Monday, September 26, 2016

Leonard Cohen: Still the Man, at 82

Leonard Cohen, my perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, turned 82 last week, and he has a new album coming out in a couple of weeks.   I had reported that here last month and even posted part of the title song.  I'd seen Leonard twice on his recent world tours, as recently as a couple of years ago, and he seem healthy and spry, even skipping on and off stage every night--he was doing shows of almost Springsteenian length--and joking (?) about taking up cigarettes again when he turned 80.  (My photo left from Radio City Music Hall.) He stopped touring a little after that but that's no red flag these days, especially given his age, and when I saw he had a new record in the pipeline I figured he was still feeling quite well.

Wrong.  This lengthy piece in McLean's from his native Canada finds him in pain from severe back problems and unidentified other issues--an "ailing old man"--talk of this being his last album, and other words of gloom.  It seems that he worked on the album for a year and had to give it up due to his health, but his son, Adam, found a chair he could sit in to record the vocals, which apparently turned out great.  There's so much more in the article I won't summarize here, just go read it, and it sounds like the new album might be great. 
 “There were only a few hours a day that we could work. I was dealing with an ailing old man, but an ailing old man who was showing paranormal levels of devotion and focus, and that rubbed off on everybody. The encounters were urgent and sweet and meaningful. It was as if we were riding some kind of mysterious wind.” When he asked his father how he was managing to deliver “the most compelling vocals he’d ever produced, the answer was his condition.” As Leonard sang through the pain, “his immobilized condition led to a giant decrease in distraction. Through monastic training, or something, he had the resources to deal with this acute physical discomfort.”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

When I Wrote a Book at Springsteen's House

There has been, and will be in the following week, a flood of new stories about Bruce Springsteen tied to the publication of his first memoir, not to mention reviews and Best Songs lists, so I might as well add another one of my own.  I've already posted a bit, even created a little video, about how I met him in Sing Sing Prison and then helped create the first magazine piece about him for Crawdaddy in late 1972 (before the first album).  More recently, I caught his concert in Berlin this past June, with tickets from management.  In between he wrote the preface for my 2008 book on the media and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.  And more.  That's a photo of me (left)  backstage with Bruce, band mate David Sancious and Crawdaddy editor Peter Knobler in Central Park in, I think, 1974.  What?  I was the only one with longish hair? But here's-an episode I haven't written about before.

In the autumn of 1975, after his triumphant week at the Bottom Line in NYC, his first ever magazine cover (again Crawdaddy) and then the fabled dueling Time and Newsweek covers, Bruce got ready to leave for the UK and his first really big tour there.  I happened to be visiting him in Jersey just before that, at a time I was trying to write my first novel.  It occurred to me that maybe there was a match here:  I needed an isolated place to exit Crawdaddy for a couple of weeks and write a massive chunk of the book, and he might (especially with his new fame) appreciate someone housesitting for much of his time abroad.  So I asked, and he said sure.

He left for London; I got a ride to his first real house, on a hill in (I think) Atlantic Highlands, overlooking the water that separates that part of Jersey and New York.  Nice view.  It was a compact two-level house with a big deck and, best of all, a little cabin off in the woods, unheated, and with a desk and chair, where I could write (even though I could be just as isolated in the house) on my portable Olympic typewriter.  Max Weinburg had a girlfriend, Karen, living a few hundred feet away as the nearest neighbor, and  we hung out a couple of times.  Southside Johnny and then-wife Betty (aka "Mrs. Southside") came by two or three times and that was it for fun.  To keep up with the outside world, I could watch the news on Bruce's 10-inch TV which he kept next to his bed.  One of the assassination attempts on President Ford happened then--Sarah Jane Moore or Squeaky Fromme, I don't recall which.

What else do I recall?  Had to laugh at finding the only dishes or utensils in the house were one small bowl and one fork.  The only food, until I managed to get some more,  was a box of cereal and some milk.  I take it Bruce ate his cereal with a fork?  Also there was a rhyming dictionary on a table.  Bruce wasn't too proud to leave that out and probably was about to lay it aside for good.  Oh, there was a dart board in the little writer's shack which got a real work out in those two weeks.

When it was over, I had written a couple of hundred pages of the book.  I thought it was quite good.  It never found a publisher.  Bruce returned, wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town, moved to another house, and, well, you know the kid has done okay since.

