Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Monday, March 30, 2009

Loneliness lauded, colonialism decried

Capsule reviews of books recently crossing this columnist’s desk:

“The Best of Grammaticus.” Writings of Professor E.M. Blaiklock. Edited by David More. Wilson & Horton, Auckland, New Zealand. 1994.
It is doubtful whether more than five out of 300 million Americans ever heard of E.M. Blaiklock. Which is a pity.
Blaiklock, whose penname was Grammaticus, was an essayist of the type that no longer exists in this noisy, cluttered, fast-paced, Digital Age. His columns appeared in the New Zealand press for more than 40 years.
His style was simplicity personified: soft, gentle, thoughtful, wise, literary and historical. He was “a thinking reed,” in Pascal’s phrase. Un homme sérieux. Blaiklock, a professor of Latin and Greek at the University of Auckland, wrote with a clarity and brevity that is beyond most academics. His interests were broad. He easily discussed Housman, Dickens, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Tennyson, Kipling, Masefield, FitzGerald, Carlyle and Hans Christian Anderson.
Poetry pleased him, quoting it often. “But where are the snows of yesteryear” (Villon). “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” (Shakespeare).
Grammaticus wrote: “Poetry sometimes reaches truth by a shorter path than prose.” He extolled “the blessings of solitude.” “Something has died in the soul of a man when to be alone is terrifying or irksome,” he wrote. “I see no disadvantage in being an only child and no harm in loneliness…I have always enjoyed work and can imagine no fate worse than to be denied absorbing activity.”
On seeing a spider’s web, he observed: “It was a structure of wondrous symmetry and beauty. There are few sights so remarkable in nature.” On academic meetings: “It has been my fate to sit weary hours in committee meetings which, if wordiness is an indication, some seemed, incomprehensively, to enjoy.” (So true. Take it from an academic who detests time-wasting faculty meetings with their endless talk, talk, talk.) Grammaticus, who died in 1983, loved literature, nature and intellectual jousting. Such a man is never really lonely.

“Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961). By Frantz Fanon. Grove Press, New York.
“Black Skin” outlines the psychological damage inflicted on colonized people, especially inferiority complexes. Just as Frederick Douglass, great American abolitionist, knew that plantation owners tried to keep slaves from learning to read and write, so Fanon noted that “the black man who quotes Montesquieu must be watched.”
Or: “When a black man speaks of Marx, the first reaction is: ‘We educated you and now you are turning against your benefactors. Ungrateful wretches.’ ”
Fanon pointed out about racism: “The collective unconscious is quite simply the repository of prejudices, myths and collective attitudes of a particular group.” It is cultural, an acquired habit disdaining reason.
Fanon’s last book, “The Wretched of the Earth,” had a profound influence on black radicals like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. To the Black Panthers, Fanon was a prophet.
This “Bible of decolonialism” limned the gross exploitation of colonialism. It rightly raged at racism. It railed against colonial masters who argued that if they left their colonies, Africans “would regress into barbarism, degradation and bestiality.” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an introduction to “Wretched” with this command: “Have the courage to read it primarily because it will make you feel ashamed. And shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary feeling.” Colonists plundered Africa, stealing its wealth, nationhood and manhood. They kept the natives “penned in apartheid” and “scarred by the whip.”
“The church in the colonies is the white man’s church, a foreigner’s church,” Fanon declared. “It does not call the colonizeds to the ways of God but to the ways of the white man, to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor.”
Douglass had the same problem. He tells of attending a Methodist communion in the North, the blacks clustered near the back door. After all the whites had been served, the minister exclaimed: “Come up, colored friends, come up! You know that God makes no distinction among people.” Douglass never went to church again.
The New York Review of Books aptly described Fanon in 1966 as a “black Rousseau…His call for national revolutions is Jacobin in method, Rosseauist in spirit and Sartrian in language--altogether as French as can be.”
Fanon: doctor, intellectual and humanist. He urged the overthrow of barbaric capitalism and its replacement by humane socialism. He was right. But that may take centuries in America where mammon comes first.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Exploding media, college myths

