Review: ‘Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine’ by Joe Hagan

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone MagazineSticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a friend who isn’t interested in reading “Sticky Fingers,” the new biography of Rolling Stone co-founder and media mogul Jann Wenner. He explained that after reading too many rock ‘n’ roll biographies that are essentially litanies of sex, drugs, bad behavior, sex, drugs, and sex and drugs, he’s not interested in another one.

I can’t really blame him, but with a caveat: “Sticky Fingers” (an oddly appropriate title for the digit-in-every-pie Wenner) isn’t really about sex and drugs. It’s about money and power.

Wenner was born to money – new money, but money nonetheless. His father, Edward (whose last name was originally Weiner), founded a San Francisco-based company selling baby formula. It was the beginning of the baby boom, and business thrived.

His mother, known as Sim, was an unhappy housewife – a lesbian who thought she wanted a standard family life, but quickly realized it was a gilded cage. She and Wenner’s father divorced when he was a teenager.

Wenner – born “Jan,” a spelling he changed during his college years at Berkeley – was a precocious child who, like his mother, grappled with his sexuality. Unlike her, however, he didn’t come to terms with it until well into adulthood. It’s a plotline that comes to the fore throughout “Sticky Fingers,” often presented in gossipy ways. I’m not sure Hagan could have been higher-minded in discussing it, but after awhile the list of Wenner’s affairs, with men and women, becomes boring despite its alleged salaciousness.

The blunter throughline, however, is money. Wenner is presented as always on the make, a Sammy Glick for the Age of Aquarius.

Rolling Stone, which he co-founded with San Francisco music writer Ralph J. Gleason, does have its ideals, but Wenner never fools himself – as its staffers sometimes do – that he’s in it for justice. He sees his generation the way Madison Avenue did: as a bunch of free-spending consumers, whether buying LPs, cigarette papers and stereos or – later – cars, computers, diapers and liquor. That 1980s “Perception/Reality” ad campaign reflected Wenner’s true values.

And he wasn’t wrong: Apparently a lot of Rolling Stone readers DID vote for Ronald Reagan, despite the stories in William Greider’s politics column. (Of course, as one staffer notes, Greider’s work was always some of the least-read in the ‘80s version of the magazine.)

Which is not to say that the self-styled “Citizen Wenner,” who loved the movie “Citizen Kane,” didn’t also pride himself on creating a bold, muckraking magazine. One turning point was running the lengthy 1970 “Lennon Remembers” interview, which smashed some of the Beatles’ myths and, not coincidentally, boosted circulation at a time when the magazine was running aground financially. Another was hiring Hunter S. Thompson, who gave its political journalism a distinctive voice – also expressed by such writers as Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas and Joe Klein.

In typical Wenner fashion, however, he managed to alienate John Lennon by pursuing more money out of the interview – publishing a book under RS’ aegis, one that Lennon explicitly told him not to do. It was not unusual behavior; over the years, Wenner would make enemies of friends, often shrugging it off as the price of business. (Even Gleason, whom Wenner idolized, fell away.)

But hey, business was very good. As RS’ chief stockholder, Wenner started living a life that was unavailable to many run-of-the-mill magazine editors. First he hung around with rock stars and record men, befitting their chief courtier. Then it became producers (“SNL’s” Lorne Michaels) and the Aspen/Sun Valley elite. The residences got more ostentatious; so did the overall lifestyle. I gasped when Wenner got a $300 million loan to buy back some stock and “would pay back nary a dime … funneling all the profits directly into his lifestyle.” This was in 2006; you know how the story ends.

I also gasped – or grimaced – upon reading how Wenner protected friends at the expense of journalism. It’s long been known that he’s played favorites on the review pages, making sure his pals in the Rolling Stones get glowing reviews for their crummy post-“Tattoo You” albums. (Of course, this may be payback for the crummy reviews folks like Lenny Kaye gave now-classic Stones albums like “Exile on Main Street.”) But I was surprised to read that he also gave interviews and cover stories to their subjects for vetting.

Bad form, Jann.

But, after awhile, the gasping and grimacing gave way to simply going along. Though the book makes a nice corrective to Alex Gibney’s too-glowing documentary on RS (which was produced in cooperation with the magazine), it’s missing the depth of Gibney’s interviews, which provided some nice context for the magazine’s evolution from music rag to respected periodical. It’s as if Hagan took one person’s jibe at Jann – that he simply rode a good idea for all it was worth – and overplayed it. Every so often Wenner the editor-in-chief comes into view, a man who is pretty good at his job, but then goes away in a cloud of money.

Sex and drugs, too.

As noted, there is plenty of sex and drugs. It was the ‘60s, after all; the ‘70s and ‘80s, too. LSD and pot give way to heroin and cocaine; free love gives way to slick sex and safe sex. Wenner and friends partake of it all. He manages to stay (reasonably) clear-headed while many around him fall apart.

