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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A couple of my favorite books from the past year

Well, since so many other folks are posting lists of their favorite books from the past year, I figured I might as well join in. Unfortunately, I haven't read that many new books this year since my nose has been buried deeply in Detroit history for my own book project. So this is a short list. In fact, I'm limiting it to two books, one a novel and the other an essay collection.

The novel is Jon Clinch's The Kings of the Earth, a book I found myself contemplating long after my review ran in the Los Angeles Times. An excerpt from that piece:
The power of "Kings of the Earth" lies in the intricacies of the relationships among the Proctors; neighbor and childhood friend Preston, who serves as something of a guardian angel; the drug-dealing nephew and the police. Clinch is canny enough to move his characters through their own understated lives, hinting where he needs to as he skirts the obvious, and refusing to overlay a sense of morality on their actions. The reader is the jury.

And Clinch knows his territory, both psychologically and geographically, as in this snowless winter scene:

"The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire."

The landscape informs the story as much as the internal terrain of the characters does, giving "Kings of the Earth" a grounding that is missing from many modern novels. We know the events that lie behind Clinch's novel were real, and that the novel is not. But the realism here is no less, with writing so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread.
The other book that stood out for me was Elif Batuman's highly enjoyable The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a look at just what the title says. But like all great essay collections, the power here lies in the voice. From my review for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear "Russian literature," you think of college classes you wish you'd cut - and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter.

But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into the lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Many of the chapters are extensions of pieces Batuman first wrote for The New Yorker and n+1 and range geographically from Palo Alto, Calif., where Batuman managed to lose one of Babel's daughters at the local airport, to Uzbekistan, where Batuman spent a few months studying Uzbek.

In a sense, the details of Batuman's essays are less significant than the tone. She cruises through minor crises with an air of detached amusement, eye focused on the little absurdities that make travel -- and people -- fun.
So there you have it, my favorites of the year, though I should also mention my friend Bryan Gruley's second mystery, The Hanging Tree, which does just what you want a mystery to do -- creates a world in which you get to rummage around for a while. So now you have some ideas for what to do with all those gift cards you got for the holidays. Read More 
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Holiday greetings: Our year (briefly) in pictures

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Wikileaks and the definition of journalism

We had an interesting discussion this past week in the introductory journalism class I teach at Chapman University, looking at the whole WikiLeaks saga and the arrest of Julian Assange. We didn’t get into the gory details, as does this good piece from London's Daily Mail.

Rather, our classroom discussion turned on the question of whether WikiLeaks is journalism. A few of the students (most are not journalism majors and take the class to fulfill PR requirements) thought not, that Assange was acting on an agenda, and wasn’t engaging in any journalistic acts with the leaked documents WikiLeaks posts. Where the New York Times and other papers digested the hundreds of thousands of documents and teased out nuanced stories about what the pages said and what they mean, WikiLeaks itself just posted raw material, which means it is not performing a journalistic function.

In that regard, some of them seemed to agree with the U.S. State Department, which said through Philip J. Crowley, assistant secretary, that it regards WikiLeaks as a political actor because it is espousing an agenda (the relevant part of the press briefing is below the jump, and well worth reading). Following that logic, Fox News isn’t a journalistic outlet, nor is The Nation. We enter dangerous territory when we start letting the government being covered determine who gets to cover it. From there, it's a short step to barring criticism.

I argued, and believe, that WikiLeaks is indeed a journalistic outlet and thus entitled to the full freedoms of the First Amendment. But taking a step back, I also argued that, with WikiLeaks, we are seeing the logical extreme of the wishes of people who say they don’t want journalists getting between them and the facts. These are the folks who see bias when traditional journalists dissect and digest the details of an event or topic and put the relevant elements into context.

The Internet has brought us a different, and more problematic, delivery mechanism. Over the past few years online versions of traditional print stories, unleashed from the physical constraints of a printed newspaper page, have begun giving to readers the supporting documents used by journalists to write their stories. There are links to .pdf files about municipal budgets, police reports, court transcripts and all manner of what once was the stack of paper from which we wrote our stories. Now, instead of just naming the written source, we can and often do show it to our readers. This is a good development, and helps reinforce the legitimacy of the reporting.

WikiLeaks – and, to a lesser extent, The Smoking Gun – push that model to its extreme. No dissection and digestion, just the raw reportage, letting readers essentially do the work of journalists for themselves, vetting the information, soliciting expert opinions on what it says and means, and trying to tease out the most significant details against historical context that, in the case of the WikiLeaks document drop, makes sense out of hundreds of thousands of pages of raw material.