Debate Preview

Of course, this will not be the usual nuts and bolts and scenarios but simply this, in response to so many raising fears about Trump "winning" due to media's "low expectations": 

I covered very closely for Editor & Publisher and The Nation (also for two books of the elections, see right bar of this blog) the debates of 2008 and 2012, including the veep ones.  In almost every case the instant analyst on-air pundits claimed or hinted at the conclusion that the Republican candidate "won" or "did surprisingly well" against a supposedly better-informed Dem. Even Sarah Palin was said to hold her own, and then Ryan, against Joe Biden.

Then, in the hour afterward: the very unscientific online popularity polls, and equally skewed focus groups, also generally showed GOP candidate won or did very well indeed. These would then be cited by many pundits and GOP as proof their candidate "won," and Trump is certain to do this in spaces.  All through this in the past I would be warning people online that this would NOT hold true when the scientific (real) polls were released in another hour or so, usually by CNN and CBS. 

And, guess what? I was correct every single time. Viewers, properly sampled, gave the Dem candidate the clear win, narrow or wide. So be ready for the same phenomenon this week. Trump will be judged to have "held his own" and "done well" and be "sure to gain" but when the dust settles he will have gained nothing, or lost, and instant pundits and hacks will have the usual mud on their face.

When FDR Shafted Socialist-Democrat Candidate Upton Sinclair

 The following happened 82 years ago,  just after  muckraking author "Uppie" Sinclair,  the former Socialist, swept the Democratic primary for governor of California leading one of great grassroots movements ever,  EPIC (End Poverty in California)--and seemed headed for victory in November.  His meeting with a very friendly FDR at Hyde Park seemed to clinch the deal.  They even chatted about Teddy Roosevelt's response to Upton's The Jungle 30 years back.  Then Roosevelt and his top aides screwed him, backing his right-wing dullard GOP opponent.

Eleanor backed Sinclair in epic race--but FDR instructed aides to tell her to remain silent, and she did.  Sinclair wrote her a key private letter after meeting with the president, but she was away when it arrived, and the aides opened it and informed the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, no less.

And the dirtiest, and one of the most influential, campaigns in USA history--it virtually created the modern campaign--emerged to defeat him.  Hollywood took its first all-out plunge into politics and the saintly Irving Thalberg created the very attack ads for the screen.  See a trailer below for my book on what led to all this:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bruce Hits 'Moron" Trump, Endorses Hillary

It's his birthday, and his new memoir is out any second, and now amid all the new attention, Bruce Springsteen (who some though might sit out this election) has instead slammed Trump and backed Hillary.   Rolling Stone released a teaser for its upcomig cover story, in which Bruce makes his "moron" comment and more.

“The republic is under siege by a moron,” Springsteen told Stone in its teaser published Friday. 

“The whole thing is tragic,” he said re: Trump’s campaign. “Without overstating it, it’s a tragedy for our democracy. When you start talking about elections being rigged, you’re pushing people beyond democratic governance. And it’s a very, very dangerous thing to do. Once you let those genies out of the bottle, they don’t go back in so easy, if they go back in at all.”

Springsteen  supports Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.  “I like Hillary,” he said. “I think she would be a very, very good president.”

My recent photo of Bruce in Berlin above. 

When Obama Won (Songify) Debate!

A golden oldie from 2012, here it is:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Spayd on "Balance"--In Iraq WMD Coverage

UPDATE:   This is my piece from two years ago, moving it up at my blog because Liz Spayd,  the new Public Editor at The New York Times, is drawing much criticism for her recent column on "false balance" (or lack of) in current campaign.  (Jonathan Chait joins in here.)

Unlike a lot of media and political writers I am not one to let bygones be bygones, at least in a very few tragic or high stakes cases.  For example, the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, given the consequences.  This explains my reaction to the Columbia Journalism Review today announcing, after a widely-watched search, that it was hiring Liz Spayd of The Washington Post as its new editor.

Now, I suppose I should review her entire career, for context, though others are doing it and you can read about it in plenty of places.  She has been managing editor of the Post for years now and obviously supervised a good deal of important work (and some not so terrific, of course).  But I am moved to recall, and then let go,  one famous 2004 article, by Howard Kurtz, then media writer at the Post, which I covered at the time (when I was the editor of Editor & Publisher) and in my book on those media failures and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.

In a nutshell:  The NYT, under Bill Keller, had printed as an editors' note  a very brief and very limited semi-apology for its horrific coverage during the run-up to the war.  The Post, almost equally guilty (see headline in photo), didn't even do that, leaving it to one of its reporters, i.e. Kurtz, to report it out.  His piece made the paper look pretty bad, with some embarrassing quotes from editor Len Downie, Bob Woodward and Karen DeYoung, among others.  And there was this passage about Spayd:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post's overall record was strong.