Not the least of them is Wenner’s long-suffering wife, Jane, who was instrumental in molding the early Rolling Stone and smoothing Jann’s rough edges. Often ignored by her husband – who was busy either with the magazine or his famous friends – she plowed much of her energy into decorating, sex and drugs. The last wasn’t as easy for her to shake off as it was for her husband: at one point she’s described as so strung out that she won’t get out of bed for several days.

And that’s not counting the stories of other RS notables, especially famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose relationships with her subjects went well beyond taking pictures. At times chronicling these escapades is revealing. Leibovitz, for one, was discouraged from joining the Rolling Stones on a tour for fear that she’d barely emerge from the other end. She did the tour and, indeed, began a downward spiral that wasn’t turned around for a decade.

But more often it’s simply wearying. It’s a shame because Hagan also writes well when he has rich material, such as Wenner’s relationship with record labels and their moguls (such as Clive Davis and Ahmet Ertegun) and his willingness to go out on journalistic limbs when necessary (it was Rolling Stone that broke the full story on the Patricia Hearst kidnapping).

Hagan has some stylistic tics. He occasionally recapitulates some events as if you hadn’t just read them a chapter or two before. He also narrates too much, instead of letting some observers, such as Cameron Crowe, do the talking. (In Hagan’s defense, in some cases the observer didn’t give him an interview.)

He also gets some easy things wrong. “Saturday Night Live” comes live from Studio 8H, not 3H, and Dave Marsh – though he edited the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” – sure as hell didn’t write every entry.

But, for the most part, Hagan appears to have gotten it right. I do wish his portrait of Wenner were more well-rounded, but that probably says more about Wenner than it does about Hagan. As it is, “Sticky Fingers” says a lot about how money can’t buy ultimate happiness, but it sure as hell can buy so many other things.

Sex and drugs included.

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Review: ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire’ by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every generation has its observers who think things are bad and getting worse. Usually mass media has something to do with it: Neil Postman believed we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” while Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book about how we were drowning in “The Shallows” of the Internet.

Frankly, I think they’re right.

It’s not for nothing that one of my all-time favorite movies is “Network,” which has more prescient words (usually delivered by Peter Finch as Mad Prophet of the Airwaves Howard Beale) than an encyclopedia of predictions. I think the end is coming, and we’re bringing it on ourselves.

“Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” railed Beale in 1976 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Because, he explains, “less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”

That’s happened, of course. Television – particularly television news, because at least the storytelling part of TV got better since the days of “Kojak” – is in the hands of large corporations who need ratings and advertising dollars, and the best way to accomplish that is with outrage and emotion.

That’s especially true of cable news. CNN manages to undercut its worthy journalism with flashy graphics, overly dramatic anchors and those infuriating he said-she said panels that expand nothing besides the egos of its members. Most of Fox News, especially its nightly commentary shows (which too many people confuse with “news”), insists that the country is being destroyed by a cabal of whomever its audience believes is most threatening – people of color, environmentalists, coastal academics, Democrats. (Oh, if only W.E.B. Du Bois were still alive to frighten them today.)

And the Internet? Never has so much bad information been so readily available to so many who will believe so much. Did you know that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim socialist? Or David Rockefeller had seven heart transplants? If it’s online, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln said that. (Unless, of course, it’s “fake news,” which is defined as anything Donald Trump doesn’t like.)

Into this hopeless chasm plunges Kurt Andersen, Spy magazine co-founder, former Time magazine reporter and current “Studio 360” host. His “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” attempts to figure out how this great experiment of a country decided to forget about objective reality in favor of truthiness.

He generally blames the twin strands that have shaped America from its beginnings: religion and money.

The latter helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. And the former helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. We’ve never shaken off either, and these days the two are more powerful (and bound together) than ever.

After all, the Puritans weren’t exactly welcoming, even-tempered colonists – and they begat Anne Hutchinson, who Andersen observes tried to be more pure than the Puritans. A fanatical anti-intellectual, she defamed ministers and believed she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Andersen sees a direct connection between her and many Americans of today: “Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” he writes.

She was exiled, but then so were so many other religious groups that have woven their threads into the American fabric. Many of them are now accepted, because in America that’s what we believe in, even if we yell and scream about it.

You may think Andersen is just talking about the Religious Right, which has distrusted science and reason in favor of Bronze Age storytelling. And he does have harsh words for them. But he also rips into the left, including self-aggrandizing psychiatrists, New Age searchers and anti-establishment hippies. In fact, it’s that ‘60s concept of “find your own truth” that ends up being the sword brandished by the right wing in promulgating THEIR own truths.

So everybody ends up in the muck.