Whatever Assange’s agenda, the function is journalistic. And it also, I hope, points up the crucial need for traditional journalists who take time to understand the subjects they cover. These are professionals who can dive into massive pools of raw information and tell people unfamiliar with the terrain exactly why, for example, it matters that the U.S. and South Korea have discussed how China could be enticed to accept a unified non-communist Korea under Seoul governance.

So, in one sense, the folks who would like their information raw and unfiltered now have it. But like my students, I doubt many of them would ever take the time to read the documents themselves, vet the material, and place it into a detached context. This is the necessary function journalism plays – to have agenda-less (one hopes) observers telling us what parts of the roiling sturm und drang of daily life really matters.

So WikiLeaks in the end shows us the new journalism. It is a crucial role, bringing to light the secrets governments would wish to hide - much more likely to be embarrassments, illegalities and miscues than information that harms the nation, or individuals. But by themselves, journalistic outlets like WikiLeaks ultimately are the path to an even deeper level of national ignorance. The information needs to be assessed and contextualized, then delivered in an understandable way. It needs that extra layer of journalistic activity.

Let’s hope the pendulum begins swinging back the other way, and a more accepting embrace of journalists by a culture that equates the entire profession with the braying hyperbole of cable commentators – left and right.

The State Department briefing: Read More 
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The difficult case of Wikileaks, and Julian Assange

"The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
--Thomas Jefferson, 1823

The noise and grandstanding surrounding Wikileaks and its puckish promoter, Julian Assange, hit full voice over the past few days and it’s a chilling thing to watch. You all know the circumstances: Assange and his colleagues have posted hundreds of thousands of leaked documents detailing the U.S. prosecution of wars, and the U.S. diplomatic corps’ perceptions of foreign government figures, both allies and enemies.
Thomas Jefferson
None of the material, from what’s been bandied about, has directly imperiled U.S. military actions, though the now-public documents have detailed questionable past practices and policies, and helped us better understand how events have transpired. And the diplomats seem to have been tripped up by a basic reality of the modern communications world: Never put in writing something you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of the New York Times.

More chilling, though, is the U.S. government’s response, from hindering access by federal workers and contractors to coverage of Wikileaks to warning would-be diplomats (college students) that to discuss the leaked documents in a public venue could kill a future career. The Pentagon earlier filed charges against Bruce Manning, a soldier who provided Wikileaks with documents. Ever since the Pentagon Papers, U.S. courts have held that it is the government’s responsibility to keep its secrets, not the media’s. Though, given the details contained in the leaked documents, one hopes the soldier gets some coverage from whistleblower-protection laws.

And no, this is not espionage, no matter how the braying right wing may seek to define it. This is an established, award-winning new media journalism site. Look at it as the globalization of the media – a rootless collection of people fighting to shed more light, not less, on the workings of government and big business, from the United States to Kenya. That is the basic role of journalism in America, and it’s indefensible that our government treats Wikileaks any differently than it would the New York Times or Washington Post.

Then there’s the shunning of Wikileaks by Amazon, which bounced the site from its servers. That is entirely within Amazon’s rights, but still the kind of act that will send more of my online buys to Powells. Paypal's decision to stop processing donations to Wikileaks is even worse, claiming that Wikileaks violated its polices against handling money to be used for illegal purposes. Paypal (I’ll be closing my account) seems to have appointed itself responsibilities we tend to reserve for the courts. At their heart, Amazon and Paypal’s reasons seem contrived, at best, and one can sense the backroom phone call from Homeland Security warning of the consequences of aiding an “enemy” of the U.S. Government.

Over the past four years, Wikileaks has published a wide range of government and business secrets that, in total, have made the world a better place. Or at least a better-informed one. And over the past few months the Obama administration has shown itself to be as thin-skinned as the Nixon Administration, from its petty response to Wikileaks to the FBI raids on homes of antiwar activists in Minnesota and Illinois under the guise of an anti-terror investigation.

Given the broad usurpation of civil rights under the USA Patriot Act – which allows the government to conduct warrantless searches without judicial overview – you have to figure that the recent public, warrant-backed raids are just the tip of the iceberg. And perhaps a warning against those who would defy government policies. Against that backdrop, pending sex-abuse charges from Sweden against Assange are suspicious in their timing. Still, the work Wikileaks is doing is more than Assange’s public pronouncements and private problems, and to focus attention on his legal bind diverts attention from the real issues – a U.S. government that is increasingly acting against the interests, and rights, of its citizens.

So where will this end? Badly, I fear. Over the past nine years, the U.S. public has shown a frightening lack of interest in the reality of how its government works, and the acts that have been taken in our names. As long as I’m invoking old adages here, let me finish by pointing out that in a democracy, we tend to get the government we deserve. In this case, we’re being represented by arrogance, and ignorance, ever a dangerous combination. Read More 

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