The answer to the enduring question, “Are the media liberal or conservative?” is easy: it depends on where you stand politically.
To conservatives, the media are liberal. To liberals, the media are conservative. If you are a leftist, the media are center-right and Establishment to the core.
But one thing often forgotten in the argument: the Bushites who broadcast on Fox and MSNBC have ever so much more influence on American public opinion than the sophisticated New York Times.
Another persistent myth: universities are swarming with lefties, poisoning the minds of youth by inculcating socialism. It simply is untrue.
Of the 608 fulltime professors at the University of Nevada, Reno, no more than a handful are leftists.
The board of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, an advocacy group for UNR professors, has 14 members. Liberals all, probably, but not a leftist among them except this columnist.
The NFA refuses to call itself a union. Unions are for “lowly” workers, not “lofty” professors.
The UNR journalism school has 15 faculty members. Most of them are liberals--but just barely. Radicalism? “Sensible” people don’t think Left.
Just as the media in America represent the Establishment, so do journalism schools.
Situational ethics
I have endured many mediocre journalism speakers, panelists and events since I began teaching at UNR in 1981. In all those decades I cannot recall a better and more applause-worthy speaker than Lynne Dale.
Dale, who spoke during the recent UNR journalism week, and her ABC colleagues broke the Food Lion scandal on “Primetime Live” in 1992.
She showed nauseating film footage: meat and fish marinated in Clorox to hide the smell, rotten spots cut out, outdated food masked with baking soda, and mouldy products relabeled with new expiration dates.
Some of the professorial “ethicists” complained that the ABC exposé resulted from undercover techniques. Yes, Dale had a camera hidden under her wig. Yes, she got the job as a food wrapper in the Red Lion superchain outlet in Pickens, N.C., by lying.
But ethical, smethical. ABC was doing precisely what the media should be doing: exposing corruption. It served the greater public good.
Purists deride what ABC did as “whim ethics.” No, it is situational ethics. Something is right or wrong depending on whether the public must know. The ends justify the means when it comes to infiltration reporting.
As the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized: “The fraud was committed on customers by Food Lion, not on viewers by the network.”
P.S.: Food Lion did not sue ABC for libel because truth is an absolute defense in libel suits. The jury in the U.S. district trial court, not allowed to see the horror film, found for Food Lion. But justice triumphed when a U.S. appeals court ruled for ABC.
Undercover muckraking is an old and honorable journalistic tradition. Nellie Bly of the New York World feigned insanity to get herself commited to an insane asylum in 1887. She wrote a devastating exposé.
Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle” revealed the horrors of Chicago meatpacking with rigorous research, extensive interviews--and by masquerading as a plant worker. The novel led to the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
In 1971 the historic Pentagon Papers were purloined from Defense Department files by Daniel Ellsberg. The Chicago Sun-Times set up a bar to expose bribe-taking Chicago officials.
Life magazine exposed a quack doctor by gaining access to his house under false pretenses, surreptitiously recording conversations and clandestinely taking photographs. CBS’s “60 Minutes” went undercover to reveal that medical lab kickbacks were a way of life in inner city Chicago.
The Cincinnati Enquirer ran an 18-page investigative report detailing the unethical and illegal practices of Chiquita banana. Sure, one of the Enquirer reporters gleaned some information from illegally obtained voice messages. But the greater benefit accured to the public.
All writers need editors
Everyone who writes needs an editor, including this columnist. I am a careful writer, striving for accuracy and grammatical excellence. But this “Homer” sometimes nods.
Nevertheless, my aim is the same as Franklin put it in an essay for the Junto, an intellectual club in colonial Philadelphia: writing must be “smooth, clear and short.”
Ben’s excellent advice has never been adopted by academics. Their writing is muddy, wordy, repetitious.
As editor of the Nevada Faculty Alliance newsletter I shudder at their terrible prose. It’s the worst editing job I ever had.
Oh, the academics are learned. But they should be compelled to take a journalism writing course before getting that glorious PhD.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dorothy Day: diaries of a saint

THE DUTY OF DELIGHT. The Dairies of Dorothy Day. Edited by Robert Ellsberg, Marquette University Press, Milwaukee, Wis. 654 pp. 2008.

