Sunday read: Notes from Roger Ebert

Image via Rogerebert.com.

A few days ago on Twitter, writer Chris Jones shared a series of Post-it Notes he’d gotten from Roger Ebert when he interviewed Ebert for Esquire in 2009. The notes were pure Ebert: funny, longing, sad, matter-of-fact.

It has been 11 years since Jones’ moving, insightful piece appeared in Esquire’s March 2010 issue. I remember when it came out: There was a great deal of surprise that Ebert, who had had part of his jaw removed due to cancer, had agreed to sit down in person and let himself be photographed. Jones, an excellent writer who’s made a habit out of surprising perspectives (try his profile of Carrot Top on for size), didn’t waste the opportunity.

His story is my Sunday read.

Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.

What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”

Jones went much deeper.

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.

I miss that ferocity.

You can read “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” here. (And follow Chris Jones on Twitter. You won’t be disappointed. The man has a very real girlfriend and does not let anyone insult his CBC T-shirts.)

Sunday read: A day of rest

Image from Getty via Vox.

Given that I’m way behind on my own Sunday reading — and, for that matter, my reading in general — I’m going to give you (and me) the day off from a nice feature story.

(Though, if you’re looking for something thoughtful, this essay on the film “Catch-22” has a few things to say about that movie and absurdity. In our current, exhausting times, in which we’re waiting for a cranky president to accept reality and a virus is achieving new heights of death, absurdity has been on my mind a lot.)

So enjoy the day, or enjoy your sleep, or enjoy catching up on your reading. All I know is I have today’s New York Times, several New Yorkers, various other periodicals, and a few lesson plans to look over.

To borrow from Furman Bisher, Selah.

Sunday read: Sean Connery and Alden Whitman

Sean Connery died Saturday. He was 90.

I was going to write a blog entry just about the great Scot, but what more could I say? He was the best James Bond. (Ian Fleming even gave Bond a Scottish background after seeing Connery’s performance; before that, the Bond author had been against his casting.) He had incredible presence, enough that he could get away with his Scottish accent even when playing Russians and Irishmen. He was Indiana Jones’ father.

But I decided, for once, to leave the obituary writing and appreciations to others.

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Sunday read: Three pieces from a writer you’ve probably never heard of

So many stories. So much talent.

Such a great loss.

Jim Dwyer died Thursday. He was just 64.

Now, you’ve probably never heard of Jim Dwyer. If you’re a thorough reader of The New York Times, you know he wrote the “About New York” column for the Paper of Record, but it’s the kind of column that most national readers of the Times probably skip. In the days when newspapers ruled the world, he may have been syndicated, like his Gotham brethren Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, or Chicago’s Mike Royko, but the Times tended to focus its syndicated love on its op-ed columnists, so New York-centric writers like Dwyer were left to the locals.

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Talking with John Lennon and watching Robert Kennedy die

As I mentioned in my Pete Hamill appreciation a couple days go, the guy had a colorful life.

Over the years — besides the countless columns of man-on-the-street prose he turned out — he mixed with the famous, including John Lennon and a certain real estate hawker-somehowturned-president. (“From the sublime to the ridiculous” has never been so appropriate.)

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Pete Hamill, 1935-2020

Pete Hamill. Photo by AP via the New York Post.

Pete Hamill died today. He was 85.

For readers like me, Pete Hamill was a capital-J Journalist. Along with his contemporary and sometime rival Jimmy Breslin, the guy epitomized the New York newsman: close to the action, talking truth to power, filled with swagger and intensity. (It was no surprise that both came from the outer boroughs — Breslin from Queens and Hamill from Brooklyn. Their origins gave them an extra chip on their shoulders, determined to show those Manhattanites that there were another several million people in the Big City.)

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Goodbye, ‘Stone Soup’

Image of Jan Eliot from stonesoupcartoons.com.

As regular readers of this blog — both of you — know, I love comic strips. (Yes, I still read “Judge Parker,” but lately the wacky plotlines have turned to … politics?) I still read them in the daily and Sunday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, even the 1973 reruns of “Peanuts” (a great era for “Peanuts,” if you ask me, as long as Rerun wasn’t involved).

On July 26, the last entry of Jan Eliot’s “Stone Soup” was published. This was no surprise to anyone who’d followed the strip; Eliot herself had said the last strip would be published that day, and the Sunday strips for the last month or so have featured a new character — one Jan Eliot, who was kind enough to tell her characters that she was wrapping up the strip.

I almost always enjoyed “Stone Soup.” It had a gentle but winning humor, much like another underrated family strip, Robb Armstrong’s “JumpStart.” Eliot had a few surreal touches — the wading pool that 10-year-old Alix would dive into and find the great creatures of the sea was always welcome — but in general, “Stone Soup” was about an extended family getting by as best they could. Val had a paper-pushing job she obviously didn’t love; Wally was an upbeat nerd before he married Joan, and remained an upbeat nerd afterwards; Holly, the tween daughter, could go from black storm clouds to sunny innocence to pouty childishness in no time flat. There was even a Peace Corps grandma.

