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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On the history of a historian

I had a lot of fun working on this story, a short profile of a local historian named Jim Sleeper -- himself a former newspaper reporter. The piece runs in the current issue of Orange Coast magazine. From the story:
After 82 years of life and some 60 years of collecting other people’s stories, Jim Sleeper’s memories can be a little hard to follow. What starts out as a single thought morphs into a 20-minute digression spinning across decades, like a series of hyperlinks. Or footnotes tacked to footnotes. It’s the storyteller’s curse, this meandering mind, but even if some of the details occasionally elude Sleeper—“The tape’s running a little slower these days,” he says—the stories always come to a point.
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Candidate hands a bullet to his opposition

This is a bit local, but bear with me. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is running for California Attorney General. He's a career prosecutor, and has been in the DA's office since the Nixon Administration, as Patt Morrison points out in this Q-and-A in the Los Angeles Times.

The piece also contains this head-scratcher:

Could you stand living in Sacramento?

Oh, no no no no. That's not how it works. Look out this window [he points down Spring Street and laughs]: The Ronald Reagan State Building. That's where Steve Cooley's gonna be hanging out! I'm not going to Sacramento, in this age of faxes, e-mail, Twitter.


That just makes it too easy for the opposition: "Steve Cooley: Does he really want the job?" Or, even worse, that lets them portray Cooley as a politician who says up front he'll be a "no-show." Not completely accurate, but since when has that mattered in American politics?

Answers like that make you wonder whether Cooley is ready for prime time. Read More 
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Some updates, and Roger Ebert

Sorry for being AWOL -- been a busy three weeks. Been filing regularly for Aol News, including this piece trying to set the Joe Stack suicide-pilot story into context, as well as finishing up some freelance articles, teaching, giving a two-part lecture on the state of newspapers and journalism, and trying to resurrect a dormant murder mystery while my agent shops my next book proposal.

Oh, and nailing down photographs and making final revisions to The Fear Within. No wonder I'm tired.

Unrelated, I'm guessing most of you saw the Esquire piece on Roger Ebert by Chris Jones. I'm not a movie-goer but have a professional -- and human -- interest in Ebert and his disfiguring struggle with cancer. I ran through the piece quickly and thought it well done, and up to the magazine's standards as one of the few places where writers have the space to give a subject, and a story line, its due.

But a piece about the story caught me up a bit short. Jones, in an interview at About.com, reveals that he wrote while being acutely concerned about what his subject would think of the piece. That's a dangerous way to write journalism. I teach my students that a journalist's primary responsibility is to the truth, and to the reader, while being faithful to the subject and the results of the reporting. But I also tell them to NOT be concerned with what the subject of the story might think, because the subject of the story will inevitably look at things differently than the reporter. You have to write from a vantage point of detached independence.

Makes me wonder how this profile might have differed if Jones had been less concerned about what the subject of his piece thought about it. Read More 
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