David O’Brien wrote in the Catholic magazine Commonweal that Dorothy Day was “the most significant, interesting and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”
These dairies support that judgment. Indeed, they make a compelling case for her sainthood. Her life shows an extraordinary example of the gospels in action.
Ellsberg, former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, writes in the introduction that Day had an “abiding commitment to social justice.”
That commitment began in 1932 with coverage for Commonweal of the communist-launched hunger march of the jobless in Washington, D.C.
Six months later Day and Peter Maurin started The Catholic Worker, a newspaper for “the man in the street.” It carried Maurin’s essays and Day’s reporting of “poverty and destitution, homelessness and unemployment.”
The two quickly expanded the Catholic Worker Movement, opening the first hospitality house for women. Today there are 185 Catholic Worker hospitality houses in 37 states and 10 nations.
The Catholic Worker still publishes monthly and still charges $1. It is supported by people like me who donate a “widow’s mite” periodically because it really is The Catholic Radical that Maurin wanted to name the paper.
The Catholic hierarchy often disapproved of Day’s Christlike deeds. In 1949 the Catholic Worker supported cemetery workers on strike against the archdiocese of New York. Cardinal Spellman denounced the strikers, declaring that they were under the influence of communist agitators.
In the late 1960s a cardinal was in Vietnam blessing U.S. airplanes. Day was incensed by this pact with the devil. She raged:
“What a confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name bombers for the Holy Innocents, for our Lady of Mercy. Prelates who bless a man about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings, including babies, children, the sick and the aged.”
Day was arrested at the age of 75 for picketing with the United Farm Workers. She was so often arrested for civil disobedience that a New York City jail kept “a Dorothy Day suite.”
Day spent an unsaintly youth before converting to Catholicism in 1927. Colman McCarthy, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, writes:
“She bibbed (drank) with playwright Eugene O’Neill and critic Malcolm Cowley…reveled with Greenwich Village bohemians, had an abortion, gave birth to a daughter and left a common-law marriage.”
But her passion for social justice and Left causes never flagged. McCarthy adds: she “interviewed Trotsky, went to jail with suffragette Alice Paul, was on the barricades with the socialists, read anarchist Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy and Jack Reed.”
October 1944: “I read St. Teresa’s treatises on prayer…I labored at watering the garden of my soul…the greatness of the Little Flower…She let loose powers, consolations, a stream of faith…How much richer we are because of her.”
Introducing readers to the fifties, Ellsberg writes: “Dorothy’s willingness to stand beside the communists and other targets of the Red Scare was not lost on FBI boss Hoover.
“In a note in her files Hoover observed that Dorothy Day ‘has engaged in activities which strongly suggest that she is consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups.’ ”
Nov. 13, 1959: “A priest who reviewed my book (“The Long Loneliness”) insinuated that there was something morbid in my love for the poor. Strange criticism.”
All diarists can empathize with Day when she writes: “Always in my life I have found that writing about problems, putting them down on paper, can lift the burden from my heart.” (This columnist has kept a diary since 1947. Diaries are cathartic.)
Sometimes Day’s piety gets excessive. She writes: “Man’s first duty is to praise God, to adore him, to thank him.”
Sometimes Day exasperates by having nothing to say about books, authors or people. “Reading Debs book on prisons.” What does she think about book? About Debs? Nothing.
Oct. 16, 1973: “Kissinger gets Nobel Peace Prize.” Day’s comment? Nothing. The great satirist Tom Lehrer, however, was spot on: “Satire died the day they gave Kissinger the peace prize.”
And sometimes Ellsberg should have edited with a scalpel when the diary descends to trivia. Example: “Lily over tonight and we played Scrabble.”
But Day rightly rages at the ceaseless wars of America. March 5, 1973: “The hideousness of burying thousands of dead in wars.”
If all Catholics, like all believers of any religion, acted like Dorothy Day it would be a far better world.
Day was a socialist and pacifist. A voice of conscience even though often crying in the wilderness. A true servant of God. A saint.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

