The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

****Yesterday’s News

Ace Atkins, motorcycle

(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.

In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.

Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.

The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.

Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.

This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.

Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.

The Post

The Post, Meryl StreepI really wanted to love this movie (trailer). It has everything I like—a story about important principles, two impeccable stars and a terrific supporting cast, a newsroom setting. Director Steven Spielberg had much so much good stuff to work with—including a decent script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer—why wasn’t it better?

One of the team’s great decisions is to present Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) not as a hard-nosed, successful businesswoman, but one growing into a not-always-comfortable role as publisher of the Washington Post (a position first held by her father, then her late husband). In 1971, when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) steals the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of documents that recount the government’s decades of deception about the Vietnam War, Graham faces a fateful choice of tremendous consequence: will the Post will publish stories based on these top secret documents?

On one hand, the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and the newsroom staff are pushing to publish. For them, it’s a “freedom of the press” issue, a riveting story, and they’re racing the clock to get in the game.

On the other hand, her business advisors (notably, Tracy Letts as Fritz Beebe and Bradley Whitford as Arthur Parsons) and the Nixon Administration oppose publication, which is risky on several counts. First is legal jeopardy: already the Justice Department has taken the rival New York Times to court on the matter. Barring the Times from publishing more, at least temporarily, opens the door for the Post. Then there’s financial jeopardy: the bankers who backed the Post’s recent stock offering are threatening to pull out if the paper goes ahead.

Graham’s personal relations further muddy the waters. She’s been friends for years with people who the Pentagon Papers show participated in the war deception, notably former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). Is she respecting her family legacy by publishing or by holding back? In the end, of course, her decision sets the stage for the Post’s becoming one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

The newsroom Spielberg and the reporters create is an exciting place. As Bilge Ebiri said in the Village Voice, “I started crying the first time I saw Tom Hanks’s Ben Bradlee walk through a bustling, thriving newsroom . . . a whole world that’s been lost.” It’s also fun to see the newspaper produced the old-fashioned way: linotype machines and hot lead. Victory is in the air when the Post’s trucks roll out of the printing plant in the early morning mist.

So what’s the problem? Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? For me, it’s because the central question—will she or won’t she?—is one we already know the answer to. It’s the scenes where we don’t know the outcome, like the powerful one where Graham confronts her old friend McNamara, that are the most compelling. Given that, drawing out her dithering (despite how expertly Streep dithers) seems, finally, fake. For a contrast, consider the movie Spotlight. Again, we know the Globe reporters get the priest abuse story, but every interview had qualities of uncertainty about it. It was a puzzle painstakingly assembled in front of our eyes.

I also could have done without the tepid and too-stagy anti-war demonstrations and the bevy of eager young women waiting for Graham as she leaves the U.S. Supreme Court building. The point about her pioneering in a male world had been already made, much more effectively.

Nevertheless, in 2018, the story provides a vital reminder about the ongoing and urgent need for an unfettered news media to hold people in power to account.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences 74%.

****God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican

Vatican, Rome, St. Peter's

photo: Nick Fewings, creative commons license

By Gerald Posner, narrated by Tom Parks – If this troubled history of Vatican financial dealings over the past 150 years were fiction, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, alas, it is not. Former Wall Street lawyer Posner has done a remarkable job of in-depth reporting to pull together this story. Although much of the story has come out piecemeal over the years, he’s assembled it in a highly readable, occasionally jaw-dropping narrative.

Posner helpfully puts the Church’s opaque financial dealings in the context of pressures on it at any given time. His descriptions of the politics around the election of recent popes are likewise fascinating. Few of them had any awareness of—or interest in—the questionable and large-scale financial activities taking place practically under their noses.

Since 1942, when the Church reorganized many of those activities by forming the Vatican Bank, authorities in Italy, in the United States, and in the international financial world repeatedly pressured the Church to reveal what the Bank was up to, with little success. Bank leaders would claim ignorance of financial matters when it suited them (“we’re just poor priests here”), and employed a succession of shady financial advisors (“a few bad apples”). Meanwhile the international monetary wheeling and dealing was unstoppable. As Damon Linker says in The New York Times, “The result (of the Church’s history) has been a tension—and sometimes a blatant contradiction—between the church’s exalted claims for itself and its behavior.”

Not all of the Bank’s financial deals were successful and some too much so. Millions and millions of dollars simply disappeared. Many readers may know about the Pope’s barely audible muttering when it came to dealing with Hitler; they may not know that the financial side developed ratlines to provide monetary and other aid to Nazi fugitives. Or how its lack of records “made it an ideal safe haven for money plundered from Jews and other wartime victims,” said Chicago Tribune reviewer Trine Tsouderos.

