in memoriam Howard Zinn, Barry Hannah
Watching conventional journalism’s slow suicide over the last two decades has been a popular reality show in our house. The death was hardly inevitable and technology may have had less to do with it than most people think. A new medium is only as valuable as its message. Had newspapers continued to report the “news,” we might never have needed to find another way of getting it.
Mine was a family of newspaper junkies. My father read so many that at one point he developed an allergy to newsprint and had to wear gloves while reading. My mother studied journalism at university. My wife began her writing career working for The Christian Science Monitor in its expansive phase, as it increased international coverage and launched a television network. My own engagement was cemented in high school. It was there that I discovered the editor’s role in the making of a paper. Soon after I represented the school at the Columbia Journalism Conference, an editorial of mine—I no longer recall its subject—was censored by our vice-principal. Less than a month later, a few of us started AGNI. Suddenly we became “the deciders.”
In 1999, on the stage of the John F. Kennedy Library, I presented a PEN award to Tom Winship, the storied retired editor of The Boston Globe. Afterward I told him how much I’d admired his courage in covering civil rights issues and Vietnam. The Globe under his editorship was the third paper in the country to publish the Pentagon papers. Its coverage of Boston’s busing crisis won it the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The paper was also the second in the nation, after The St. Louis Times, to call for a U.S. pullout from Vietnam.
As J. Anthony Lucas wrote in his classic Common Ground, Winship described journalistic objectivity as code for “playing it safe.” When I reminded Winship of his achievements, he laughed, shrugged, and said that, sure, he had taken some heat from both the Feds and the paper’s owners. But he believed he had no choice if he was to stay true to his profession and his calling. His calling. Under his guidance, the Globe received a dozen Pulitzers; I, and many others, read it daily. As Douglas Martin pointed out in Winship’s obituary in the Globe in March 2002, “Mr. Winship believed that quality journalism was good business, and he proved it. . . . The Globe‘s daily circulation rose by 40 percent . . . and Sunday circulation by 50 percent.”
Today I mainly turn to the Globe for an op-ed column or two, or to follow a particularly compelling local story. “Calling” is a word seldom heard in conjunction with editing. Yet it’s worth remembering that it can be that. All American newspapers are struggling, of course. Yet one potentially crucial reason for their decline is rarely discussed.
Had the Globe taken a strong stand against our invasion of Iraq, had it kept the human consequences of our decisions before our eyes, had it shown the moral imagination to acknowledge, daily, that our self-delusions have led and continue to lead to countless deaths (“We don’t do body counts” is one of the most obscene phrases in the language), had it pursued significant stories with the intelligence shown by such websites as GlobalResearch.ca (see Michael Chossudovsky’s “Towards a World War III Scenario?” from August 13th), had it continued to illuminate this turning point in history—I believe many of us would still be reading it.
Thanks mainly to the Web, we are able to get news. And without access to news, how can we intelligently choose or advise our elected representatives in Washington?
Consider Wikileaks. Last spring the site released a video showing American soldiers murdering unarmed civilians in Iraq. It was titled “Collateral Murder” and can still be seen on YouTube. More recently, the site, working with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian in England, posted 92,000 “secret” State Department documents detailing some of the back-story of our engagement in Afghanistan.
Wikileaks‘s success signals the most important development in journalism in years.
Now we have something to pay attention to.
It is of course shocking that The New York Times felt the need to clear the material with the White House before posting it. Can you imagine The Washington Post having done something similar with The Pentagon Papers? This genuflection before power is why the Times too will become irrelevant if its editors continue slighting the demands of their calling.
That newspapers around the world haven’t offered a chorus of thanks to Wikileaks, and an even louder one to Private Manning, the young man alleged to have leaked the video mentioned above—for which he now sits in a military prison—suggests that the decline and eventual disappearance of print journalism may leave us with little to mourn.
Fortunately, a handful of fiction writers continue to prove that their art has not, as a Colombian friend put it, “suicided itself.” I’d like to close with lines from one of the most important novels of the last decade, J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. These are from section 10, “On national shame”:
An article in a recent New Yorker makes it plain as day that the US administration, with the lead taken by Richard Cheney, not only sanctions the torture of prisoners taken in the so-called war on terror but is active in every way to subvert laws and conventions proscribing torture. We may thus legitimately speak of an administration which, while legal in the sense of being legally elected, is illegal or anti-legal in the sense of operating beyond the bounds of the law, evading the law. . . . Their shamelessness is quite extraordinary. . . . Demosthenes: Whereas the slave fears only pain, what the free man fears most is shame. If we grant the truth of what the New Yorker claims, then the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected do I behave? How do I save my honor? . . . Suicide would save one’s honor, and perhaps there have already been honor suicides among Americans that one does not hear of. But what of political action?
In the light of this, perhaps suicide is the only honorable option for print journalism. But refusing to play it safe would have shown a lot more courage. And made better copy.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.