I’m excited to say that a former colleague of mine has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Congratulations to Preston Gannaway, who was just starting at the Monitor when I left. The honor is much deserved.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
In my role as journalist, I have been called many, many names in print. (Only a couple of times have I ever been called out in person, one of those times being a memorable few minutes on live television.) Readers of the “About Me” link know the drill: I am maniacally vacillating, politically correct, disingenuous, puerile, self-righteous, foppish, talentless, irksome, unfunny, stupid, embarrassing, and pretentious. I am a scum-suckin’ creep and what I write is distorted, psychotic gibberish.
I receive each attack with the same shot of adrenaline: It is traumatizing but also thrilling and even (in some weird way) satisfying. Still, no one has ever called for my head.
In the Denver Post yesterday, some yahoo (from Littleton, ironically) did just that. Here’s his letter in full:
Response to killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq
Re: “Soldiers’ bodies found; deaths were ‘barbaric’” June 21 news story.
Why have those who have continually howled at our treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo met the recent kidnapping and sadistic and brutal murders of our two young soldiers with deafening silence? Where is your outrage now? Not only should we behead 100 prisoners in retaliation (complete with Web-posted snuff videos), but also the editors, commentators, college professors and left-wing congressmen who would suddenly break their silence to come out in support of these enemy jihadists. We need to stop listening to these sanctimonious hypocrites who apply the rules of war only to our side. Let us untie the hands of our troops and allow them to fight and win.
James Wood wants to know what it says of The Washington Post “that its most biting writers are those working in the style sections or reviewing films? It is no wonder that 54,000 people have written to thankyoustephencolbert.org.” He then suggests that the MSM, in its response to the recent flap, has demonstrated an unfortunate inability to read:
Richard Cohen, in a recent column in The Washington Post about how unfunny and “rude” Colbert was, commented on the following Colbert passage: “So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, ‘Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!” On this, Cohen expounds: “A mixed metaphor, and lame as can be.” Ah, Mr. Cohen, high-schoolers study “irony” in their English classes so as to avoid slips like yours. Remember your Chaucer? First of all, Colbert is supposed to be in character as a defender of the administration: His metaphor is deliberately comically inefficient. Second, the apparently “mixed metaphor” is itself a commentary on the “terrible” Titanic metaphor—it is supposed to be a second “terrible” metaphor, squared. Third, isn’t this quite a nice dig at the stylistic laziness, the verbal narcosis, of most political commentary—of precisely the kind practiced by Cohen? (Perhaps it takes a terrible metaphor to recognize a mixed one.)
So we have a heaven-made circularity: Colbert, abjuring comedy for bitter irony, attacks the MSM like the bloggers do; the MSM decide not to mention Colbert, or decide that he wasn’t funny, or was rude; and the bloggers get to cry foul, charging that this shows, at best, exactly what is wrong with the cloth-eared MSM—or, at worst, that a conspiracy to silence Colbert has begun. At which point the MSM, in their stolid, evenhanded way, write up the “controversy.” Who can blame the bloggers? They are right that Colbert was often not trying to be funny, but to be insulting—and there is something breathtakingly, sublimely insulting about the way Colbert, in the midst of his rudeness, continues to use the words “sir” and “Mr. President” not ten feet from the man he is dressing down. And, if they are not right about a conspiracy of silence, they are right about the press’s reflexive respect for authority, for only this can explain the chummy way in which, say, The New York Times first reported the event, with its relaxed and relaxing account of the comic genius of Steve Bridges (he was prepped in the White House!).
Slate has the Pun of the Day: “Heads Up: Oral Sex Doubles in Ten Years.”
This pun, presumably, would not pass muster with Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News, who recently banned punning headlines from his paper. (He has since said the ban is only temporary.) But its meaning at least works both ways, too ambitious an accomplishment for most puns in the daily rag. (CruiseControl anyone?)
New York film critic David Edelstein writes a piece on plagiarism. A reader charges him with plagiarism. Edelstein gets the last laugh.
From MICHAEL DAVID SMITH: Are you aware that the exact words you used from David Edelstein’s piece on plagiarism were used in a piece two months ago by Joseph Epstein in the Weekly Standard? (If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what is plagiarism? The least sincere form? A genuine crime?)
SMITH’S SECOND LETTER: Ha! I didn’t read Edelstein’s last paragraph, in which he acknowledges that “even this” isn’t original.
New York spokeswoman BETSY BURTON explains: “With the endless stories about the Kaavya Viswanathan case, and thinking about the plague of plagiarism, we decided to write a piece about plagiarism that is plagiarized. David Edelstein, our film critic, conceived of this idea and tracked down 20 articles on the subject of plagiarism pegged to various scandals. Then he did a big cut-and-paste job and wrote a denunciation of plagiarism that is roughly 99% plagiarized. (The first and last lines are the only original things in the entire piece.) The words are those of Samuel G. Freedman, Ruth Marcus, Jack Shafer, Malcolm Gladwell, various bloggers, and reporters from the Boston Globe, New York Times, and others. A section was also taken from Thomas Mallon’s well-known study of plagiarism, Stolen Words. The idea is that we’re putting the piece out there and seeing how long it will take anyone to notice.”
My questions: Who are these people constantly looking stuff up? Do they have such amazing memories or are they plugging every freaking article they read into Google?
And, how is it you shoot off an e-mail charging someone with plagiarism before you’ve even finished reading the piece?
The Pulitzer Board has honored Thelonious Sphere Monk with a posthumous Special Citation “for a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz” (“Memories of You,” for instance). The Board has not always done well by jazz, but this time they got it right.
UPDATE: Fred Kaplan wonders, in Slate, when the judges “are going to start giving Pulitzers to jazz musicians—or serious pop musicians or musicial-theater composers—who are still around to enjoy the applause and spend the prize money?” My answer: When those art forms are allowed to be considered serious in anything other than retrospect.
Christian Science Monitor freelance reporter Jill Carroll is released from captivity in Iraq.
Responding to the news of Carroll’s release, Monitor editor Richard Bergenheim said, “this is an exciting day, we couldn’t be happier. We are so pleased she’ll be back with her family. The prayers of people all over the world have been answered.”
The banner image is a detail from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn.” Now owned by the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Community School District, it was painted in 1931: the same year Bix Beiderbecke died and a year after Wood painted “American Gothic.”