Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Reading the Sunday papers

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some days the news gives you news in unintended ways. In today’s New York Times I read the obituary of a poet named Abraham Sutzkever, whose beautiful, haunting, and heart-breaking work I discovered only recently. He wrote in Yiddish about the Holocaust and the lost world of Eastern European Jewry.

Here is one of his poems, translated by Jacqueline Osherow:

Written on a slat of a railway car:

If some time someone should find pearls
threaded on a blood-red string of silk
which, near the throat, runs all the thinner
like life's own path until it's gone
somewhere in a fog and can't be seen —

If someone should find these pearls
let him know how — cool, aloof — they lit up
the eighteen-year-old, impatient heart
of the Paris dancing girl, Marie.

Now, dragged through unknown Poland —
I'm throwing my pearls through the grate.

If they're found by a young man —
let these pearls adorn his girlfriend.
If they're found by a girl —
let her wear them; they belong to her.
And if they're found by an old man —
let him, for these pearls, recite a prayer.

From Epitaphs 1943-44

When I turned from the Times’ news section to “News of the Week in Review,” I saw its lead story about political anger. It was illustrated with some of the most disturbing photographs I’ve seen in a long time. The front page photo is from a Tea Party rally. Pictured front and center are three women not far off my age cohort. One holds a sign that reads, “Gun Control is being able to hit your target.” The jump has a photo, too, this one from the 1964 presidential campaign. A woman identified as a Barry Goldwater supporter holds a “USA Love It or Leave It” poster. Her face is so contorted with anger that she looks more animal than human. (For some reason, the editors have selected women’s faces here. Food for thought. No comment.)

Left me thinking about hate in its various historical moments and incarnations and what it does to us.

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New media, old media, and the public interest

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Just as I’ve finished my post about the likely sad demise of the Bay State Banner here in Boston, something has erupted that’s essentially a food fight between old and new media. Long story short, Ted Diadiun, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, reacted to a blogger reacting to a Plain Dealer column by calling bloggers, “a bunch of pipsqueaks out there talking about what the real journalists do.” Predictably, the comment ignited blazing online reaction and won another embattled newspaper no new friends.

Here’s my take, for what it’s worth. Yes, there are plenty of self-serving bloggers with no idea what journalistic ethics are. Or rules of grammar, for that matter. Hacks exist in every field. If you count on the wisdom of the marketplace, you figure--some evidence to the contrary--that the cream will rise to the top and the sludge will eventually sink without a trace.

Meanwhile there are bloggers who are, like me, former print journalists who did not suddenly lose their professional standards when their newspapers downsized out from under them. And there are bloggers (maybe we should dignify them with the name online journalists) who are serious about finding and reporting news in this new forum.

Bottom line is a sense of responsibility to the public. A hissy fit, whether thrown by a blogger or a print journalist may make for fun reading, but it is of no use to readers of anything. Just looks like a bunch of pipsqueaks saying, “the public be damned.”

Meanwhile, consider switching from reading news to reading poetry:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams

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Another one bites the dust?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Here in Boston another newspaper voice seems about to go silent. Right now the Bay State Banner has just “suspended” publication, but unless a savior is found soon, that suspension will be permanent. The Banner has, since 1965, been a voice for Boston’s black community, which has often been city marginalized in the city's newspapers and broadcast media.

The Banner spoke to a community and community is one more thing lost, or at least irreparably altered, with the death of a paper. Picture the morning commute with a train full of newspaper readers, as opposed to a train filled with people glued to their Blackberrys (Blackberries? Sure wish my blog had a copy editor.) One is a communal experience, while the other is solitary. The internet’s paradox is that while we’re connected, we’re also detached. What’s the answer? If we’re linked to a thousand different news sources, isn’t that a good and healthy thing? But then we’re missing what we have in common when we’re all reading and listening to just a few outlets.

The internet gives us immediacy. On Friday night when Sarah Palin gave her less-than-articulate resignation speech, who would have thought for an instant of waiting for the next day’s paper to find out about it? And the protests around the Iranian election results, beamed around the world by bloggers and anyone with a cell phone camera make an indisputable case for the online news. Who would want to be without that?

But newspapers give us depth. I recently saw an HBO documentary called, “Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech.” One segment concerned the publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, the documentation of the U.S.’s deeply flawed and manipulated conduct of the Vietnam War. I was reminded again of that with yesterday’s astoundingly worded New York Times headline about the death of Robert McNamara, “Architect of a Futile War.” The credentialed reporting, the extended following of a story, the publication of lengthy documents, even the publication of important stories on non-sexy topics--all things newspapers have done year after year, all things that online news sources have yet to prove themselves in, all vital to keeping us informed. No one imagines that newspapers will--or even should--continue unchanged and new media has a long way to go before it’s an adequate replacement.

I’m thinking that each of us has a role to play in how this story unfolds. Every time we choose to read a paper or not and every time we choose which online news sources we read, we are affecting it. And, in case we’re tempted to avoid the whole question, we need to remember that nothing of consequence rides on the answer but democracy, which requires a well-informed citizenry to function.