“Families are many things, and I enjoy representing the less idealized – but more realistic – circumstances,” she said in a 2003 Washington Post chat.

It was a sweet strip.

Eliot began “Stone Soup” in 1990 as a weekly in the Eugene, Oregon, newspaper, and it was syndicated as a daily strip in 1995. So she’s been at it for 25 years. Every year she’d do at least one strip in which her characters quietly enjoyed a late-summer day, grilling, jumping into a lake, or simply talking on the lawn.

“You gotta love August,” Eliot would inevitably caption it.

August is coming up on Saturday, and the next day there will be no new “Stone Soup” for the first time in a quarter-century. I’m not going to love that version of August, but Jan Eliot deserves her retirement.

Jan, thank you. May you love this August — and many more to come.

UPDATE, 10:50 a.m.: I would be remiss if I didn’t include a link to this interview Eliot did (with three other cartoonists) for my friend Tom Heintjes’ fine magazine, Hogan’s Alley.

In praise (?) of journalism

“Network’s” Howard Beale, still telling the truth. Image from Warner Bros., via online.

I wrote this yesterday, in response to a Quora post that laid out reasons why the “mainstream media” was rapidly losing its audience. I can’t find the link — so much for searching my Google history — but essentially the poster provided four examples of stories the news media got wrong: BuzzFeed’s story about Trump telling Michael Cohen to lie; the MAGA kids; Jussie Smollett; and Mueller. This was a couple hours before the Barr Letter was released, which prompted a number of pundits to put on hairshirts and Trump backers to crow in triumph. (My ultimate opinion of Mueller, dealt with in No. 4 below, hasn’t changed, though I do think the pundits deserve their hairshirts — frankly, I wish some of them would spend the night on a Catherine wheel. Still, I’d like to see the report, not four pages of carefully phrased summary.)

As you can see, I have little love for the state of much mass media, particularly the cable news networks and the shrillest of the opinion sites (which includes most of them). But though I call myself a “recovering journalist,” I still know many who bust their asses to get things right, even if their boss is the guy who helped polish Donald Trump’s hair. I hope they’re allowed to do their jobs properly, without fear or favor … of ratings and traffic.

My response has been slightly edited … because that’s what you do to, one hopes, make it better.

I hesitate to respond to this answer, because I’m of two minds: as one of many people who call themselves “recovering journalists,” I understand your distrust and cynicism of the so-called “mainstream media.” But as someone who worked among many, many excellent reporters for more than 20 years – both as a free-lancer and then at CNN – I feel I have to defend the profession, even at the risk of “Oh, you’re one of THEM.”

Before taking your examples point by point, one overarching note: the “mainstream media” is a fiction. What has become conflated with that term is what I think of as the “noisy media” – essentially, cable news, the louder and more strident portions of the Internet (Twitter most notably), and the Sunday shows (and, to some extent, celebrity-industrial complex programs like “Good Morning America”) that would rather stoke outrage or coast on celebrity than do the hard work of actually REPORTING on a story. We’ve gotten lost in a morass of opinion – Twitter is little BUT people yelling their thoughts – and I think that, overall, that’s what’s harmed the perception of the news media. (My old employer fills 24 hours a day of television “news” with, probably, 95 percent opinion – including from anchors, which pains me no end. And then it features some of the rants as “stories” online!)

The movie “Network” had it right back in 1976 speaking about television: “Television is not the truth. Television’s a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business.”

Feel free to extend that to many corners of the Internet.

Now, in response to your examples:

  1. BuzzFeed remains the only outlet that’s reported “Donald Trump essentially told Michael Cohen to lie under oath,” and your use of the word “peddled” falls under the same editorializing issue that affects so much of the news. Did other outlets report BuzzFeed’s story? Yes. Did they do so with skepticism? Many did. Yes, they should have been louder with their caveats, but the best ones said up front they couldn’t confirm BuzzFeed’s story. For their part, BuzzFeed’s reporters are standing by their language, so if they have to eat crow, I hope they do so loudly and publicly. (Jason Leopold is no relation to me.)
  2. The Post and other outlets quickly revised their stories, because that’s what honest news outlets do. You may view such detail as “misleading,” but that’s the nature of news, especially these days — you revise based on the latest information, even if you were wrong at the outset. Do I wish we could go back to the time when news outlets didn’t feel the need to rush to post (and rush to judgment)? You bet. But we live in an instant world, one that looks for instant rushes of emotion. (See my initial paragraphs.) How do you want news outlets to apologize? The Post, for its part, has now posted a large correction as well. Of course, nobody sees corrections anymore because we’ve all moved on to the next outrage.
  3. The Smollett incident is a classic case of the news media – especially celebrity-saturated TV media – rushing to stoke the outrage. But you know who did the most thorough reporting of the whole case? That member of the “mainstream media,” the Chicago Tribune (and other Chicago outlets), whose reporters did smell something funny from the outset. Why? Because they have beat sources within City Hall and the police department. So let’s not lump all outlets together.
  4. The Mueller report has been filed with no new indictments. We’ll find out what’s in it soon enough (we hope). From what I’ve seen, the NEWS REPORTS about the Mueller report have said exactly that. It’s the endless opinion columns and cable-news bloviators who have speculated, speculated, speculated.