2 books savage media

Mini-reviews of books crossing the desk of this columnist recently:
“No Time to Think” by Howard Rosenberg and Charles Feldman. The book makes it clear why you should never watch TV news and its shouting pundits.
The shallowness is appalling. Such “shows” are more entertainment than news. People who watch them let blowhards do their thinking.
The authors are also trenchant about the media being all about personalities rather than offering understanding and enlightenment.
About opinion disguised as news and analysis. About “five grams of news and 10 grams of speculation.” About the 24-hour news cycle “when fast and faster, brief and briefer” are essentials.
As for citizen journalism, it is amateur journalism. Producer Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes” says sarcastically that he also favors citizen brain surgery.

• “Static” is not the kind of book reviewed by the New York Times. It is far too critical of the Times, the media and American policies.
The Times, the epitome of Establishment journalism, runs reviews of a seven or eight run-of-the-mill novels in the Sunday book section. It seldom reviews important nonfiction books--and none like “Static.”
Written by the sister and brother team of Amy and David Goodman, “Static” hammers the Establishment media for cheerleading for the late, unlamented Bush administration and for bowing to power rather than fighting for people.
Amy Goodman is host of the popular radio program, “Democracy Now!” She is a muckraker in the glorious tradition of Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens in the 19th century and George Seldes and I.F. Stone in the 20th.
Unfortunately, her program is not available in Nevada, one of the most retrograde states in the nation.

• “Neck Deep” by Robert, Sam and Nat Parry. The subtitle says it in a nutshell: “The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.” It’s another nonfiction work you won’t see reviewed in the august New York Times.
The Parrys denounce the expansive vision of Bush regarding executive powers: “detention without trial of ‘enemy combatants,’ coercive techniques to extract information and confessions… assertion of the president’s right to wage war with or without congressional approval and the notion that the commander in chief’s authority for the ‘war on terror’ knows no limits.”
They write about Bush’s frat boy mentality: “extensive dabbling in instant gratifications from his playboy lifestyle that included evading military service in Vietnam, heavy drinking and illicit drug use.”
They rip Bush foreign policy as having had “the same characteristics as 19th century European imperialism: military garrisons, economic penetration and control, support for leaders, no matter how brutal and undemocratic as long as they obey the imperial power, and exploitation and depletion of natural resources.”

• “Head and Heart” by Garry Wills notes the frequent hypocrisy of Christians in America, from the Puritans to the un-Christian Christians in the apartheid South, to Father Coughlin whose 1930s radio show drew 30 million listeners despite his virulent anti-Semitic diatribes.
America is one of the most Christian countries in the world. Yet its religious history is full of yes-buts. Examples abound:
Anne Hutchinson was expelled from the Bay Colony for purported heresy. A Cambridge pastor said her tolerance of other religions was “the foundation of all other errors and abominations in the churches of God.”
After Hutchinson was killed by Indians, Gov. John Winthrop exulted that “God had made a judgment on her.”
Pat Robertson thinks along those lines. Robertson, one of the most rebarbative religious leaders in U.S. history, is the wacko who attributed 9/11 to the moral collapse of America because of harboring gays and allowing abortions.
Another example of gross hypocrisy. School kids are taught that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America to escape religious oppression in Britain. What they are seldom told are the hangings of religious people (Quakers) or expulsion of individuals (Roger Williams) who disagreed with them.
Thomas Paine, author of one of the greatest polemics ever written, “Common Sense,” thought it simply common sense to believe in God.
Paine, like most of the Founders, espoused deism, that “halfway house” between theism and atheism. He was reviled for his devastation of the Bible in “The Age of Reason.” But Paine had a failure of intellect when it came to belief in God.
Jefferson and John Adams also believed in a deity. Jefferson held the view that old friends would meet again in an afterlife.
Even great men sometimes utter nonsense.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Heroic prof during McCarthy terror