They may not know about the money-laundering for the American mafia or the political slush funds disguised as benevolent sounding charities. Or how the Bank was used to support the anti-Communists in Poland and the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. Or the Vatican Bank’s role in the demise of Italy’s largest private bank. Or the assassinations. . . . In short, it’s “an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, corruption and organized criminality—. . . not widely known among more casual church watchers—from Pius XII down to Benedict XVI,” says Linker.

Pope Francis is now taking concrete, meaningful steps to reform the Bank and limit its activities. He’s letting the sunshine into an institution that for many years did not operate like a normal financial institution. It did not conduct independent audits, and it had a scanty, periodically destroyed, paper trail.

Posner’s book was almost 22 hours long, and though Parks’s narration was excellent, there were so many characters, I wish I’d read it instead of listened, so I could flip back through to remind myself who was who (the affiliate link below is to the paperback). Nevertheless, the overall picture resounded clear as a church bell.

***Blonde Ice

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky — This is the third crime mystery in the series featuring New York Daily News reporter Gil Malloy, dogged practitioner of a fading profession. Written in the first person, it holds you close to the genial Malloy and his ups and downs—reportorial, romantic, and bureaucratic.

On the up side, Gil Malloy has fallen into what may be the scoop of the year: a beautiful blonde serial killer is targeting married men cheating on their wives. Malloy’s print editor Marilyn Staley and his internet/social media editor Stacy Albright want to milk the sexy story for all it’s worth. Keeping these two antagonists happy could be a second career. Another plus, Malloy’s adored ex-wife Susan shows promising signs that all is not well with hubby #2. Is there a chance? Capstone to his good luck, Malloy has a juicy job offer from the man likely to be New York’s next mayor.

On the down side, Malloy discovers the scoop through Victoria Issacs, who tells him her husband’s gone missing. In a former life, Issacs was the infamous prostitute Houston. When Malloy wrote a Pulitzer-nominated feature article about her several years back, neglecting to disclose his quotes were all second-hand and he’d never actually met the elusive Houston, criticism of him and the paper was withering. He nearly lost his job, and the stress cost him his marriage. Saying too much about Issacs now will reveal that Malloy actually knows her real identity and, probably worse, has concealed it from his editors.

But Houston’s secret isn’t keepable when a hotel maid finds Walter Issacs dead. The knockout blonde who went up to the room with him has disappeared. As the murders keep coming, the chase is on: NYPD after the killer, and Malloy after the story.

Malloy is a regular-guy kind of narrator with a wisecracking exterior that makes for some lively banter in the newsroom and in his efforts to get back between the sheets with Susan. His colleagues keep telling him his constant jokes can wear thin. He knows that, but can’t seem to stop himself. It is, in fact, his armor.

Frustratingly, Staley, Albright, and NYPD detective Wohlers repeatedly jump to conclusions about the case, based on their assumptions and a remarkable lack of definitive evidence. The narrative glosses over various routine questions that arise in murder investigations. How is it possible there was no forensic evidence at any of these violent crime scenes? No long blonde hair, for instance? How did a woman overpower these much larger, fit men? Drugs are an obvious possibility, but there’s no mention of toxicology tests of the victims until Chapter 49. Although this book is not a police procedural, Malloy’s proximity to the investigation and his evident skills as a reporter suggest he should be asking questions exactly like these.

Despite these quibbles, it’s fun to spend time with Gil Malloy on another wild ride. Author Belsky is an experienced New York journalist who perceptively describes the woes and conflicts in today’s news business and conjures a realistic, energetic New York City, too.

****Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

washington-star

The old Washington Star building; photo: wikimedia

By John Norris – You think women in journalism have a long way to go when you consider how being young, glamorous, blonde of hair and white of tooth seem to be hiring criteria, and when you learn how sexual harassment of them is more common than seems possible in 2016 (for organizations that make their living exposing secrets, after all). But then you read Mary McGrory’s compelling life story, written by John Norris—a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress—and realize the distance traveled is pretty far after all.

McGrory was from Boston, the first person in her Irish Catholic family to finish college, and she began her newspaper career at the bottom of a very tall ladder. She worked for a time in Boston, as an assistant to the Herald Traveler’s literary editor, but the quality of her writing propelled her to a position as assistant book critic at the Washington Star. The nation’s capital in 1947 was a boomtown, full of change, openness, mobility.

Six years later, Mary’s badgering of Star editor Newby Noyes led him to assign her to write a series of political profiles, and Mary began spending time with the men she’d be writing about for the next half-century, including new Senate minority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The positive reception the profiles received garnered her a plum assignment: covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. From there she covered the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign of 1956, becoming one of the nation’s most respected reporters and colorful commentators on the political scene.

