reviewer who would pay Markel

     his due as a giant of yore, while not at the same time neglecting

     to mention his memoir's tendency toward stupefaction--a reviewer

     who would not only be fair, but who would be perceived as fair by

     everybody else. I had already been burned by my predecessor, who

     left me for my very first issue a review of the memoirs of

     another retired Times executive, Turner Catledge, by one of his

     best friends at the University of Mississippi.


                                   * * *


     Let me digress for a moment to observe that a Times executive who

     wrote a book could always count on generous review attention so

     long as he was retired. As Wilfrid Sheed reminded us in Max

     Jamison, his novel about criticism: "They were soft, affable

     people who wouldn't hurt you because they couldn't bear to be

     hurt themselves. Paternal organizations were built on great piles

     of spiritual blubber." But the same has not until recently been

     true lower down the totem pole, for the serfs. And these serfs

     write a lot of books. When Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and I

     alternated as daily critics we looked at these books the same as

     we'd look at any other. If we liked it or it seemed at least

     symptomatic of something compelling in the larger culture that we

     wanted to sermonize about, we'd review it. If not, we didn't.

     Pretty simple. You'll have noticed that in recent years books by

     Times employees are farmed out to freelancers. They are never

     reviewed by in-house critics. This, we are told, is to avoid the

     appearance of conflict of interest. Sounds good. Never mind just

     how often these outside reviews are actually negative. (I recall

     two in ten years.) But have you also noticed that this new policy

     means that all books by Times writers are always reviewed in the

     daily paper? Minus Saturdays and Sundays, there are 261 book

     reviews published in the daily New York Times every year. There

     are 65,000 new books published in the United States every year.

     Some of these books are more equal than others in the paper of



     Back to Lester Markel, and the paragon I needed to review him.

     That paragon, clearly, was Ben Bagdikian--a hugely respected,

     eminently fair-minded, award-winning reporter, and also a gent,

     who had gone to academe. And he agreed to do the review. And then

     just when the days before publication of Markel's memoir dwindled

     down to a precious few, Bagdikian called in a pickle. He had been

     hired by the Washington Post. And the Washington Post had a

     policy that prohibited any of its employees from writing for the

     New York Times. (The New York Times, in fact, had the same policy

     in reverse, which is why they told me to stop writing a TV column

     for Newsweek, which is owned by the Washington Post.) Anyway, Ben

     was stuck. Well, I needed to know, was he still willing to do the

     review if I could get the Post to make an exception in this one

     instance, to which of course we had entered into an agreement

     before he sold his soul to the company store? Yes, he said; he'd

     already done the work.


     So I called Bill McPherson, the editor of the Washington Post

     Book World, whom I knew from literary cocktail parties,

     explaining my Markel problem and beseeching him to intercede on

     my behalf with Post pooh-bah Ben Bradlee, whom I had met once at

     a Harvard Crimson alumni softball game and another time, I'm

     sorry to say, in the Hamptons. A long week passed. Finally

     McPherson called. Bradlee would relent on Bagdikian, on one

     condition. And what was that condition? It was that I,

     personally, agree to review a book of Bradlee's choice for the

     Post. Done, I said, figuring I'd square it somehow with the

     Times. Which book? Well, Bradlee hadn't made up his mind. OK, so

     I got my Bagdikian review, which was as scrupulous as I'd hoped,

     and published it, which stung Markel to furious rebuttal in a

     letter to the editor, which received from Bagdikian a mildly

     puzzled response, which correspondence dragged on intolerably

     until I called it off, after which I never saw Lester Markel in

     my office again.


     But that's not the point of this story. A year later the phone

     rang, and it was McPherson, and he said: "Bradlee's calling in

     his chit." Which book, I asked? Well--and McPherson was

     embarrassed--Sally Quinn is about to publish a book on her year

     at CBS. That's the one. Many of you are too young to remember

     that there was a Ben Bradlee before Jason Robards played him in

     the film version of All the President's Men, and that this Ben

     Bradlee left his wife for Sally Quinn, a reporter for the

     Washington Post "Style" section, and that this Sally Quinn then

     left the Post, very briefly, for a CBS morning show about which

     most TV critics had been savage, although at least one of us, me,

     had been lukewarm in Life.