"I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration's assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so."
In some ways, the "hero" of the Kurtz piece was Walter Pincus, the longtime national security who had tried to get more skeptical stories on Iraq WMD in the paper (or get them on the front-page).
But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.

Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."
Michael Getler later reviewed his years as ombudsman at the Post from 2000 to 2005, and offered a strong critique of the role of the paper's editors in the Iraq WMD disaster. He observed:
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.
Gelter chronicles the many important stories the Post either did not cover or buried deep inside the paper (including reports on large antiwar marches).   Then he adds:
Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.
Of course, Liz Spayd was just one of a group of editors and hardly deserves full blame for the Post's performance.  But she did defend that record afterward--and said no apology was needed. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Losing a Friend on 9/11--And the Losses Since

Fifteen years years ago, at this hour on this day (and very sunny, like today), I was  boarding a train to New York, heading for my office in the East Village, in New York, at Editor & Publisher magazine.  A few minutes later, as my train sped south, an airliner flew almost directly overhead over the Hudson on its way to find and smash into one of the World Trade Center towers.  Before the train reached Grand Central, a conductor announced that first one plane, then another, had hit the WTC.  I looked down the river and saw the smoke, recalling that one of my friends, who I had talked to the night before--about the Little League team we coached--worked on a very high floor in one of the towers.

I watched the next hour unfold at Grand Central, tried to catch the last train out of town, barely missed, then evacuated the terminal in full after they announced a plane might be heading our way.  Then I wandered downtown...

The rest of my story from that day (and the state of terror and war since) which I wrote for The Nation a few years ago. And my photo at Ground Zero one year after.

On that morning in September, I found myself stuck at Grand Central Terminal—just off a commuter train and transfixed in front of a TV tuned to Fox News within a large newsstand just off the main hall. The image on the screen: the Twin Towers on fire. By now it was certain that this was a deliberate, terrorist attack. but Grand Central had not yet been evacuated. The subways were still running—with the towers yet to fall—but I could not move from in front of the TV.

A good friend of mine worked on a top floor of one of the towers. I had just spoken to him the night before.

So it went for millions of New Yorkers that day. It’s always amazed me how so many people in the rest of America—and so many politicians—could invoke 9/11 to sell or accept war, torture, wiretapping and all the rest, yet most of the citizens in the region that experienced 9/11 and the human loss more than anywhere else, here in the New York area,  opposed  those measures, according to polls. Now families, around the country, mourn lives still being lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others decry the wasted resources and human spirit spent on wars..

Compared with the stories of some New Yorkers, my own 9/11 story pales, but it informs everything I write and feel about the tragedy.

That morning, I was midway to Grand Central Terminal on a train speeding along the Hudson when the conductor came on the public-address system and said, “A plane has just hit the World Trade Center.“ And, sure enough, looking straight down the river, there was one of the Twin Towers smoking. Then, a few minutes later, pulling into Grand Central, came another announcement: “You’re not going to believe this, folks, but a plane has just hit the other tower.”

My first thought was: “What floor does Jon Albert work on?” I recalled it as being horrendously high. I had just talked with my friend the previous night. He was on the board of the local Little League, I was a manager.  I had coached his son Stephen for several years, and wrote about Jon and his boy in my recent book, Joy in Mudville. In fact, I was coaching his son that month on my “fall ball” team, and his dad was one of my assistants.

Only much later, when I learned the flight paths of the two jetliners, did I realize that as I was hurtling south on the train along the river, at least one of the hijacked planes flew directly overhead. Nearing the city, I might have even heard it.

After ordered out of Grand Central, I spent the next three hours, in a sun-drenched daze,  trying to reach our office, more than thirty blocks south. I took a cab for a few blocks, then all traffic stopped. I walked back to Grand Central thinking the subways or trains might be running again. They weren’t. Like other New Yorkers, I staggered around town  for an hour. Catching bits of news off TV sets in bars and cafes, some of us learned that another hijacked airliner might be heading our way.

Then I trudged to the office. Rooms in every hotel were already taken. At one, three young people who had been catering an event ainone of the towers tried unsuccessfully to book a room. They were ghost-like, partly covered in ash.

As I got below 14th Street, I could see the mountain of deadly smoke covering that patch of blue sky to the south that once embraced the towers. I was a veteran of ground zeroes, having spent a lot of time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this was here, this was now. Swirls of acrid dust blew in my face—pulverized concrete and (I imagined) human residue.