After the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Washington Post snatched her up. She wrote for that paper for twenty-two more years, though the Star was always her first love. She covered multiple Presidential campaigns, the Kennedy presidency was a miracle for Mary, pushing all her loyalty buttons—Boston, her faith, and her admiration of the family.

The fates of those brothers were intimately, personally felt. By contrast, she loathed Richard Nixon: “If he were a horse, I would not buy him.” Her name appeared on his infamous “enemies list.” Regarding the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000, she said the race was a “battle between the unlikeable and the unprepared.”

Although well known for her scorching prose, Mary’s life off the page is also fascinating. It seems she had one or more affairs with prominent politicians and journalists, and LBJ once propositioned her. She was a great party-goer and -giver. Her entire time in Washington, she regularly volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home—a refuge for young unmarried women—and arranged with Ethel Kennedy for the children to have swimming parties at Hickory Hill, the Robert Kennedy family home in Virginia. She persuaded Hillary Clinton to visit at Christmas in 1995, the year journalist Tim Russert played Santa Claus. These children were the stand-ins for the children Mary, never married, didn’t have.

Indefatigable Mary McGrory, pioneer woman in journalism, astute and opinionated, winner of a Four Freedoms Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, mentor to women journalists, had a stroke at her desk in 2003 and her health—and worse, her powers of speech—never recovered. Her simple tombstone in Antrim, Mass., reads exactly the way she wanted it to:  name, dates, and the inscription “Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.”

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”–Mary McGrory

“In a Surprise Move, God . . .”

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

photo: Derek Key, creative commons license

Is the inverted pyramid dead? That trusty journalistic technique that crams all the basic information about an event—the who, what, when, where, why and how—into the fewest possible words at the top of the story, then proceeds to fill in decreasingly important details?

Award-winning hard-boiled crime novelist Bruce DeSilva thinks so, and said as much during a panel at the recent Deadly Ink conference in New Jersey. DeSilva was a prize-winning journalist before becoming a novelist seven years ago and worked on stories winning nearly every journalism prize, including the Pulitzer.

DeSilva apparently was warming up for a turn on the Writer’s Forensics Blog, where he goes into the flaws in the pyramid in more detail, repeating this “what the Bible would have been like if a journalist wrote it” example:

In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said, ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.

His point was that the transition from the artificiality of journalese to writing fiction is difficult. The two require a completely different voice. In fiction, the depiction of events is more realistic in that they generally unfold chronologically, with the wwwwwh answers coming near the very end, not in the first sentence or two.

Needless to say, other former journalists on DeSilva’s panel—including author Dick Belsky—pushed back. Belsky thinks the techniques of journalism, such as digging in and getting the story and grabbing the reader’s interest up front, do translate well. And, the profession provides a believable background for his character, investigative reporter Gil Malloy.

Fellow panelist E.F. Watkins said the hardest thing about her transition from busy newsroom to chair in a quiet office, alone, was learning not “to give things away too fast.” But, she knows how to meet a deadline and how to get her facts right.

According to DeSilva, the main lesson he learned from his journalistic career is that “writing is a job.”  A job you go to daily, in the mood or not, in the company of the muse or not. “You put your butt in your desk chair every day and write.”

Indie Documentaries: Valiant Struggles

N.J. Governor Christie

NJ Gov. Chris Christie-sez so right on his jacket (adapted from a Talk Radio News Svc photo, creative commons license)

In the last bill for the Trenton (N.J.) Film Festival 2016 were three short documentaries under the heading Made in By.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Trenton’s Film Festival offers 55 films from 16 countries in multiple categories—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. The final three from Sunday night were:

  • Two Years – a film by Lauren Hall (11 minutes), which had to be a sentimental favorite here in New Jersey, because it showed the ongoing struggle of Jersey Shore residents to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. They are thwarted by a FEMA bureaucracy that keeps changing eligibility rules for assistance and a governor who says all the right things, but provides little help, focused as he has been on his own now-failed presidential bid. Of the 45,000 or so homes lost in the storm, fewer than 400 had been rebuilt two years later! It is now 3.5 years after the storm, and two shore residents who appeared in the film attended the screening and spoke afterwards. One is finally back in her home, the other is not.
  • PACT: A Day in the Life – by John Bynum, 14 minutes – a film whose cinematic shortcomings are easily overcome by the importance of the problem it highlights: the plight of people with chronic mental conditions in a housing-health-welfare system geared to short-term problems and remedies. The film follows one Trenton, N.J., Catholic Charities support team on its daily rounds, providing ample evidence these people are candidates for sainthood.
  • Made in BY – a 52-minute Italian film (trailer), directed by Luigi Milardi, in its U.S. premiere. The film documents the state of the creative arts in Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship—through interviews with (mostly young) people from theater, art, music, journalism, and so on. The predominant impression is one of uncertainty—will a particular work be censored, will it land its participants in prison, or not? That creativity can thrive under such difficult circumstances is a profound testament to the human spirit.