We live in interesting times. Stay tuned for breaking news.

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“I don’t like blogs....”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I heard someone say that recently. And since it was someone who is unfailingly current on the news, it seemed odd. It was as if he had said, “I don’t like newspapers” when what he might have meant was “I don’t like the Herald.” And, since he added that he would never want to leave a comment on a blog post, it was like saying he’d never write a letter to the editor. Okay.

I never expected to be a poster child for blogs. I am not naturally part of the blog demographic, if there is such a thing, and I can’t imagine my morning coffee without a newspaper spread out on the table in front of me. But when my Boston Globe section closed and I wasn’t ready to stop the conversations I had been having in my column, I became a blogger. And somehow in the process I also became a blog advocate.

Not that I don’t see shortcomings in blogospace: there is no end to the online equivalents of the shoddiest of print journalism. And not that I think blogs should replace newspapers: I hope with all my heart that that won’t happen. I believe that each has important strengths along with significant weaknesses and that the ideal information system for a democracy would be an energetic combination of the two.

But for us newspaper readers, getting at least some the news from blogs will take some getting used to for three reasons.

1. It doesn’t come neatly packaged. When you bring The New York Times or The Boston Globe in from the doorstep (or the flower bed) you can feel you’ve got the news in hand. It’s there--international to local, arts to science, insightful commentary to celeb gossip. Add the snatches of NPR you get in the car and you’re at least marginally current.

Blogs are a sprawling mass, sometimes herded by a few sites like The Huffington Post or Slate or The Daily Beast, but for the most part staking out their own territory. To read them, you first have to find them. And their numbers are so huge that,even as you read, you’re out of breath from the feeling that there’s no possible catching up.

2. It doesn’t come vetted. The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times doesn’t stand behind most blogs. Not even a copy editor does. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t well-researched and well-written blogs. It just means that you, as a reader, have to be an active participant, an assesser of information as well as a consumer.

3. Blogs invite comment, just as newspapers invite letters to the editor. They can carry the sender’s name or, unlike in most papers, be published anonymously. But the comments on blogs, for better or worse, are generally unedited. Commenters can cover themselves with glory or set themselves up for ridicule with the touch of a “send” icon. Of course you can just be a reader, not a responder. But it’s precisely the possibility of communal conversation that is the medium’s unique feature.

So I understand the feeling of my friend who doesn’t like blogs and all those like him. Taking the first small step into this rowdy world can feel like throwing yourself into an ocean wave. But face it, you’re going to do this sooner or later. You know that no matter how much you protest. After all, you probably already have a tv, right? An e-mail account?

The fact is it’s not a question of one or the other. Newspapers and blogs each are better at some things. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to have both.

Watch for my next post in which I’ll offer an intro to some of the blogs I’ve come to count on for the news that, in addition to newspapers, keeps me connected to the world.

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Print shmint, or should we care if newspapers die

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

If a newspaper falls in a forest, should anyone care? People seem to think, with all the online news sources, including blogs, newspapers are obsolete.  Well, I used to be a newspaper columnist and now I’m a blogger and I’m here to offer this paraphrase: I know newspapers. Newspapers are a friend of mine and blogs are no newspapers.

In the short weeks since I started my blog, I’ve been doing a lot of online reading. I’ve found plenty of good blogs. Really impressive ones, well written and well intentioned. Plenty of bad ones, too. But there’s no blog, no collection of blogs--much as I like the Huffington Post--that takes the place of a newspaper. Even a newspaper online is barely up to the job. Boston.com, the Globe’s web incarnation, is so user-unfriendly that it does the paper no favors. I hate to carp, but when they generously added a link to my blog, I had to contact the editor for directions on how to find it!

There’s a scope of articles a newspaper tackles that’s hard to find anywhere else. There are knowledgeable writers who write great blogs about national politics, toxic banks, and health care. But no one’s digging into your town’s solid waste management problem. Local investigative reporting is something newspapers could afford; most blogs can’t.

Newspapers also land on the doorstep with a certain level of credibility. Facts have to be checked to make their way into a newspaper and if they aren’t the result is a printed “correction.” With a blog it’s hard to know if the “facts” are factual. It can be hard to figure out who among the zillions of bloggers has something of value to say and who is simply grinding an ax.

Here in Boston, where the Globe is teetering on the brink of possible nonexistence, Paul Levy, the CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has used his blog to call for a “blog rally” in support of the Globe. Mine is among the outpouring of comments. People are arguing in favor of print or in favor of online sources. But the fact is it can’t be either or. Each has something unique to offer in giving us the information we need to remain participants in a functioning democracy. The question is how are newspapers going to survive to fulfill their responsibility. They may be dinosaurs that have yet to find sure footing in this new reality. But blogs are the not-ready-for-prime-time players, with an important role to fill, certainly, but without the ability to do it all.  Until or unless they are, newspapers in some form need and deserve our support.

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