Well, I reached the office, somehow got some stories up on our website, and when the trains started running again, I headed for home in the evening. When I got there,

I found out that Jon Albert, who worked at Marsh-McLennan, had not yet returned, and everyone feared the worst. Also missing was the daughter of our neighbors directly across the street.  (We had just given the neighbors our son's old backyard swing/slide set for the use of their daughter's kids when they visited.)

None of us could reach our office the next day, as everything south of 14th Street was sealed off, but many of us dodged the police lines a day later to help get the issue out, on time: a small miracle. To do it, we had to ignore the disturbing smells from outside that often filtered through our ventilation system. Our first cover at Editor & Publisher was all black with “September 11, 2001” in white type. My friend Jon Albert still hadn’t come home.

Two weeks later, I took my son, along with Jon’s two boys, to a Mets game. Then I arranged for the Mets to let them come down on the field and talk with manager Bobby Valentine in the dugout and meet some of the players. They were all kind.  The boys still thought Dad was coming home. He never did, and the paperback edition of Joy in Mudville is now dedicated to him. So is the local Little League field. So is this article, and everything else I write about war and terror.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Final Front Page Before The Planes Hit

Everything changed that day. Perhaps that's why millions of us still retain, filed away, the front page of our local paper for Sept. 12, 2001, carrying a banner headline that reads something like "America Under Attack" or "New Day of Infamy." But the true impact of what happened hit me harder than it had for quite some time while examining a routine, even dull, front page from the day of the terror attacks.

Holding that September 11, 2001, front page of The New York Times in my hands, it produced a shiver. There was the weather forecast in the upper right corner, accurately predicting the memorable day as "mainly sunny, high 79." Then it occurred to me that I would have read that very edition on the train to New York City that morning, speeding down the Hudson as one of the hijacked planes flew directly overhead, followed minutes later by a conductor announcing over the P.A. system, "You won't believe this folks, but a plane has hit one of the World Trade Center towers." I looked out the window and saw smoke far down the river. Then upon arrival at Grand Central, the conductor announced that the second tower had been struck.  One of my friends was on one of the highest floors.  He did not come home that night.

But what really set me thinking, years later, was this: The killings in America were confined to that day, but within hours of the terror attacks, events were set in motion that would lead to even more Americans perishing abroad in the unnecessary war in Iraq-- not to mention all the dead Iraqis and the wasting of a trillion dollars. As Richard Clarke revealed, before 9/11 was over the administration was already boasting that it would attack Saddam, even without any proof of a connection to that day's terror attacks.

Looking at that front page reminded me of what was lost: the relatively peaceful "normalcy" of our lives then, and the hope that major problems plaguing us here at home (such as health care) could be tackled and resolved.  Instead we got a seemingly endless "war on  terror."  And we are still in Afghanistan.

What was the lead upper-right headline that day in the Times? "Key Leaders Talk of Possible Deals to Revive Economy." Next to that: "Scientists Urge Bigger Supply of Stem Cells." Ho-hum, but a whole lot better than "Surge of U.S. Troops to Baghdad Not Producing Results." Other front-page headlines from Sept. 11, 2001, reflect an innocence now lost: "School Dress vs. a Sea of Bare Flesh" and "In a Nation of Early Risers, Morning TV is a Hot Market." (Note: In some editions, though not mine, there was a front-page story at bottom right on a 1971 hijacking.)

If we could only turn back the clock. More than just about anyone, many of those in the media--including at The New York Times--no doubt wish they could turn back the clock to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and do a lot of things differently in the months and years that followed.  (My photos of Ground Zero one year after.)

For update on my life today, my new blog here

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Berlin Story

Kind of amazing coincidence today: Frederick Taylor, the eminent UK historian, who wrote the definitive The Berlin Wall, had just provided a terrific blurb for my upcoming The Tunnels book ("priceless as history and just about impossible to beat for sheer narrative grip"). Of course, I found this enormously gratifying, given my own Wall subject--and I am now following him on Twitter, the modern homage.  This morning he happened to post the very cool photo at left by a well-known photog, Roger Melis.

It is captioned, "Berlin 1976, Almstadtstrasse." That's a very short street in the old East Berlin -- where my daughter, husband and grandson currently live! I've been at this spot several times now. Their apartment building is just down the block on the left....My book, in many ways, was born on this block--when my daughter moved there three years ago....