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, August 31, 2009

Worshipping amid Gothic splendor

YORK, England--Your peripatetic columnist went to church here on a recent Sunday. What’s so unusual about that? Some readers will say they usually go to church on Sundays.

But this was not just any church. No, it was the architectural marvel of the York Minster, the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in northern Europe.

It was built between 1220 and 1472 with two towers and chaste lines.

The ceiling of the nave is 200 feet from the floor. Stained class windows glow from five panels on the walls of the nave. The Great West Window completes this glorious setting for worship.

The voices of the chorus at the Anglican service were powerful, soaring. The Bible reading was from Ephesians 4:1-16. The theme: unity, unity of spirit and unity of faith.

Canon Jonathan Draper in his sermon spoke eloquently about gay marriage. He cited love, compassion, understanding and being faithful to Christ.

“Paul says, ‘one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and the Father of all,’ ” Draper said.

But I was disappointed that he did not flat-out urge his listeners to accept gay marriage. My wife said it was not Anglican custom to do so, that it would divide rather than unite the church.

I vehemently disagreed. Churches should lead their congregations, not follow them. A church without moral leadership is a weak church.

As President Kennedy often said: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” (The quotation comes from Dante only by the most imaginative translation.)

Disagreement aside, it was a throat-tightening moment to see my wife take communion in such a magnificent setting.

York wall

One of the highlights of a visit to York is a walk on the Middle Ages wall surrounding the city. Short walks from two bars (gateways), Bootham and Monk, provide fine views of the Minster.

Being atop the wall also gave this ham actor a chance to emote those wonderful opening lines of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” (Shakespeare lieth. Constant rains pelted us in York.)

York, after the hurly-burly of London, provided rustic delights. Near our hotel just outside the wall was a bowling lawn with studious bowlers. On an adjoining greensward, croquet players enjoyed whacking away the opponent’s ball.

We were staying so far out in the country that I saw a middle-aged couple walking up a muddy country lane wearing Wellies, those high rubber boots so essential for country folk.

‘Tam O’Shanter’

One of the drawbacks of frequent visitors to Britain and France is that they seldom mingle with the locals. Someone interesting like the Scots miner, vacationing in York, who reeled off from memory lines of “Tam O’Shanter” by Robert Burns.

“But pleasures are like poppies spread,” he quoted in the original Scots dialect. “You seize the flower, its bloom is shed…No man can tether time or tide.”

Then with a smile he continued: “Inspiring, bold John Barleycorn! What dangers you can make us scorn! With ale, we fear no evil. With whisky, we’ll face the devil!”

His reading made me realize that Burns was more than a mere poet who gave us wise sayings about mice and lice and the melancholic “Auld Lang Syne.”

In the same hotel, coming home after dinner, we stopped at the piano bar to listen to a young woman playing Beethoven. God, how I love Beethoven! The sounds of Beethoven in what seemed like the most unlikely place, as if they emanated from the moors just north of York.

The pianist was playing “Für Elise.” I could hardly believe it. Here I had been starved for classical music for three weeks so I reveled in the memorable notes. “Für Elise” may be the most wonderful bagatelle ever composed.

But I still wanted more so I asked her to play it again. She did. I gave her a five-pound tip ($8), the happiest gratuity I ever have ever given.

The incident reminded me of a play I saw on returning to the Lower 48 after having been exiled to Alaska for a year. It was a performance of Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”

Not a great play but a good play about putting conscience before Roman Catholic dogma. Above all, I was moved to tears to be in civilization again.

British press shames U.S.

LONDON--British newspapers are far superior to those in America. American papers are dreadfully dull and getting duller because of harsh elimination of columns and other features.

British papers are livelier and saucier. They are more cultural and intellectual.

British editors know the value of large art. Portrait photographs of grieving women, mourning for their husbands killed in Afghanistan, run three inches wide and five and one-half inches deep on front pages.

