Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Friday, October 24, 2008
Living in Washington in the seventies, we were treated to an endless drumbeat of stories in The Washington Post by the young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about a brewing scandal involving the Republicans and the White House. Eventually the stories created an explosion that rocked the country and caused President Richard Nixon to resign after winning a resounding victory for a second term. The event has gone down in history as “Watergate.”
I had been a consultant to the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House and knew many of the players that were involved in the scandal. It was fascinating to be an observer to this bizarre situation in which a couple of young newspaper reporters, backed by their intrepid editor Ben Bradlee and the approval of the paper’s publisher Katherine Graham, were able to bring down a sitting President.
From my vantage point as a mere observer who knew many in the cast of characters in this ordeal, I was able to enjoy a smorgasbord of ready-made research into the dynamics of this struggle between the media and the political elite. Also, I had been a newspaperman, starting my career as a copy boy for the New York Daily News and going on to be the editor of the largest weekly on Long Island.
I knew the turf, knew the inside story of the political scene and the way in which stories are assigned, written and placed. Viewing this story unfolding before my eyes provided the raw material for the idea of my novel.
If a newspaper had the power to bring down a sitting President, did it not have the power to create one?
That was my central theme. Since I lived in Washington, I had some cursory knowledge of the history of The Post and the personalities that ran it, including some very private behind-the-scenes material that I had picked up through the gossip mills of Washington. We were very much a part of the media/political social scene, circulated freely, listened and observed, picking up material like a giant sponge.
My publisher at Putnam, then a family business before movie moguls and the mega corporations overran it, liked the idea and gave me a small advance. I wrote the novel. Because of my inside knowledge of the backstage story, it contained elements that could be considered a roman a clef, although I was careful not to come too close to the bone of what could be considered reality. Nevertheless the people at The Post considered it such and totally ignored it in their pages. In fact, the media fraternity considered it an attack on the system and it was hardly reviewed and mostly dismissed. But I had it right, and it is as fresh today as it was when written nearly thirty years ago.
The story doesn’t end there. A few months after publication my wife and I spent the Christmas to New Year’s holiday at a spa in Mexico where, of all people, I got very friendly with one of the guests, Katherine Graham, owner/publisher of The Washington Post. We played tennis together and generally bonded as people do when thrown together in a relaxed atmosphere. All she knew about me was that I wrote novels, lived in Washington and was very familiar with her newspaper and the circles in which she moved. I found her one of the most interesting people I had ever met in my life. In fact, I adored her.
But sometime during the holiday, she discovered from people back in Washington that I had written this novel. The perception was that it did not treat the people at The Post kindly and was a vicious attack on their integrity. She had also perceived personal references in the character of my fictional publisher and assumed that they were unfavorable references to her and her family.
Journalists have thin skin and think of themselves as perpetually under attack by people who doubt their motives. They truly believe they are worthy of canonization as truth seekers and see the world in stark terms of black and white. In this self-characterization, they are the good guys and they consider all critics of their work the bad guys.
Apparently, Kay Graham bought their characterization and treated me to a three-hour emotional confrontation insisting that The Post didn’t bring Nixon down, but that his own foolish act destroyed his presidency and any personal references suggested by my fictional character were insulting to her. I was quite shaken, but listened carefully to her accusations. She had not read the book, but from the information she was given from the home office, she determined that I had been vicious and inaccurate. My only defense, of course, was that this was a work of fiction and, while admittedly it did contain characters and events with some peripheral similarities, it was a work of the imagination.
She had a point of course. There is a thin boundary between fact and fiction and while she hadn’t read the book, those around her had, and were quick to characterize it as a roman a clef with nasty intent. The fact was that the idea was loose and no amount of explanation on my part could expiate my supposed sin. I will admit to being somewhat ingenuous, both then and now. In her place, I might have reacted with the same anger and emotion. Nevertheless the deed was done, and I felt awful that I had hurt my new friend, who I admired enormously.