     Nor is the point of this story that I refused to write that book

     review. The point is that Lester Markel had no business in my

     office, that I had no business trying to find him a publisher or

     to arrange for a judicious review--and that Bradlee's way is how

     the big boys play the game. While making sure your girlfriend

     gets a talked-about review, at the same time sticking it to your

     principal competitor. Only Bagdikian emerges with honor. Which,

     some years later, is exactly what I told a class Bagdikian taught

     in "The Ethics of Journalism" at Berkeley. These students,

     including my own son, were amused at an anecdote starring their

     professor, but didn't get the ethics of it. It seemed sort of

     locker-room to them, as it seemed to grad students from the

     Columbia Journalism School in a seminar I later taught myself.

     They were all children of the triumph of a glossier idea of

     journalism that postures in front of experience, rather than

     engaging it; that looks in its cynical opportunism for an angle,

     or a spin, or a take, instead of consulting compass points of

     principle; that strikes attitudes like matches, the better to

     admire its wiseguy profile in the mirror of the slicks.


                                   * * *


     I am aware that my own regard for books is overly worshipful--one

     part Hegel, two parts Tinkerbell, with garnishes of Sacred Text,

     Pure Thought and Counter-Geography--at a time when most of the

     dead trees in the chain stores have titles like How I Lost

     Weight, Found God, Smart-Bombed Ragheads, and Changed My Sexual

     Preference in the Bermuda Triangle. But I also know it's just as

     hard to write a bad book as a good one, and a lot easier to

     review one than achieve one, and if book critics in mainstream

     newspapers and magazines seem to have appointed themselves the

     hall monitors of an unruly schoolboy culture--this one gets a

     pass to go to the lavatory; that one must sit in the corner

     wearing a dunce cap--then it is a condescension and a contempt

     passed down and internalized from bosses like Bradlee, for whom

     the whole process is a whimsical scam. I've yet to meet a media

     heavy who didn't think all of the books by all of his friends

     deserve fawning reviews. Nor have I met a media heavy who thought

     I should ever employ as a reviewer anybody who has ever

     criticized him or his friends. Max Frankel, who accuses me in his

     autobiography of trying to turn the Times Book Review into a

     combination of The Village Voice and The New York Review of

     Books, once called me on the carpet for using Timothy Crouse as a

     reviewer, because Crouse had made fun of his Washington press

     corps friends in The Boys on the Bus. Abe Rosenthal not only

     called me on the carpet for saying nice things on the daily book

     page about I.F. Stone and Nat Hentoff, but suspended me from the

     job entirely after I panned a book, The Second Stage, by his

     friend Betty Friedan. The next thing I knew, they'd killed a

     sports column I wrote, during the pro football strike, pointing

     out that the head of the Players Union, Ed Garvey, used to spook

     for the CIA. This of course goes beyond the butthole politics of

     the buddy-bond. It's over in another office, where foreign editor

     Jimmy Greenfield killed a "Private Lives" column I wrote about

     the Philippines, back when the Frog Prince Ferdinand and his

     Dragon Lady were still in charge, and playwrights like Ben

     Cervantes were still in prison, and Greenfield in New York knew

     more about it than I did in Manila, where a goon in a blue

     jumpsuit followed me out of the Palace of Culture, all over the

     landfill in the Bay, unto a lurid jeepney.


                                   * * *


     This sounds like whining. It is whining. A primary characteristic

     of any news organization are subcultures of the crybaby and the

     gripe. (As if we ever had it harder than a schoolteacher, a

     factory worker, a farmer or a cop; as if we'd ever been

     threatened with redundancy, much less a firing squad; as if our

     slippery slide weren't down into a wad of cotton candy.) And so I

     could go on about what happened to Richard Eder as the drama

     critic, and to Ray Bonner at El Mozote, and the class-action suit

     by the women of the Times, for which I was deposed, and Roger

     Wilkins, who quit the paper to write his own book (which I so

     incautiously reviewed), and Jerzy Kosinski, and Neil Sheehan, and

     Attica, and AIDS. I could even tell you about having to write my

     review of the first volume of Henry Kissinger's memoirs two days

     early, so that it could go all the way to the top to be vetted,

     after which I was permitted to suggest that some of us, on

     hearing from Henry that his only sleepless night in public

     service had been on the eve of his first mixer with the Red

     Chinese debutantes--well, some us thought maybe he should have

     tossed and turned more often. And I still don't know who cut the

     last two paragraphs of a review I wrote in 1970 about a couple of

     JFK assassination books. Those two paragraphs, asking perplexed

     questions about the sloppiness of the Warren Commission Report,

     simply vanished between the first edition and the last--an

     incriminating fact on microfilm periodically rediscovered by

     assistant professors of conspiracy theory, who write me paranoid

     letters that I dutifully forward to Abe.