Listen, there are many reasons to be cynical about media. Too much is about access, and when you’re doing entertainment or politics, access is extremely valuable. If you upset a big name, they’ll go to your rival.

Moreover, the business of news is business – unless you’re ProPublica, the idea is to make money, and that means attracting audiences, and that means pitching things in black and white. (Fox News is just as much a part of the “mainstream media” as the other sources – just because they’re ideologically aligned with the Trump White House doesn’t mean they’re not trying to make a buck. Rupert Murdoch has been a master of that since the 1960s, aligning himself with whomever will help him to the biggest profits.)

But most news reporters – whether reporting on your local school board or dealing with the chaos in Washington – are just trying to tell the story as straightforwardly and honestly as they can. We’re in a time when everything is both political and heightened. So do yourself the favor that “Network’s” Howard Beale suggested with television: Shut it off. When it comes to the Internet, read widely. And let the loudest and most celebrity-driven social media return to the sewer from whence it came.

Postscript: Ricky Gervais had a great line about engaging with Twitter in his New York Times Magazine Q&A: “It’s like going into a toilet stall and arguing with graffiti.”

Death haunts an evening: Harlan Ellison and the Annapolis shooting

I am writing this from a lonely hotel room in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s less than five miles from my home, but it feels like it may as well be on the other end of the earth. A contractor is renovating the bathroom, and today’s the day he removed the toilet and, for various reasons, won’t be able to install the new one until tomorrow. There’s only one bathroom and only one toilet in the house, and the last thing I want is to wake up and need to go (especially if it’s more than a 3 a.m. urination).

So here I am. 

And I’m sad. Not just because of the hotel room. Not just because I had to leave my cats — to whom I’ve become frighteningly attached — behind for an unexpected night. (I’m sure they care less than I do.) But because death is haunting the evening.

Earlier today, a gunman shot up a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. At least five people are dead. And Harlan Ellison, one of the formative writers of my youth, has died.

Harlan first. I seem to recall meeting him many years ago, and he was as impish and fiery as I’d imagined. Or maybe I DID imagine it, because I inhaled his books in college — not just the short story collections and “Dangerous Visions” (which he edited), but his fine, pointed essays on television, collected in “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” — and talked to him in my head so often it felt like I met him.

He was singular, Ellison was. He was relentlessly cynical and yet startlingly optimistic. He had the balls to tussle with Frank Sinatra and the bleeding heart to write heartfelt appreciations to his heroes. He sued at the drop of a hat and laughed about everything.

His stories were much like him: sprawling, laser-hot, unkempt, brazen, challenging, empathetic. 

I haven’t read more than an interview with him in years. But he made his mark. I’ll miss him.

There’s a perverted irony that he should die just hours before the shooting in Annapolis. Irony because he would have expected such an act in this razored country, but he would have howled at it, too, just as he always howled at injustice and meaningless violence.

Once I was a journalist. I wore the description reluctantly, because I worked among the real thing — people who’d worked their way up to CNN through a half-dozen local newspapers, who made calls to cops and widows, who could crank out a perfect 600 words with the deadline dragon breathing on their necks. Me? I was an old English major who loved to write, but thought I’d end up in a safer, less frenzied place. Nobody was more surprised than me when timing plucked me from free-lance “content” writing and quickie features and placed me in the CNN newsroom. I tried to earn my keep every day.

CNN, you may have read, is an “enemy of the American people.” I don’t know how that can be said. The CNN.com newsroom is full of hard-working staffers who simply try to tell the truth. And if the TV network side can get sensational — and I have my complaints, too — blame the medium and its corporate masters, not the folks in the field.

I’m still a journalist, I guess. Not a daily grinder and not for a media organization, but still a guy trying to tell stories and stick to the facts. That’s all most journalists do. And most have spouses and children and live where they work and do their jobs the best they can. That’s harder than you think given the hits local press has taken, financially and otherwise.

Think of them. And think of Harlan, that old storyteller. They make a difference in this cold world.

Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

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