After her outburst, she settled down and while hardly forgiving me, we did enjoy the rest of our holiday and saw each other on occasion in Washington. My admiration for her has grown with the years. In my mind she remains a heroic figure, a paragon of womanhood. Her autobiography, published a few years before her death, was one of the best I have ever read, beautifully written and honestly told, revealing the same vulnerable, charming and forgiving human being that had crossed my path briefly but memorably at that spa in Mexico.
That said, I nevertheless defend my novel as a truthful, insightful and accurate snapshot of that moment in time.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
I blame all the sad dreamers who believed you could buy a house for little or no money down and the rest on borrowed money, absurdly convinced that the market for this house would continue to rise. Like any commodity real estate goes up and down. Nothing goes up forever. Worse, the purchase of a house is the first step in an avalanche of expenses, furniture, appliances, carpets, TV sets, things, lots of things. If people who bought a house they couldn’t really afford and all the things that went into it, how did they think they were going to pay for it? How did they buy into the notion that they were entitled to such largesse?
I blame all the pandering and plundering politicians of both parties for passing the laws that made it so easy to purchase these houses for little or no money down. They just threw the faux red meat to the gullible crowd on the premise that the more you give away, the more people will vote to keep you in office. Beware of a politician’s promises. They have one goal that motivates them: to get elected and re-elected. A politician’s office becomes an election campaign headquarters the moment he or she gets elected.
I blame all the lobbyists for bankers, mortgage brokers, stock brokers, housing advocates, the real estate industry, the credit card industry and all those who would profit from the never ending tsunami of profiteers who were paid to persuade (make that bribe) the clueless politicians to pass the laws that made it possible for people to buy a house for little or no money down that they could not afford to sustain.
I blame the army of greed-driven brokers, bankers and lawyers who cut themselves fees from the people who bought the houses for little or no money down, then sliced the mortgages which paid for them, then mixed them up with allegedly safer mortgages and sold them as “risk free” certificates to suckers all over the world.
I blame the politicians for taking the money from the lobbyists in exchange to do their bidding. Never believe a politician who takes this money and says it won’t influence his or her vote. I blame the voters who don’t do their due diligence on the politicians who seek their vote. If they elect clever manipulators who have invented themselves out of whole cloth, who are modern day snake oil salesman interested only in their own personal ambition and ego satisfaction, then they have only themselves to blame. Don’t look for solutions from people like these. Invariably they will make things worse.
I highly recommend an obligatory course in legislating and governing for every politician in the country presently in office or any future aspirant, and declare ineligible any potential candidate that doesn’t get a get a high passing grade and has submitted to a lie detector test. My estimate is that more than ninety percent of the present crop of politicians will flunk the course.
I blame all the fools who paid for things by credit card and extended the debt on these cards, paying ridiculously inflated interest rates resulting in a process from which they will never ever catch up. Indeed, they are going up the down escalator and they will almost never reach the top. Anybody that lets debt mount on a credit card needs a refresher course in simple arithmetic.
I blame the credit card companies for promoting these plastic time bombs to people of all ages who are persuaded and manipulated to take these cards and can’t afford to pay the debt they incur within thirty days. Credit card issuers make their money on the debt from the poor saps who allow themselves to continue to pay these pony interest rates that will eventually destroy their ability to ever get credit again.
I blame the parents of kids ignorant of the realities of debt who allow them to get credit cards to instantly gratify their adolescent desires. And I blame these stupidly indulgent parents for not teaching their children the value of thrift and savings.
I blame the educators and the bureaucrats who run the sadly dysfunctional educational establishment for not creating programs to teach young people about economics, the dangers of overextended debt and the value of thrift. It is an essential ingredient of a good education to prepare a child for real life. While we are at it, how about similar programs for adults?
I blame the pompous and self-inflated idiots on the boards of companies who receive high payments to serve on these boards and reward the CEO’s of these companies with astronomical high pay. The people who they screw are the stockholders they purport to represent and, of course, the rest of us. As for the stockholders, why are they not storming the ramparts?