     No wonder that when Ed Diamond, while researching his book on the

     Times, mentioned my name to John Rothman, Keeper of the Archives,

     Rothman sniffed: "Some people just aren't good Timesmen." And

     then just as promptly edited himself: "Some people aren't good

     organizational men." I could live happily with that, had I quit

     on any one of a dozen fraught occasions. But I allowed myself to

     be promoted instead, and stuck around for sixteen years. And when

     I did finally leave, it wasn't about a matter of principle. Those

     of us who go over the wall--who leave the Catholic Church or the

     Communist Party or the New York Times--usually decide at last to

     jump because of something small. You have swallowed a whole

     history of whoppers, but there is a fatigue about your faith.

     Without any warning, the elastic snaps, and you are hurled out of

     the closed system into empty space, and your renunciation,

     arrived at by so many increments, looks almost capricious. In my

     case, I decided to believe that the brand-new Vanity Fair would

     be a serious magazine, as did many of my friends. And so we

     entered the halls of Condé Nast like the children who followed

     Stephen of Vendôme south to Marseille in 1212, expecting the Club

     Med to part like a Red Sea, allowing us to pass over to the

     Promised Land. We were sold instead into slavery in Egypt. Well,

     it wasn't that bad. Actually, I was in Jerusalem writing a story

     on Peace Now when they called the King David to tell me to come

     home, that they'd fired the editor who had hired me and it wasn't

     going to be a Peace Now kind of magazine anymore. But when we

     leap over the wall, we always imagine that they, whoever they

     are, will love us more in the outside world. They will love us

     just as much, or as little, as we serve their interest.


                                   * * *


     But to finish with the Times: When I told them I was quitting,

     first they said I had promised I never would. Well, never say

     never. Then they explained, "The Times is a centrist institution,

     and you are not a centrist." Fair enough, although the center

     sure had moved since they hired me directly out of the antiwar

     movement. Finally, they screamed at me: "We made you! You'd be

     nothing without the Times!" This surprised. It had never before

     occurred to me that they'd published what I wrote, two or three

     times a week, out of the kindness of their hearts--that we hadn't

     been somehow even every day. For years after, I thought of this

     departing as Freudian-dysfunctional. Maybe they wanted to be our

     fathers. Maybe we wanted them to be our fathers. Oedipus! Peter

     Pan! Then I began to wonder whether there wasn't about our

     servitude elements of an abusive marriage--tantrums, fists and

     fear; excuses, apologies and denials; dependency and

     self-loathing--battered wives and battered writers. Now,

     contemplating all the ghosts in this denial machine, I'm inclined

     to remember the theater tickets, and the stock options, and all

     the cocktail parties I got invited to as if I were important.


     Paul Krassner, the Yippie editor of The Realist, once explained

     to a conference on "Media and the Environment" how to tell the

     difference between "news" and "dreaming." When you see something

     you don't believe, you should flap your arms like wings. If you

     seem then to be flying, it's a dream. In this dreamtime, I am

     overdue at CBS, where I've spent the last twelve years.


     Before I was hired at Sunday Morning, I asked for a free hand in

     choosing which television programs I reviewed, regardless of

     network. My own credibility was at stake. I was assured of a

     hands-off policy. That was three presidents of CBS News ago.