The Guardian runs a huge picture daily covering two full pages. Maybe a forest fire. Perhaps a photo of a volcano spewing molten lava. The impact is great.

American newspapers get smaller in size, thinner in girth and scanter in content. My hometown paper, the Reno Gazette-Journal, is disgraceful. It takes less than five minutes to read, three of them on sports.

The Guardian remains large, stout and packed with news, features and opinion. Its layouts are uncluttered as so many U.S. papers are. Some Guardian pages might have just two stories with photos, graphics, quote boxes and tint blocks.

British editorial cartoons are in color and run twice the size of the black-and-white American ones. The Guardian runs the comic strip Doonesbury in color, more than twice the size of the black-and-white strip in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Guardian is the best English language newspaper.

One fault in the British press: the sports pages always refer to the football (soccer) coach of Manchester United as Sir Alex Ferguson. It is as absurd as retaining the monarchy, which has outlived its time by two centuries.

The class system is still deeply embedded in England. Stories are told of writer Evelyn Waugh walking miles from his lower class London home to mail letters from a tonier postal zone.
Courtauld great
The Courtauld Gallery is, to use boxing parlance, pound for pound the best art museum in the world. Its first three rooms have 30 paintings, 10 of them masterpieces. Among them: Monet’s “Antibes,” Renoir’s “Le Loge,” Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” Cezanne’s “The Card Players” and Van Gogh’s self-portrait with a bandaged ear.

The Courtauld pièce de résistance is Manet’s “Bar at the Folies Bergère.” The woman tending bar has a look of incredible sadness.

Another art treasure in London is the National Gallery. It houses such chef-d’oeuvres as Velázquezes’ Rokeby Venus, Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars,” Rubens’ beautiful portrait of Susanna and a Goya beauty, “Doña Isabel de Porcel.”

Impressionism is epitomized at the National Gallery by a Monet painting, “The Thames below Westminster.” Gauzy. Fog shrouding the Houses of Parliament. Barges on the Thames.

The third London art powerhouse is the National Portrait Gallery, although admittedly of more interest to devotees of British literature and politics.

Shakespeare is here wearing a rakish earring but Marlowe, he of the mighty line, is not. Gladstone is here, looking stern and puritanical, next to Disraeli with jutting jaw, goatee and a fierce intellectual look. So too are Addison and Steele, founders of The Spectator and sterling members of Kit-cat Club for London artistic and literary types.
Homage to Shakepeare

One of my favorite walks in London is crossing the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s to Southwark to visit the reconstructed Globe Theater. It brings to mind the prologue of “Henry the Fifth”: “Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Supression of women

Streets teem with people today in this old Roman town founded in 43 A.D. Roads are now clogged with cars, buses and lorries.

Among the street crowds are women shrouded in black from head to toe. The only “sinful” flesh showing through the burqua are eyes. Bias flares. Not against Muslims per se but against a religion that shackles 21st century women with garb that denotes submission. Inequality too. Muslim women wear “ovens” and men wear shorts.

SNIPPETS: Trafalgar Square is one of the great plazas in Europe.The towering, rotund Nelson column. Fountains. Huge stone lions. Hordes of people. Square “guarded” on the north by the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Field…The Brits seem to love their dogs even more than their gardens…Only in Britain: the nation has police associations for blacks, for gays, for Muslims--and now pagans!

MORE SNIPPETS: The British Rolls-Royce has long been a symbol of quality. Today it advertises what it calls its “waftability,” “quiet perfection and fast acceleration.” A great Rolls ad created by the American David Ogilvy decades ago: “At 75 miles an hour all you can hear is the clock ticking.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oxford don and cyberspace