I blame the advertising industry and all the manipulators in the media for persuading people to buy things whether they can afford it or not. Beware of the words free, bargain, discount, special sales, once in a lifetime and all those soothingly false pictures of people allegedly living the good life. Check it out. Be wary. Be alert. Never buy anything endorsed by a celebrity. Their praise is pure baloney. They are trying to get you to part with your money. If you buy into it and you can’t really afford the product they tout, the consequences are your own damned fault.
As for the current election, maybe the best course for all of us is to vote present. It seems to have worked for at least one candidate.
Most of all, I blame the DNA of the human animal that has made us slaves to our desires, dreams, hopes, aspirations, yearnings, fantasies, pleasures and cravings. Somewhere in that double helix construction there must be a yet undiscovered fault line that is responsible for an errant stupid gene floating aimlessly somewhere in the brain.
All that said, if you really want to find the true culprit, look in the mirror.
Warren Adler is the author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
It used to be that the main sources of credible and allegedly reliable political information came from the major big city newspapers, the three major TV networks, the two major news magazines and, more recently, the two competing cable channels CNN and Fox. I do not wish to denigrate newspapers and television in other markets throughout the country, but most people will acknowledge that the lion's share of influence came from the sources I have cited.
The mighty Washington Post had the power to bring down Presidents, and the newspaper of record, the old grey lady, the New York Times was the major news source with the clout to seed every important major media in America and, arguably, the planet.
Staffed by a dominant cadre recruited from the elite feeder colleges, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and others that could be shoehorned into that category, the major "elite" media became a kind of branch of this closed shop of contemporary academic orthodoxy and entitlement. Like ethnic groups who felt more comfortable in their neighborhoods with similar neighbors, the so-called major media became more comfortable with their own kind, those educated in these colleges and universities underline once again the old birds of a feather cliché.
It became true of all power clusters in America, from Wall Street to law and other major wealth producing occupations that an Ivy League old school tie was and, arguably, still is the major gateway to fame and fortune. As an aside, one cannot fail to mention that those recruited from the business schools of these great institutions led the disastrous charge on Wall Street that heroically bugled us all over the cliff into the greatest American financial debacle of all time.
Ironically, it might be unseemly to point out that three of the most powerful of our founding fathers, Washington, Franklin and Hamilton, never graduated from college, although the latter dropped out of King's College, the precursor of Columbia.
While working in the media does not offer the heady awards of wealth, it does offer a far more seductive aphrodisiac, power and notoriety, the ability to amplify one's alleged wisdom through the bullhorn of the printed and spoken word. The psychic satisfactions of the power to influence cannot be exaggerated. It is the Holy Grail of ambition.
Alas, this power to influence via the traditional media is deteriorating rapidly under the onslaught of technology, which has spawned a Tower of Babel Internet culture where the number of voices has expanded exponentially and the pool of influence has become an angry ocean of riptides making the old methods of navigation impossible. We are being informed more and know less. Everyone seems to believe that everyone is entitled to everyone's opinion.
What was only a few years ago called the "major media" is quickly losing its monopoly of influence. The signs are everywhere. Newspapers are losing circulation at an ever-accelerating pace. The once vaunted three networks have become shadows of their former glory. The news magazines are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The bottom line, of course, is that advertisers, whose only measure of effectiveness is how many eyeballs they can attract and where they can pinpoint their message, are fractionalizing their ads and spreading them over a wider swath undermining the economic base that fuels this media.
On television, the three major networks have long peaked in influence and offer their news messages to an older and older demographic, slicing away people under sixty from their range of influence. In a few more years they will join their print brothers in the influence cemetery of the extinct. Even the cable networks with their self-hyped authenticity and increasingly inarticulate talking heads increasingly cater to an ever more aging demographic. Look where their ads are pointed, to the incontinent, the erection disabled, the sleep deprived, the diabetic, all markers of the ravages of aging.
The people who run these enterprises are not fools. They are discovering that playing to people with the same biases is their only business lifeline, especially in New York City and Washington where the educated elite huddle together in an easily targeted and self-important, although increasingly leftist, segment. I suspect that if, for example, the Times took too a big a step right, they would lose enough subscribers to push them that much closer to a Bear Stearns finish. It is probably true of the other former big guns of the mainstream media.