     In fact, for the first seven or so years, I was, if not ignored,

     then rather negligently embraced as a sort of punctuation mark, a

     change of rhythm or a passionate parenthesis, in one of the

     vanishingly few network news programs to embody and cherish

     old-fashioned journalistic standards. When Sunday Morning wasn't

     thinking about culture, its splendid idea of news was to notice

     that, hey, here's a social problem; here are some people trying

     to do something about it; why don't we spend eight whole minutes

     seeing if what they're doing actually works? Those of you who

     only recall Charles Kuralt as a kind of Johnny Appleseed of

     avuncular anecdotes and homespun decencies need reminding that

     he'd been a fine reporter in Southeast Asia and Latin America;

     that he went to China at the time of Tiananmen, where his take

     was very different from Dr. Kissinger's; that he expressed his

     doubts, over the air, about the Gulf War. It's not just that he

     listened better than most people talk; he was an exacerbated

     conscience of his profession. He even refused to appear on the

     Murphy Brown sitcom: "I don't know where the line is," he told

     me, "but that's crossing it." With his passing, we were

     diminished in heart and jumping beans.


                                   * * *


     The world of television journalism has been changing, not since

     O.J. or Monica or the Internet, but ever since they discovered

     that news can be a "profit center." I should have got an inkling

     my first year on air, when I reviewed a public-TV documentary on

     Edward R. Murrow, whose valor and grace made him our very own

     tragic hero. Emerging on CBS television from the radio and the

     war, he grasped the new medium's power to modify the way a nation

     thought about itself, then watched helplessly as the medium

     pawned that power to the ad agencies, and smoked himself to

     death. He even looked like Camus, the Shadow Man of the French

     Resistance--Bogart with a microphone. We were reminded in the

     documentary that he'd been stunned when they opened the gates of

     Buchenwald. That he cared so much about words, he often forgot to

     look at the camera. That he made up See It Now as he went along,

     forever over budget. That after his famous demolition job on Joe

     McCarthy, Alcoa dropped its sponsorship of See It Now and William

     Paley, the Big Eye in the Black Rock Sky, turned against his

     best-known reporter, bumping the program from the prime-time

     schedule. That in his last years at CBS before he resigned in

     1961 there were many more Person to Person chats with the likes

     of Marilyn Monroe than there had ever been exposés like Harvest

     of Shame, on the plight of the migrant farmworkers. What I should

     have noticed at the time was the allegorical nature of the Murrow

     story. In every institution of our society, but especially in the

     media, there have always been brilliant young men (and men almost

     all of them have always been) who find surrogate fathers as

     Murrow found Paley. For a while in this relationship of

     privilege, patronage and protection, these young men imagine they

     can go on being brilliant, on their own terms, forever, immune to

     the bottom-line logic of a corporate culture that, for its own

     reasons, has surrounded and preserved them in aspic. But we are

     not fathers and sons at all; we are landlords and tenants; owners

     and pets. It shouldn't surprise the brilliant young men, and yet

     it always surprises the brilliant young men, when the party's

     over and the pets are put to sleep.


                                   * * *


     I am once again peripheral to the larger story. But when CBS lost

     pro football, and then a bunch of affiliate stations, to Rupert

     Murdoch's Fox, everybody freaked. One Thursday, I went in as

     usual to submit a script for TelePrompTing, record the voiceover

     for my tape package and go home again to watch more television.

     Later that afternoon, the executive producer called. The

     then-president of CBS News--he's gone now, Eric Ober, or how

     likely is it that I'd be telling you this?--had seen that I was

     reviewing a TV movie forthcoming on Fox, a feature-length reprise

     of the old Alien Nation sci-fi series, and he'd hit the roof. He

     had to go to an affiliates' meeting next Monday morning. They

     would chew his ears off after hearing their own network promote a

     program on the evil empire's competing schedule. I said I had

     been specifically promised that this would never happen; that,

     anyway--and never mind my poor powers to cloud anybody's mind,

     including A.C. Nielsen's--it couldn't really be my problem if the

     stock of the corporation went up or down, or if the president of

     CBS News had to go to an affiliates' meeting or a therapist. I

     was told they'd get back to me, and late that night they did. The

     president was adamant. Then, I said, I guess I'll have to quit.

     Don't be silly and overreactive, I was told. And then the

     executive producer handled me. A month before, I had proposed a

     piece about Doris Lessing, on the occasion of her 75th birthday

     and the publication of the first volume of her autobiography.