Andersen makes a number of good points in “Fantasyland,” but – ironically – he has too much to work with. After a first half setting things up, the second half of the book becomes a polemic, with Andersen plowing through megachurches, chemtrails, vaccinations, guns, the underbelly of the Internet and, of course, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian himself – the logical outgrowth of all this fantasy. It’s powerful and distressing stuff, but it’s almost too much. Better – if that’s the right word – was Charles P. Pierce’s more studied take in “Idiot America,” or Jon Ronson’s inquisitive “Them.”

Andersen’s writing style also leaves something to be desired. He has a tendency to write crescendoed, Tom Wolfe-ian sentences, which can curdle into Tom Wolfe-ian irritability when the book enters its polemic stages. (I like Tom Wolfe, but he generally knows when to exercise control.) Worse, I lost count of the amount of times Andersen would describe some historical personage without giving his or her name – ever. “The owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” “a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission,” “a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences” – these may be minor characters in Andersen’s history, but they have names, and it’s Journalism 101 to provide them, even if nobody knows who they are.

Still, I enjoyed much of “Fantasyland,” if “enjoyed” is the right word for listening to an increasingly frantic author ponder a country circling the drain. However, you may want to have a movie handy to counter the sinking feeling you have when you finish.

I recommend “Idiocracy.”

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Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

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A few words in defense of #CNN

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I worked for CNN for 16 years, and I don’t think a month went by when I didn’t bitch about the place.

Some of my complaints were simply attempts to blow off steam. Why is the CMS down again? Why do I have to change that headline? Do we have to do that bullshit story simply because it’s trending?

And then there were my deeper concerns, ones that have provoked debate in newsrooms since there have been newsrooms — questions about ratings/traffic vs. news value, questions about ethics, questions about quality.

But for all of my bitching, I was proud to work there. It was, and still is, full of intelligent, thoughtful people.

I could be cynical — most journalists are — but, as George Carlin was fond of saying, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist. You don’t deal with so much human weakness without a little bit of hope that things will get better, and that you can make a difference.

Compared to many of my colleagues, I was in no way a capital-J Journalist — someone who, in my estimation, lived and breathed for scoops in pursuit of The Story (I would rather delete my overabundance of email and get a good night’s sleep) — but I cared deeply about the news, about covering it right, about fairness and accuracy and truth.

And if there’s one truth I know for certain, it’s that my colleagues cared just as deeply. And they still do.

So it makes me angry to see my old employer attacked as being “fake news,” and to see many of my old colleagues’ faces in an anti-Semitic meme. (By the way, despite my departure 15 months ago, you’ll find me in the bottom row.)

I know a lot of people hate journalists. Reporters, in their minds, are pesky busybodies who won’t leave well enough alone. They don’t pay attention to certain stories, and pay too much attention to others. (And you won’t get an argument from many reporters, who would just as soon be chasing something more meaningful than whatever the shiny object of the day is — and these days, when analytics can tell us exactly what people are looking at and for how long, there are a lot of shiny objects.)

Journalists keep asking why — and when, and where, and who and what.

But consider the recent stories that have prompted much of this backlash against the news media: the tangled relationships and communications of a certain high-ranking businessman/politician. Simply the fact that he’s important (the most important, in fact, the biggest, an incredibly important person) makes the stories newsworthy, and if you’re CNN — or any news organization, frankly — you have a responsibility to see where they lead.

As we saw from the story the network pulled a couple weeks ago, CNN is not infallible. You’re only as good as your sources, and in a volatile world where everybody has an agenda, it can be incredibly hard to nail things down. It’s happened to the best.

But CNN, like most other outlets in the so-called “MSM,” owns up to its mistakes when they happen. I have my issues with the network — I think the TV arm (like pretty much all profit-chasing TV news) has come to feel like an all-day edition of “Crossfire” with too much heat, too little light, a sad reflection of the old local news philosophy that sensation sells. But the organization is full of outstanding and humane people trying to make sense of real life that affects real people, and you can see its work on the website, CNN International and even on the main domestic network when Jeffrey Lord isn’t arguing with Van Jones.

Real life isn’t a wrestling match. And I know I’d prefer a sense of “presidential” that is less like Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (who, to give him credit, was possessed of some modesty).

On this Independence Day, the anniversary of when this representative democracy was founded, we should continue working towards “the more perfect union” the Constitution writes about. CNN and the news media, for all their faults, are central to that effort.

Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

Sunday read: The information-industrial Googleplex

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Image from Searchengineland.com.

It says pretty much everything you need to know about Google that its name became a verb for Internet search within a few years of its founding — even if the company itself would rather you save it for when you use its engine.

But the company’s friendly ubiquity sometimes hides its dominance. As The New York Times observes in an op-ed, Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising. And to think that people used to complain about Ma Bell.

Maybe, in fact, Google is a little too dominant. It’s not just that SEO (search-engine optimization) has become an actual job, mainly spent tweaking pages so they can rank high in Google search; it’s that Google, which promised to democratize information, has bigfooted actual information gatherers.