OXFORD, England--Anyone with a reverence for education attends Oxford Round Table discussions with a sense of awe. Oxford University has been a center of learning since the 13th century.
And speaking of learning, it is apparent that British professors know more about everything than their U.S. counterparts here to attend a conference on “Education and Cyberspace Law.”
Richard Tur, an Oxford don who gave the welcoming speech, regaled conferees at a reception before dinner. He quoted yards of Bobbie Burns, complete with Scots burr and dialect, spoke easily of British history (Cromwell), British writers (Orwell) and the U.S. Supreme Court (Justices Blackmun and Kennedy).
The sessions themselves were uneven, some as dull as faculty meetings. Many revealed the mustiness of the academy with talk titles such as “Stratospheric Transparency,” “Collaborative Enforcement Model” and “Disaggregated Informational Ownership.”
One professor’s talk was disjointed. Other speakers, while quite scholarly, were long-winded. One speaker offered a 37-page tome. One paper had 142 footnotes.
Another speaker declared that digital technology had “enriched lives in countless ways.” It’s a dubious proposition. Maybe that’s why the speaker gave no examples of alleged enrichment.
The conferees seemed to forget the purpose of higher education: knowledge, understanding and wisdom. As Francis Bacon said: “I have taken all knowledge to be my province.” Studying and using the essential tools of digitology is not higher education.
The conferees did made it clear that the Internet means all privacy is gone, that Web censorship is almost impossible and that the law is slow to catch up with ever-changing technology.
On the third day of the Round Table sparks began to fly. Why? Speakers talked about issues and ideas that had nothing to do with cyberspace.
Nancy Heitzeg, sociology professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., urged the end of mandatory prison sentences, pleaded for abolition of the death penalty and espoused the legalization of drugs.
Sammy van Hoose of Wayland Baptist University in Texas, leading a discussion on the place of religion in schools, expressed a strong belief in God while holding to the rigid separation of church and state.
But I felt compelled to issue an apologia for atheism, noting that atheists like Emma Goldman and Eugene “Little Jesus” Debs were more Christian than most Christians. (Shelley was kicked out of Oxford in 1811 for writing an essay called “The Necessity of Atheism.”)
In my talk I lamented the decline of newspapers. But I pointed out that the falloff will hardly be arrested when papers like the San Francisco Chronicle dump outstanding liberal columnists E.J. Dionne and Robert Scheer and mordant essayist Mark Morford.
While the demise of newspapers would be unfortunate, it would hardly be the tragedy many media observers call it. Those sky-is-falling commentariats see a diminished democracy, darkened “sectors of our life” and a terrible “threat to self-government and the rule of law.”
Utter nonsense. Alexander Cockburn, Nation columnist, calls it hardly tragic if the corporate press perishes. “By and large the mainstream newspapers have obstructed efforts to improve our social and political condition.”
I ask my journalism students at the University of Nevada, Reno, whether the media are liberal or conservative. Most of them answer liberal.
Why? Well, they complain that the media are always harping on abortion, urging gay marriage or demanding the end of the military policy of don’t ask-don’t tell. My answer: it depends on where you stand politically. To me, a Man of the Left, the media are conservative.
The litany is old and long. I.F. Stone, the great American radical journalist, was blacklisted by the media after he had the temerity to urge national health insurance on “Meet the Press” as long ago as 1949.
Noam Chomsky, leftist and media critic, is persona non grata in mainstream newspapers today. No Establishment newspaper carries a socialist columnist. The Holmesian marketplace of ideas in the media extends no farther left than liberalism.
Totalitarian nations have overt censorship. America has subtle censorship, a self-censorship that bows to power and protects the conservative status quo. Newspapers have so often betrayed the First Amendment, the most glorious thing about America.
As Amy and David Goodman write in their book, “The Exception to the Rulers”: “This is not a media that is serving a democratic society. This is a well-oiled propaganda machine that is repackaging government spin and passing it off as journalism.”
Michael Parenti in his book, “Inventing Reality,” indicts the media as handmaidens of capitalism with its all-pervasive Establishment view: socialism is evil, capitalism sacred. Most Americans consider America a great country, not the terrible, uncivilized nation I deem it.
Whatever verdict history renders about newspapers, the Internet will never turn conservative America into the progressive nation it should be.