Ever hear of James E. Schevill? Probably not. But he was a hero while McCarthyism was ravaging America.
Schevill, a courageous professor when many people trembled with cowardice, died recently in Berkeley at 88. He was a poet, critic and playwright.
But his greatest glory was refusing to sign a loyalty oath as a prerequisite for teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.
He wrote a letter in 1950 to university president Robert Sproul declaring that he had searched his conscience for several days. The result: he could not sign.
“To me loyalty is not a matter of signature but of heart and action,” he wrote.
He assailed the Red Scare haunting America. He noted that the envelope bearing his loyalty oath carried the number 78025.
“Men are turning into numbers all over the world,” he noted. Schevill refused to be a number.
He pointed out that his father had taught at Berkeley for many years, years during which his father “helped to build the university into the world reputation for free thought that it has enjoyed.”
Now, he lamented, many of his father’s friends had been fired “as if their years of service meant nothing.” He added: “I cannot bring myself to betray the devotion with which my father served a free university.”
He concluded with a ringing plea for academic freedom: “In this suffused atmosphere of questioned loyalties, which reminds me more and more every day of the half-comic, half-tragic world of Kafka’s novels, I cannot agree to the debasement of the free exchange of ideas.”
After rejecting the McCarthyite oath, Schevill taught at the California College of Arts and then at San Francisco State. From 1968 to 1985 he taught creative writing at Brown University.
The loss to Berkeley students was great. But the greater tragedy was nationwide. As Edward R. Murrow said in his 1954 telecast exposing McCarthy:
“No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices. If none of us ever read a book that was ‘dangerous,’ had a friend who was ‘different’ or joined an organization that advocated ‘change,’ we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.”
Communist witch hunts hit California particularly hard. The California state committee ot un-American Activities persuaded the University of California to adopt its infamous loyality oath. Thirty-one Berkeley professors were fired for refusing to sign even though they were not communists.
Across the nation more than 100 professors were fired. Even the American Association of University Professors, which loudly proclaimed the importance of academic freedom, did not condemn the outrage.
McCarthy’s ugly tentacles reached into Hollywood. Two hundred actors and screen writers were blacklisted, unable to get jobs in the movie industry. Red-baiters circulated Red Channels, a publication that denied jobs in radio and TV to anyone with the remotest radical connections.
The soft-on-communisn smear resonated throughout the country after Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran pushed the McCarran Act through Congress in 1950. The measure required the Communist Party to register and disclose the names of its members.
President Truman rightly vetoed the McCarran bill as a violation of the First Amendment. But many so-called liberals joined conservatives to overide the veto.
However, it was Truman himself who started the despicable red-baiting three years before Senator McCarthy sounded a bogus warning that there were 205 communists and spies in the State Department.
Truman required federal employees to sign loyalty oaths in 1947. This heinous measure soon spread to state and local government--and even to private employers.
Columnist Dennis Myers noted that Reno’s Cal-Neva forced 105 employees to sign or resign. Myers added sardonically: the “atomic spy candidates” included dealers, pit bosses, waiters and janitors.
Frank McCulloch, the best journalist ever to come out of Nevada, as editor of the weekly Nevada State News in Reno, denounced such absurdities. But such absurdities plagued the University of Nevada during the Reign of Intellectual Terror.
Al Higginbotham, head of the UNR journalism department, signed a loyality oath swearing he was “not a member of the Communist Party.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, the staunchest defender of free speech in the land, got weak-kneed during the McCarthy era. It endorsed a bill to limit picketing at federal courthouses to prevent “communists from intimidating the courts,” as Christopher Finan put it in his book, “From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act.”
Worst of all, the ACLU refused to support Paul Robeson, great singer, actor and leftist, when the State Department revoked his passport. His crime? He refused to sign an affidavit denying that he was a communist.
McCarthyism was a terrible blot on the American escutcheon.