That’s the subject of today’s Sunday read: “How Google eats a business whole,” by Adrianne Jeffries.

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Sunday read: A woman with a story to tell

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Image from ESPN

My friend Jessica Ravitz Cherof has a knack for telling richly human stories — the kind where uncertainty and shades of gray suggest the depth, and variety, of hard-earned experience.

Among her wonderful pieces are one on Aesha, an Afghan woman whose face was disfigured by violence; and a look at spiritual struggles, which found as many questions as answers when she went off to Rishikesh, India, to face some of her own.

Her most recent story, about a breast cancer survivor, is my Sunday read.

Paulette Leaphart gained a modicum of fame for announcing she was going to walk from her home in Mississippi to Washington, D.C., topless, to raise awareness for breast cancer. Leaphart had had a double mastectomy and was catnip to many journalists looking for a feel-good story. Who could argue with such heroics?

Jessica, too, thought Leaphart had a wonderful story and accompanied her in North Carolina for a day to gather background.

But Leaphart wasn’t quite what she seemed. As Jessica wrote:

Some stories land on a journalist’s plate like manna from heaven. They’re perfect morsels you can’t wait to share. Others arrive a mess of ingredients with no recipe to follow. This one started the first way and finished the other.

As Jessica dug into Leaphart’s personal history, the feel-good story turned into something more … well, let’s say awkward. Was Leaphart whom she said she was? Yes — and no.

I’m not going to spoil it for you. Just be prepared for surprises.

You can find “The Naked Truth” here.

Goodbye, Chuck Barris

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Image from NBC via Philly.com.

I knew who Chuck Barris was even before I saw him.

I was the kind of kid who watched shows right through to the end credits, and I noticed the Chuck Barris Productions logo was very similar to ABC’s and Dick Clark’s. That made sense, since both Clark (who employed Barris in the late ’50s) and Barris had relationships with ABC. (It’s hard to beat a Paul Rand logo.)

Game show geek that I was, I did watch “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” though I didn’t understand any of the snickering double-entendres both shows wallowed in. But somehow I knew they were related to Barris, and that his shows were low-brow fun. (He also did “The New Treasure Hunt.”)

Then came “The Gong Show” and Chuck the smarmy host.

Oh, man, did I watch “The Gong Show.” I loved how they gave out $516.32 for the big prize. I loved the Unknown Comic. I had no idea who Jaye P. Morgan was, but I knew Jamie Farr from “M*A*S*H” and Gary Owens had that wonderful voice.

And then there was Barris, clapping his hands, making crude jokes, taking off his bow tie within five minutes of the show’s opening. Stupid? Absolutely. Fun? Of course.

Of course, “The Gong Show” quickly got mannered — what started out as something between a real talent show and vaudeville became a planned freak parade — and “The Gong Show Movie” was even worse. (Yes, I paid to watch it in the theater.) And “The $1.98 Beauty Show” never did it for me.

But Barris was always a fascinating figure. He liked us to think so, anyway. Who else would claim he was both a TV producer and a CIA agent?

Chuck Barris shuffled off the stage Tuesday. Much to his credit, he wasn’t gonged.

We’ll leave you with Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.

Submitted for your approval: Rod Serling, human

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Screenshot of Rod Serling from TheInvisibleAgent.

The other day I stumbled on an old “American Masters” documentary about Rod Serling, the TV writer and “Twilight Zone” creator. I’d read a biography of Serling many years ago, and watched his drama “Patterns” on a boxed set of great Golden Age TV programs, but it had been some time since I thought about the man.

Which is saying something, because in high school I was a huge “Twilight Zone” fan. I remember New Orleans’ PBS station ran reruns, and (though I’m mildly embarrassed to admit it) I spent a good deal of a prom night party exchanging plots with a good friend while others indulged in alcohol and making out. (My own date had abandoned me to get late-night beignets at the Cafe du Monde.)

In those days, it was the darkly twisted or more horrific “Twilight Zones” that caught my attention: “Time Enough at Last,” in which Burgess Meredith, the last man on Earth, finally has time to read all the books he wants — he thinks; “The Howling Man,” a terrifying tale about a prisoner in a castle; “It’s a Good Life,” the classic story about a 6-year-old with nasty powers; and “And When the Sky Was Opened,” about three astronauts who suspect they shouldn’t have come back from their mission.

But the documentary reopened my eyes to the other Serling — the humane one, the one who cared about the little guy, the unsung, the alleged failure, the salaryman. This is the Serling who earned lasting fame for “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” his “Playhouse 90” about a washed-up fighter; who served in World War II and had nightmares about his experiences for the rest of his life; and who wrote some of the most affecting “Twilight Zone” episodes — not about monsters and meanness, but about human flaws and human decency.

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