     Nobody, then, had been interested. But now, if I wanted to sit

     down immediately and write it up, they'd run it on Sunday in

     place of Alien Nation. Quid pro quo, Q.E.D., ad nauseam and beat



     It occurs to me that thirty years ago Life rejected one of my

     "Cyclops" columns, about Richard Nixon as a jack-in-the-box

     television President: Surprise! Look what Daddy brought home from

     the cold war! A secret bombing of Cambodia! Then, too, I vented

     at length to a sympathetic but helpless editor. The next day,

     Life sent me a brand-new color TV set--my very first. All night

     long, with my children, I shopped for friendship in the gorgeous

     beer commercials. So Doris Lessing is a sort of color television



     What followed Doris Lessing--since, if I couldn't review the

     network competition, I refused to review CBS, although cable and

     public television were still fair game--was some strong

     encouragement for me to branch out more, into movies and books.

     This made rationalizing easy. More books is always better. Free

     movies spice it up, even while you quickly realize that TV is

     more various and interesting. They still, amazingly, let me say

     exactly what I want to about abortion and capital punishment,

     racism and homophobia, misogyny and war. (We are hired for our

     stylistic bag of tricks, our jetstream vapor trails, not our

     politics. Had my politics been right-wing rather than left,

     somebody else would have overpaid for this vapor.) And there's a

     new president of CBS News. If I combine network shows in a

     thematic clump, one from column A, two from column B, I'm back in

     the consumer-guide business. What's more, this wandering in the

     wilderness has led me to realize that we end up, in the

     cultural-journalism business, reviewing the buzz more often than

     the artifact itself. That the more money spent on promotion, the

     more attention we have to pay, no matter what our opinion. If it

     is heavily hyped, it automatically becomes newsworthy. So long as

     we are talking about what everybody else is talking about, we

     will sound smart. Never mind the little foreign movie with the

     distracting subtitles--nobody else will review it, either. So I'm

     smarter now. Flap your arms if you think you're dreaming.


     The sad thing is that, since now at last I am old enough to be

     too old, almost, for network television--a demographic

     undesirable to the ad agencies--my very senior citizenship means

     that my children are out of college, I own the roof over my head,

     and I ought to be immune to the terrors of authenticity. I need

     not be beholden to those who choose to leak on me, nor belong to

     any hard-wired paradigm that imagines itself a fourth branch of

     the government, even a separate country, with its own pomp,

     protocols, dress codes, foreign policy and official secrets,

     lacking only its own anthem and maybe a helicopter beanie. And

     yet the Times paid for that house, CBS bought me a new kitchen,

     and in the last decade I have vacationed in China, Egypt, India

     and Zimbabwe. I've actually stayed in hotels like the Danieli in

     Venice, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Oriental in Bangkok,

     in spite of the fact that I know I don't belong there--that you

     can take the boy out of his class, but not that class out of the



     This is the deepest censorship of the self, an upward mobility

     and a downward trajectory. Once upon a time way back in high

     school, we thought of reporters as private eyes. We thought of

     journalism as a craft instead of a club of professional perkies

     who worried about summer homes, Tuscan vacations, Jungian

     analysis, engraved invitations to Truman Capote parties and

     private schools for our sensitive children. We scratched down an

     idea on a scrap of yellow paper, typed it up on an Underwood

     portable, took it below to the print shop, set it on a Linotype

     machine, read that type upside down, ran off a proof on a flatbed

     press and seemed somehow to connect brain and word, muscle and

     idea, blood and ink, hot lead and cool thought. But that was long

     before we got into the information-commodities racket, where we

     have more in common with Henry Kravis and Henry Kissinger than we

     do with paper-makers, deliverymen and Philip Marlowe, or those

     ABC technicians who were so recently so alone, on strike, on

     Columbus Avenue. After which our real story is ourselves, at the

     Century Club or Elaine's or a masked ball charity scam--Oscar de

     la Renta, Alex Solzhenitsyn and Leona Helmsley invite you to Feel

     Bad About the Boat People at the Museum of Modern Art--with

     plenty of downtime left, after we have crossed a picket line by

     e-mailing our copy to the computer, to mosey over to Yankee

     Stadium, where Boss Steinbrenner will lift us up by our epaulets

     to his skybox to consort with such presbyters of the Big Fix as

     Roy Cohn and Donald Trump, and you can't tell the pearls from the



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     John Leonard is a contributing editor of The Nation. This article

     is adapted from a lecture that was part of a series on

     self-censorship in the media given at New York University. The

     lecture series is being published this month in The Business of

     Journalism (New Press).