The organizers of the Trenton Film Festival deserve a big round of applause for mounting such an ambitious and thought-provoking five-day program!

Spotlight

Spotlight, Boston Globe

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, & Brian D’Arcy James in Spotlight

Shades of Woodward and Bernstein, the based-on-a-true story Spotlight (trailer) follows the actions of an investigative journalism team way out on a limb in Catholic Boston. They’re not just in pursuit of the story of clergy child sex abuse, their mission is also to expose the shameful cover-up of abusive priests, and the institutional shortcomings that allowed them to carry on. Unlike today’s social media blowhards (and political candidates), they can’t just make accusations; they need actual proof.

A nice coincidence is the support the reporters receive from another Ben Bradlee—this one Ben Bradlee, Jr., played by John Slattery, who never has a good hair day. Like his father in the Watergate era, he lets the reporters run, even though he’s initially skeptical they’ll come up with anything.

Crusading journalists are a social corrective we have largely lost in the era of declining newsroom budgets and staffs and the competition for sound bites and snarky bits. The reporters in this film reporters fill the job description, pushed by a fierce desire to expose the truth. Sometimes, of course, that leads to more truth than they might desire—closer to home truths of different kinds. They’re after the kind of story that wins Pulitzers (and did), but more important to the journalists, they know it’s an important story for the affected families and a sobering story about how evil can hide in plain sight.

The principals include the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and his investigative “Spotlight” team, led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton of the pursed lips), with reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, who sticks his head out like a turtle, so eager is he to grab onto the story), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). The actors do a fine job, as do Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup in smaller roles.

As written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer and directed by McCarthy, the film is a “magnificent nerdy process movie—a tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” says Justin Chang in Variety. Yet it is never uninteresting. Even better, it is never sanctimonious.

The film’s tension comes from fear that the Church will find out what the Globe is up to and exert its considerable influence to put a stop to it or—and almost worse from the reporters’ point of view—the Boston Herald will scoop them. If they can delay publication until they have proof top Church leaders knew about the abuse, it would be impossible for them to persist in the “few bad apples” claim.

In sum, “A taut story, well-told,” says Jim Lane in the Sacramento News & Review.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 96%.

***The Turk Who Loved Apples

apples

(photo: shellac)

By Matt Gross – Glowing reviews of this 2013 book by the former “Frugal Traveler” and “Getting Lost” columnist for the New York Times, made me want to read it. As a young man, Gross picked up and moved to Ho Chi Minh City and from there explored more of Southeast Asia, worked for a local Vietnamese newspaper, and eventually got himself various travel writing gigs. In 2006, the Times gave him a budget for a three-month, around-the-world trip, which was to establish his “frugal traveler” identity. This, he says, was the job “everybody called ‘the best job in the world’—and an opportunity ripe for fucking up.” Which he did, at first.

The book is a mix of his travel experiences, which I enjoyed tremendously, and ruminations on the larger meaning of travel, which weren’t as interesting. The requirements for travel have changed for him over the years—from carrying a single bag to traveling with a wife and infant, from the ability to set his own schedule to being part of a family with all its competing needs. Truthfully, staying home has come to have its own satisfactions.

Across his whole travel-writing career, Gross visited “fifty or sixty countries,” ate their food (whole chapter on the resultant digestive laments), learned to cook much of it, and wrote hundreds of articles for the Times and others. He sums up everything he learned about traveling frugally in two pages in the middle of the book, which can be boiled down further to: use the Web to find deals and recommendations on airfare, lodging, and food. Airfare: use local and in-country airlines. Lodging: stay with others where you can, Airbnb, works when you can’t. Food: be adventurous. Social life: find local connections through Facebook friends-of-friends-of-friends.

The book’s full title is The Turk who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, which refers to his early days, as he was learning how to travel, yes, relatively frugally. Through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—a network of farmers who will provide volunteers free food and lodging in exchange for some farmwork—he stayed a few days on a rural apple farm in Turkey. Gross bonded with this farmer, an engineer who’d left his profession to do what he loved, and learned from that encounter that frugality “was not an end unto itself but one of the many traveler’s tools, a means of getting closer to exotic lands and foreign peoples.” And getting closer to people—from fellow expats in Ho Chi Minh City to refugees in Calais to members of his wife’s and even his own family—is what Gross is all about.