The Times, however, does have one saving ace in the hole. It provides the most extensive and comprehensive coverage of the Big Apple's vast array of cultural activities. Frankly, as an avid consumer of such information, I hope it will give them enough revenue to sustain them in some fashion for the long haul, although I am not optimistic. The Washington Post, on the other hand, serving a less culturally charged entertainment scene, may have a more difficult time getting traction and will attempt to vastly increase its local service coverage to keep afloat.
As for real influence, the kind they enjoyed for decades, the Times is already in free fall on that score despite its vaunted slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print" and their promise to be "a newspaper of record." The truth is that for decades they did fulfill those goals. In the last few years their focus has been too narrow and blatantly biased to make that case.
I can imagine how many focus groups they have enlisted to try to reverse their dreary business prospects. They probably were obliged, based on their research, to double their op ed cadre of conservatives, adding neocon William Kristol to join with David Brooks to give them a patina of fairness, especially since these writers are part of the intellectually acceptable conservatives in the mold of William Buckley. I doubt it will help improve their bottom line. Most of their centrist and moderate right subscribers have probably already gone.
Indeed, it seems at times that desperation rules the roost among the Times editors who support the strident outpourings of Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert and their roster of like-minded columnists who clang the pots for the disadvantaged and put-upon, few of whom are readers. One wonders if this clique is in the wrong pew, considering that the advertisements for upscale jewelry and super luxury products that can only be afforded by the folks they rail against continue to fill the adjacent space in the newspaper.
The most hopeful survival sign in the media influence department is the Wall Street Journal, which the canny Rupert Murdoch bought as his flagship newspaper outlet. The Times pretty well abdicated its money coverage giving Murdoch the perfect opening to buy the Journal, whose theme is "Money," a universal subject. The Journal is more conservative in outlook, largely because people who deal in money are less comfortable with vituperative lectures by unsettling voices of grievance.
Note how the Journal is moving into the mainstream of traditional journalism, rowing cautiously down the center and adapting some of the Times' mindset from its glory days when its approach to news gathering was more impartial. It will be interesting to see if it transforms itself under its "money" umbrella to become some hybrid that eats its way into the Times' once dominant turf. As an avid Journal paper and website reader, I am deeply impressed by their imaginative effort at transformation.
The fact is that I sorely miss the old influential culture of the once great media outlets. Perhaps I am simply being nostalgic, but I did respect what passed as the elite media of yesteryear which, I sensed, gave me a more factual and balanced picture of our world than they do today. I believed in their news coverage. I believed in the honesty of their columnists' offerings, even those with whom I disagreed. I now take everything they say with a giant grain of salt, and I ignore the pretentious faux sagacity of their editorials.
Worse, as a former newspaper editor, I can easily recognize the bias of their headline writers and the subtle ways they place their stories to cater to their committed readers. Thankfully, my experience has given me the ability to filter out all the hogwash.
That said, I will never give up my paper subscription to the New York Times, which I have been reading since I was twelve years old. I know how to interpret their politically tinged news stories and their columnists' offerings, which I read diligently but without conviction. They amuse and entertain me, and I do occasionally learn something of interest from their efforts.
But the non-political content of the Times is unbeatable and, for the most part, well written, wide-ranging and wonderfully diverse. It covers a vast panorama of the local, national and global community. It offers the best coverage of the arts anywhere on the planet, and I cannot conceive of not seeing the paper at my apartment door every morning.
Yes, their political influence has declined and they have certainly lost traction among those who do not follow their political line, but I can understand the business decisions that they must have made to continue their bias. They have been dealt a terrible technological blow that might one day bring them to their knees and are trying to cope with this onslaught as best they can by gathering together the prime adherents of their bias.
As they say in politics, they are being loyal to what has become their base. Indeed, I have the sense that any dissent to their policies from within their ranks is met with tolerant contempt and, worse, the threat of expulsion.
I wouldn't deign to predict how this decline of influence of the once powerful media will play out. Indeed, it is impossible to embrace the dizzying spiral of information being hurled at us through cyberspace. I just hope and pray the center holds, but I'm no longer as certain as I was.